A village haunted by superstition
It's the country's most famous ghost town, but residents are putting their faith in modern medicine rather than traditional exorcisms
More than 10 years ago a village in the northeastern province of Sakon Nakhon made headlines as the home of Thailand's most feared ghosts, known as phi pob, but these days the evil spirits appear to have simply vanished.
The village became famous after a 2003 study by Somchai Nil-Athi, a professor at Mahasarakham University's Humanities Faculty. His 16-page report traced the roots of the village back to 1922 when 50-year-old Tongkam Chaitaman moved there with his family after being accused of becoming a phi pob.
After the report was released and generated headlines around the country, scores of families accused of being possessed by phi pobs moved from other provinces in the Northeast to start a new life and seek sanctuary in the village.
But when Spectrum visited the infamous zombie village, most locals claimed the dreaded ghosts were long gone.
A common belief in the northeast is that people possessed by phi pobs bring bad luck to their community.
"Did you bring a Buddhist amulet with you, young lady?" asked a taxi diver from Si Sa Ket, an Isan province he claims has many ghosts.
"These phi pobs easily exit one person and enter another. They are real, you know."
He then described the symptoms of a person possessed by the phi pob.
"Their voice changes. They get angry easily and have no idea they are possessed until their relatives tell them about it," the driver said. His aunt would be possessed three times a day, and although she is now cured, the spirit is still alive, he claimed.
"How do you know it's the same one?" I asked.
"I just know," he said, after pausing for a few seconds. "Do you have anything with you?"
Spirited away: The 'holy well' in the notorious ghost village in Sakon Nakhon.
THE VILLAGE THAT DISAPPEARED
A rough, 8.7km road led from the main highway, about 667km from Bangkok, to the village. It took about 20 minutes to reach the village on the paved but bumpy road and on either side there was nothing but green fields.
Wooden stilt houses were a common sight, but there was also the occasional brick and cement house. Outside every house stood a motorcycle, while there are pickup trucks at some.
When a man herding his cattle was asked about phi pobs, he said to talk to the assistant village chief, who had just driven into her house.
"There are no phi pobs here," she said in a northeastern dialect.
Seven years after Mr Somchai's report about the ghost village, Mr Tongkam, who had moved to the village after being accused of being possessed, dug a "holy well".
Villagers believed they would be cured and cleansed of the ghost either by drinking from the well or bathing in the water from it. The well now has a fence surrounding it to stop children falling in. A man in the village said the water had to be consumed on Buddhist holy days for a period of one year in order to be cured.
The tradition continues to this day. People from Isan still travel there to drink the water from the well. But the stigma of coming from this village has not passed on to the sons and daughters of the ancestors of this villagers, who migrated there a generation ago. In fact, they never believed in these spirits.
"Everyone here has to throw away his or her old beliefs and adhere to Buddhism," said Pin (not her real name), the 46-year-old assistant village chief.
There are three types of phi pobs, according to traditional Isan beliefs. Pob chua are those who inherit the spirit from their ancestors, while pob mon are students of "magical arts" who break the restrictions imposed on them.
But phi pobs are also a social invention, used as a defence mechanism by villagers to ostracise people.
"In this case, anyone can be a phi pob if the majority of the community says so," said Boonyong Ketthet, an associate professor in anthropology, culture and natural resources at Mahasarakham University. The majority of phi pobs in Isan fall in the first and second categories, while pob sang, the last type, is more common among the educated, he said.
"Unlike their parents, [the villagers] of this generation have already forgotten the phi pob quality of this place," said Mr Boonyong, who makes frequent visits to the area.
Rural superstition says that when a spirit possesses a person, he or she must be taken to a monk or spirit doctor who will perform an exorcism. But residents of this village believe in modern medical treatment.
Shaking, for instance, is one of the symptoms of a person possessed by a phi pob, but a doctor's diagnosis would lead to something else, such as hypertension, said Pin. In another case, a woman who was accused of being a phi pob went to see a doctor and it was discovered she had an ovarian tumour. "When we are sick, we go see a doctor, not perform the [traditional exorcism] dance," Pin said. "Things have changed. We're now developed and people just don't believe in ghosts any more."
Moving ahead: Village chief Teera cares more for the village rice harvester than ghost stories.
THE CODE OF SILENCE
The next morning Spectrum visited Teera, the chief of village 9, or the zombie village. When former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra introduced the one million baht village fund in 2001, residents decided to split the community and created village 17 as a separate village.
Now both areas, covering roughly 15km², have a population of about 1,000, most of them farmers.
A school van stopped in front of Mr Teera's house at 7.30am to pick up a kindergarten girl, who performed a wai before stepping in.
The rich children get to go to schools in Muang district, some 20km away from the village, Mr Teera said. There, tuition fees are 16,000 baht per year, compared to free education at the village school.
Fifty-year-old village chief Mr Teera was born there and was only promoted to village chief four years ago, earning him a salary of 8,000 baht per month.
"Now, people try to forget about all this [ghost] crap," said Tim, a former village chief.
Attempts by the Tourism Authority of Thailand to promote the village as a tourist hotspot after Mr Somchai's study resulted in a massive amount of media attention. But type in the name of the village and phi pob, each with quotation marks to be precise, and Google gives you only 70 results. None are interviews with villagers.
There is a code of silence in the village. About six or seven years ago, the community agreed that no interviews would be given to the press. The last interview, Spectrum was told, was about 10 years ago, roughly the same time as Mr Somchai's paper was published.
"We used to have TV crews come up here. People were sitting around a campfire and there was smoke, which made it look like ghosts," said Pin. "The elderly chewing betel nuts also had red juice dripping from their mouths, and they [the media] made it look like we were phi pobs."
The media exposure caused a backlash for the community and residents would get hundreds of phone calls from their relatives. About 80% of the village's labour force work in other provinces.
"Kids would be picked on by their friends, who would ask if their parents come from this village," Tim said. "And when we have visitors, they would stay for only 10 minutes as opposed to the usual half-hour talk."
the exorcist returns: A monk in blesses villagers in Khon Kaen to heal them spiritually, bamboo containers used to catch spirits exorcised from victims and an earlier exorcism of a ‘possessed’ woman.
POCKETS OF IGNORANCE?
At the time Mr Somchai's paper was published in 2003, the village was considered the poorest in Phanna Nikhom district. These people, he wrote, were forced to sell their land at low prices so they could get out quickly, taking their few valuables with them to start a new life.
But now, the majority of villagers do more than just farming. Former village chief Tim leaves his house at 8am to sell fruit at the market and does not return until about 9pm.
Although every household now has several motorcycles, pickup trucks became popular only a few years ago, said village chief Teera.
A few metres away from Mr Teera sits a blue rice harvester, which the village bought for 300,000 baht using the so-called SML fund initiated by the Thaksin government as part of a policy to empower villagers and eliminate poverty. The SML fund, short for small, medium and large, allocated between 50,000 and 300,000 baht to communities according to their size, but it was scrapped by the military junta in July.
Locals have also been getting better access to education, with about 10% of the residents graduating from university as opposed to almost none in the past, Mr Teera said.
Mahasarakham University's Mr Boonyong said although the belief in phi pobs is still widely held among the rural Isan populace, especially the uneducated, it also still exists among those with a higher education, as it is passed on from generation to generation.
Last weekend in Baan Nong Sawan in Khon Kaen province, a shaman and a group of monks performed an exorcism on a woman who claimed to be possessed by two spirits and was unable to move or breathe. The woman said she had been possessed for three days after playing video games.
A news video showed a monk "catching" the spirits as they exited the woman's body and placing them in two bamboo jars which were covered in holy cloth then buried.
Rumours of phi pobs have spread even into the centre of Khon Kaen city.
When Spectrum visited two villages in Banped municipality in Muang district, many there said they did not believe in phi pobs, but a few spoke about a villager who claimed to have seen one in broad daylight.
"A duck died one day, and the old man who found it started spreading stories that it was bitten in the neck by a phi pob, when in fact it could have been a dog," one resident said.
In a recent case which made headlines in the local media, a couple from Ubon Ratchathani's Si Muang Mai district were reunited with their 12-year-old daughter after they were asked to leave the village almost 10 years ago. It is believed the couple had brought about the sickness and death of many residents.
Exorcisms can be conducted in many different ways, but the most common involves whipping the "host" of the phi pob either by a monk or spirit doctor.
"It's very pathetic," Mr Boonyong said. "In reality, that person might have been ill at the time, leading people to think that he or she has been possessed by a phi pob."
Many years ago, Mr Boonyong accompanied a Khon Kaen local to file a complaint at the police station. The man was accused of being a phi pob and was whipped, but police officers refused to accept the case, saying it was a cultural belief.
"The villagers claimed that the pain goes to the phi pob, not the host. However, I asked the man and he told me that he was hurt," Mr Boonyong said.
"This shows that pobs do not exist, but are a human creation. One day, it [the belief] will die out. I don't know when, but on that day, all this will be legend." n