As cultures come together, it's all in bad spirits
Asean is looking to break down borders, but the region is already united by a mutual fear of cannibalistic ghosts.
When Benjawan Singthuean moved into her new home in Phnom Penh after her husband transferred from Thailand for work, the 36 year old didn’t know much about the area.
She performed the usual rituals any Thai Buddhist would when they set up in a new home, by paying respect to the guardian spirits. She lit incense, offered fruit and food to the spirits, and asked for protection as the new occupiers of the house.
“Please protect us and let us live a happy and successful life,” she asked the spirits.
Whenever she performed the same ritual in Thailand, she felt much safer when settling into a new house. But the feeling was different in Phnom Penh. It was an old wooden house, with red light bulbs inside that gave the house an unsettling atmosphere.
Although it looked clean and spacious, Ms Benjawan had a strange feeling about the place.
“It felt like someone was watching me all the time,” she recalled. “I sometimes heard the noise of someone walking on the wooden floor or flushing the toilet when there was no one else but me and my husband in the house and we were in the same room.”
Unknown to her, Ms Benjawan’s husband had rented a house across the road from the infamous Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where the Khmer Rouge sent more than 18,000 people to their deaths.
RAISING THE DEAD
While Asean is setting about forging itself into a regional bloc this year, there are some cultural traits that have for centuries managed to defy national borders.
One of those is a strong belief in the supernatural. But ghosts have not always been a part of Southeast Asian culture, said Pipad Krajaejun, a lecturer at Thammasat University’s history department who has studied the subject.
The type of supernatural beliefs so prevalent today, he said, only emerged with the arrival of religions from South Asia.
Prior to that, cultures across Southeast Asia had a strong belief in what was called kwan in Thailand, said Mr Pipad. Essentially, kwan’s doctrine is that each of the 32 organs in the human body has a spirit. None of the spirits live on after physical death.
Many regions of Thailand and Laos also had a ritual called baci. It was — and in many cases still is — used to celebrate many important events such as birth, marriage and ordination, based on the ancient belief that it would synchronise the 32 organs, or spirits, into one human soul.
“Belief in kwan in Southeast Asia existed long before Buddhism and Hinduism arrived in the region,” Mr Pipad explained.
“It was believed that when people died, their kwan would also depart the body. Some ethnic groups believe a human has 33, 32 or nine spirits. But when Buddhism and Hinduism arrived, people changed to believe we only have one spirit.”
Buddhism’s tenet of reincarnation in particular was taken to mean that a bad “soul” could be reborn as something less than human, for instance a troubled ghost or evil spirit being punished for the sins of a previous life.
Regardless of language and cultural differences, the characteristics of many ghosts in Southeast Asia share some common ground.
Manasikarn Hengsuwan, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University’s education department, has studied ghosts for her master’s and doctorate degrees. Her first thesis mainly focused on Thailand, but she then became more interested in spirits across the region. She started her PhD research in 2009 by visiting local communities in Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Thailand, collecting data and information from villagers.
Over the next six years, she found that many different names, forms and types of ghosts exist in Southeast Asian cultures — but there are a few that have managed to cross borders and are common across different cultures.
“Phi phet or preta is a tall ghost which everyone knows, no matter what country they are from in this region,” Ms Manasikarn said. “The ghost of a woman who dies during childbirth tends to be another common ghost that everyone is afraid of.”
Most of the ghosts in Asean countries take female form, such as tree nymphs and water ghosts. Mr Pipad said Southeast Asian cultures historically tended to give precedence to females more than males. When a couple were married, for example, the male traditionally had to move into the female’s house.
In Thai culture many important names begin with the word “mae”, or mother, such as mae tab (the rank of general) or mae nam (river).
“There is no evidence of why females were more important than males in the past, but there is a wealth of evidence showing that it was women who controlled rice production and took the role of spirit mediums,” Mr Pipad said.
Ms Manasikarn found in Myanmar that many spirit mediums there must have two genders; even though it is not spoken about openly, most of the spirit mediums there are transgender.
SHARING IS SCARING
Across Asean, belief in ghosts and spirits plays an important role in shaping society and determining identity. Though borders separate countries from each other, many common spirits are found in cultures across the region.
The Thai krasue, for example, is a ghost commonly portrayed as only a floating female head with innards dangling below. The nocturnal spirit is believed to eat only raw, bloody or rotten food. In Malaysia, a krasue-like ghost is called penanggalan. In Cambodia, it is called ahp, while in Indonesia it is known as palasik.
The folklore behind the ghost is also the same in each country: a woman locks herself up while her husband is away and applies a black magic potion around her neck. Her head then lifts away from her body, ripping out her internal organs with it. The head floats amid a bright orange glow and the ghost’s presence is always announced by the sound of strong wind.
In Indonesia, a popular ghost is known as pocong, depicted as a spirit wrapped in a white burial cloth. A pocong leaves its grave at night and moves around by hopping, jumping at those who come across it.
Myanmar’s nats are those who died violent deaths. However, they protect places where they lived as human beings and are considered ancestral ghosts.
Like Thailand, Laos has phi pob — a powerful cannibalistic ghost which feeds on human intestines — though they call them phi Lao. Another popular ghost in Laos is known as phi kongkoi, which moves by jumping on one leg, crying “kongkoi, kongkoi” on the way.
Among the best-known ghost stories in Thailand is that of “Mae Nak”. The story is believed to date back to the reign of King Rama IV, when Nak’s beloved husband, Mak, was conscripted and sent off to war while she was pregnant.
Nak died when she was giving birth to her son. When Mak returned home from the war, his wife’s spirit lingered. But Mak believed his wife was still alive, when in fact he was living with her spirit. A shrine to Mae Nak is located on Sukhumvit Soi 77, and it is believed that anyone who wants to avoid military conscription should go there to pay their respects.
Malaysia and Indonesia also share similar folklore. In both countries, the pontianak are vampiric creatures said to be the spirits of women who died while giving birth. They are said to take on the appearance of beautiful, pale-skinned women with long hair and are always clothed in white. The pontianak is said to be nearby if a baby cries softly or a dog is whining; its presence is marked with the sudden whiff of perfume, followed by a horrible stench.
LIFE IN DEATH
Ms Manasikarn said most cultures across the region portray ghosts as being human in form, and their customs usually reflect that. In Thai culture, when paying respect to a spirit, people usually use various types of food and beverage to essentially “bribe” that spirit into giving them something they want.
In Myanmar, people make similar offerings, but also include things like clothing and gadgets they believe the spirit will be able to use in the afterworld.
Chinese New Year offerings are clear examples of animist beliefs. Replicas of clothing, money and material objects are burned during the festival as offerings to ancestors. The whole purpose is to keep the spirits of their ancestors happy, so they can offer them happiness in return.
“We apply principles from the human world to the spirit world,” Ms Manisikarn said.
“When we want something good from someone, you have to be nice to that person. When you want something good from a spirit, you have to give them something in return.”
Like many Thais, Ms Benjawan is a strong believer in ghosts and spirits. Though never having experienced the supernatural before moving to Cambodia, she grew up being taught that ghosts are real.
Internet research showed that the house her husband had rented in Phnom Penh, next to Tuol Sleng, was one of the sites used to pile the bodies of prisoners who were tortured and executed there by the Khmer Rouge. She suddenly felt unsafe and wanted to move out of the house, but her husband didn’t want to. Ms Benjawan had no choice but to live with the lurking fear that she and her husband were not alone.
Then, one night, her husband called to say he would be working late.
“I was at home watching television. At midnight, I suddenly saw two wooden chairs in front of me move as if someone was pushing them. I saw and heard both chairs move. The chairs were being turned to face me. That was when I realised I can’t be here any more,” she said.
Although Ms Benjawan continued to live in the house, she began making more frequent trips back to Thailand to stay with her family. Each time she returned, she would buy a bucket of sangkhathan — a set of offerings given to monks at a temple — and use it to make merit for the captive spirits in her Phnom Penh house.
“I didn’t know if they would receive it, but I did it every day just to ease my fear,” Ms Benjawan said.
FRIGHT OF FANCY
Like anything that defies scientific explanation, ghosts are real to many people, while to others they are simply supernatural myth. But far more than just being a spooky image to scare children, ghosts can be used as a tool to maintain social order.
Mr Pipad pointed to Thailand’s northern region, where there is a ritual to worship the phi muang fai, or “irrigation system ghost”. Because local people believe the irrigation system is protected by a spirit, no one will dare to destroy it.
“We see in many TV shows that people get punished by a ghost for doing something bad. When there is something that can’t be answered scientifically, such as a lost person or stolen items, black magic or spirit mediums will come to help explain the phenomenon,” Mr Pipad said.
Ms Manasikarn described this phenomenon as the “Santa Claus effect”. She said in Western culture, children will be taught from a young age to be nice all year round because if they are naughty, Santa will not bring them any presents.
“It is nothing more than a stratagem to control society,” Ms Manasikarn said.
She recalled travelling to Malaysia and learning about a ghost that only comes out at night. It is a male ghost, with a black and slippery body, and will come into a house through any open window to hurt or rape women sleeping inside. The story is used to encourage people to keep all their doors and windows closed at night.
But ghost stories also have the power to be used for social harm. For example, phi phob and krasue, which exist throughout the region, can supposedly be passed on genetically in some cases. Many societies use this as the tool to isolate people they dislike by accusing them of harbouring evil spirits.
“When someone has an odd personality and can’t get along with anyone in the community, that person can easily be the target for social isolation through the belief in ghosts,” Ms Manasikarn said.
She said these beliefs would not easily disappear from Asean countries as they are so closely tied to local cultures. But the stories may evolve to be more up to date with modernity.
“Ghosts may or may not be real, but what makes them exist is the culture and lifestyle of people in Southeast Asia,” Ms Manasikarn said.
“It can be a good tool to control society, while it can also hurt innocent people. All we have to do is to think about our belief in ghosts rationally and be aware of the role that plays in shaping our society.”
Kindred spirits: ‘Phi phet’ or ‘preta’, as they are called in Thailand, are tall ghosts that are talked about by people throughout the Southeast Asian region.
A haunting experience: Various depictions of the ghost known in Thai as ‘krasue’, but which is also common in the region.
The big scream: Above, various ghost stories that have become folklore have been made into movies, including the story of ‘Mae Nak’, centre.