Ghost Stories Haunting Thailand's Tsunami Zones
Ghost Stories Haunting Thailand's Tsunami Zones
by Richard S. Ehrlich
BANGKOK, Thailand -- Many Thais believe ghosts are wandering tsunami-hit beaches, spooking taxi drivers, making the Andaman Sea hungry for more victims, and jinxing an economic recovery for devastated resorts.
Fish sellers and seafood restaurants are suffering a severe downturn in business along the west coast because many Thais are refusing to eat fish, amid fears that sea creatures may have nibbled human corpses swept out to sea.
"Foreign tourists will come back to Khao Lak, but many Thais and Chinese will not want to go there because so many people died, and so many ghosts are there," said Somchai, a taxi driver, as he drove along Phuket's sleek, undamaged highways.
"Thai and Chinese investors, maybe they will not want to buy property or help rebuild those resorts, because those places are bad luck," he said.
Most of Thailand's 5,300 dead perished at Khao Lak, and many have still not been identified.
About half of the total deaths were thought to be foreign tourists who were enjoying the swank resorts in Phang Nga province, just north of Phuket island.
The others were Thais who lived and worked along the gorgeous stretch of tropical beaches.
Thais and foreigners, however, are fueling ghost stories by retelling rumors and hearsay.
"Did you hear the one about the taxi driver, who picked up passengers who turned out to be ghosts?"
That question, spread through conversations, e-mail and the Thai media, has become an urban legend in Thailand.
Most versions of the tale describe an unidentified Thai taxi driver who picks up a "foreign tourist" and his Thai girlfriend, for a taxi ride to Phuket's airport or elsewhere.
When the taxi arrives at the destination, the driver turns around and freaks out when he sees the passengers have already disappeared.
One foreign wag, who heard the story too many times, said it was "rude" for the ghosts to shock a hard-working taxi driver, but even ruder for them to depart without paying.
Many Thais who hear the story, don't laugh, because they are extremely fearful of ghosts.
A Thai volunteer, unloading corpses recovered from the tsunami, became rattled when he placed dry ice on a dead baby to keep the cadaver cool in the tropical heat, and the tiny body suddenly made a moaning sound.
"I'm sorry!" the volunteer exclaimed, nervously asking the dead baby for forgiveness.
"We finally calmed him down, and explained that it was common for gases, when exiting corpses, to strike the vocal cords," wrote a Belgian doctor, Yves Wana, in a published description of his work at the morgue in Wat Yarn Yao, a Buddhist temple in Phang Nga province.
Throughout Thailand, most perceived hauntings and poltergeist events are believed to be caused by people who suffered "violent deaths" -- which poses a big problem for superstitious Thais pondering the horror and brutality of the tsunamis.
"If the ghost has no family here, maybe they won't come back," said Pawn, a shopkeeper who said she was not too worried about ghosts from the tsunami, though she "heard" ghosts several years ago after one of her relatives died.
About 95 percent of Thailand's population is Buddhist, and the atheist doctrine teaches that all people are repeatedly reincarnated, regardless of their religion.
Each time a person dies, their spirit spends an unspecified amount of time as a conscious ghost seeking rebirth.
As a result, Buddhist monks traditionally chant special prayers to dead spirits, urging them to stop wandering the places where they died, and to detach themselves from loved ones -- so the living can enjoy peace, and the dead can be reborn.
Many Thais also integrate pre-Buddhist, animist beliefs into their perception of the world, and construct doll house-sized "spirit houses" in and around their homes and offices where they make daily offerings of food, water and prayer in exchange for protection from any unseen beings who choose to dwell there.
On Tuesday (Jan. 18), 99 Buddhist monks sat in saffron-colored robes and chanted prayers for the dead near the gently lapping waves along devastated Patong Beach on Phuket, while residents sat in the sand and prayed with them.
The number nine is considered very lucky in Thailand, and 99 would be doubly-auspicious.
The Patong Beach ceremonies include a week-long vegetarian diet by Buddhist residents wearing white clothes for the duration, to display their purity and non-violent ideals.
Ethnic Chinese performed a traditional burning of paper items for the dead, including faux money, cars, clothing, houses, jewelry and other symbolic things -- all made of colorful paper and thin sticks -- so deceased ancestors and others could get much-needed provisions in the next world.
Buddhist monks, along with Christian and Muslim religious leaders, also held an official mourning ceremony attended by thousands of people on Jan. 5 in a Phuket sports stadium, which included an evening of Buddhist chants for those who lost their lives.
Local fisherman on Phuket's Rawai beach, meanwhile, decided to increase their safety by "feeding the sea" more often, so it would not be hungry again and swallow more people.
Rawai fisherman traditionally pour coconut milk, sugar, bananas, fish and boiled rice into the Andaman Sea every August, in a sunset ritual meant to appease sea spirits which might want to devour fishermen or swimmers.
When the tsunamis hit Phuket on Dec. 26, the fishermen who survived began to worry that their annual buffet was not satiating the sea, and promised to do the ceremony more often.
Thai psychiatrists and other health workers often endorse such rituals to help bring security and peace of mind to believers, and prevent them from committing suicide during depression while mourning.
Some Buddhist monks and others, however, warn that Thais often become obsessed with superstitions, allowing themselves to be manipulated by imaginary projections -- and unscrupulous fortune tellers who cash in on their fears.
Scavengers and garbage collectors clearing 7,000 tons of debris off Phi Phi Island, meanwhile, said they were blocked from dumping the rubble at a site on neighboring Lanta Island because villagers were afraid of disease and demons.
"All 5,000 villagers from 10 villages in this sub-district were opposed to the move, believing the debris brought along not only dust and cement, but also diseases and wandering spirits of the dead," reported the Bangkok Post on Tuesday (Jan. 18).
"We've tried to serve the government policy of clearing away the tsunami debris as soon as possible. But now there's this problem about where to find a suitable place to bury the wreckage," said Krit Benyasarth, manager of Taninrat Co., which was contracted to help clear Phi Phi Island.
Thais are not the only ones who believe supernatural forces are active after the tsunamis.
"According to a seer we consulted, Jakub Dosoudil is still alive," wrote Tomas Roubik, who has posted a 100,000 U.S. dollar reward to anyone who finds Mr. Dosoudil, or his travelling companion Ms. Michaela Berankova, alive.
The two Czech citizens disappeared when tsunamis swept over tiny Phi Phi Island, the public notice said.
But Mr. Dosoudil survived, according to "psychotronic specialists" who visualized him.
"He is stranded on an island and trapped in a cave. He can drink water from the roof of the cave [and] is critically injured," the notice said, describing the purported psychics' revelation about the blonde, green-eyed, Czech man.
Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 26 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is www.geocities.com/glossograph/