The Ghost People of Chiang Dao
Just over a hundred years ago a solitary European was travelling by mule in the remoter reaches of northern Thailand when he was seized by fever and obliged to rest up in an isolated settlement. The man was James McCarthy, a surveyor in the service of the Royal Siamese Government, and the place in which he fell sick was called Chiang Dao, which means "City of the Stars" in Thai.
In time, and as usual (he describes malaria as "his old enemy") McCarthy would recover - but not before making a most unusual and disturbing discovery about the place in which he had fallen ill and the nature of the people who lived there. For Chiang Dao was no ordinary settlement, and its inhabitants, at least as far as the Thai authorities were concerned, weren't really people at all.
In fact McCarthy had stumbled upon a settlement of phi pob, or people possessed by spirits, banished to live out their lives in the wild northern hills as far from the confines of human society as possible. In the surveyor's own words: 'the people of Chiang Dao are known as phi pob or spirit people. Taking advantage of the superstitions prevalent in the country, a cunning law-giver enacted that all such people must live together in localities set apart for them. In border lands there are numerous such places which have to be guarded by the local police, who practically force the people to take up their abode there'.
As might be expected, the administration of these "ghost settlements" posed something of a problem for local government. At the time of McCarthy's sojourn in Chiang Dao, the senior official of the town was a minor prince from Chiang Mai, charged with overseeing the day-to-day activities of his spirit subjects - a task which was certainly considered difficult and probably dangerous. McCarthy observes that: 'Whenever he has any official intercourse with the people, he recites a prayer which keeps him from the influence of the spirits'.
The chief reason for banishment to places of exile such as Chiang Dao was, seemingly, fear of sickness and mistaken perceptions of the causes of fever such as malaria. McCarthy notes that, 'when anyone is afflicted with serious illness, it is attributed to the evil influence of spirits, and it is supposed that the troubling spirit has entered into and taken possession of some man or woman from whom it makes excursions and feeds on their neighbours'.
As the decline into illness was generally attributed to such spirits feeding on the liver, heart, or some equally important portion of the patient's system, the natural recourse was to try and identify the person possessing the spirit. As McCarthy makes clear, this frequently led to "witch-hunts". In such cases 'the unfortunate patient who, if unconscious, is in all the better condition for investigation, is plied with questions as to the whereabouts of the offender, and if he mentions the name of his brother or father, or anyone else, the object of suspicion is immediately driven from the village, their house burned, and he or she is glad to seek shelter in a settlement of the spirit people'.
Once banished to a spirit settlement, people thought to be possessed by demons had little alternative but to live out the remainder of their days as normally as possible. They married each other, had children, worked in the fields or opened shops to serve other "spirit people", and generally went about their lives in as natural a fashion as circumstances permitted. In this way Chiang Dao developed into a substantial settlement, and as the years passed and standards of education improved the town's strange origins gradually faded into history.
Faded - but never quite disappeared. Even today many of the people of northern Thailand, and certainly all the citizens of Chiang Dao, are aware of the town's strange past - though they rarely mention it to outsiders. Today Chiang Dao is the capital of a prosperous district in Chiang Mai Province, distinguished more by its proximity to Doi Luang Chiang Dao - Thailand's third highest peak - than by the wooden shop-houses that line the quiet streets, while the only ghosts and spirits to be seen are featured in the lurid movie posters popular throughout Thailand.
David Henley / CPA
David Henley / CPA
So what has become of the spirits and ghosts who formerly inhabited the place? Was there existence merely a figment of the Thai collective imagination? Or have they gone undercover?
If, on a sunny winter morning, a stranger should stop one of the younger, fashionably-dressed citizens of Chiang Dao and ask whether they believe in phi pob, the enquiry will almost certainly be greeted with a smiling denial. But if the same question is asked by candlelight on a moonless, windy night in the lee of the menacing, clenched granite fist of Doi Chiang Dao... the answer may well be very different!
Text copyright © Andrew Forbes / CPA 2003.