Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Ghost People of Chiang Dao

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.

Modern day interpretations of ghosts in a Thai movie hoarding.
David Henley / CPA
Thai Ghost Movie Poster: Sex Curse
David Henley / CPA
Modern-day Thai Movie advertisements featuring ghosts.

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!

Jungle Demons.
David Henley / CPA
Jungle Demons.

A Guide To Thailand's Ghosts and Spirits

The Thai spirit world is populated by a plethora of ghosts, ghouls and demons - some good, some harmful, and some openly dangerous. Among the most interesting are:

Phi Peta - A hungry ghost. Everyone who is preoccupied with material attachments to the exclusion of the spiritual will be reborn as a Peta, having a giant belly and an mouth as small as the eye of a needle. Peta may sometimes be heard whistling at night, looking for people to make merit for them. This ghost is relatively harmless.

Phi Am - A ghost which sits on the chest or liver of sleepers, causing discomfort. It can be harmful.

Phi Chamob - A ghost which haunts the place where a woman has died in the jungle. This spirit does not do any harm.

Phi Ha - The spirit of a woman who has died in childbirth. This ghost is considered to be very violent.

Phi Krahang - This ghost appears as a man with feathers and a tail like a bird. It eats filth and glows at night. An unpleasant and frightening spirit.

Phi Krasy - This ghost lives inside a witch and leaves her body during sleep by way of the mouth. The Krasy is the colour of fire, has a head the size of an electric light bulb and a half-metre long bluish tail. A Krasy ghost likes dirt and does not generally harm human beings, although when it consumes entrails (hardly surprisingly) it can cause death. Krasy witches have a sleepy appearance during the day. Their eyes don't blink and they can never look anybody in the face. Also, they don't cast any reflection in the mirror. Before Krasy witches can die, they have to find somebody who will inherit the Krasy by consuming some of the old witch's spittle.

Phi Lok - A ghost which haunts various localities. It frightens and misleads people, and can be seen as well as felt.

Phi Phrai - The spirit of a woman who has died in childbirth and whose body has been used to make phi thai hong lotion. A sorcerer must hold a candle under the corpse's chin, and from the resultant melted oil essences are manufactured which drive men mad and attract women.

Phi Tai Ha - The spirit of a woman who has died of malaria. The ghost will also spread this disease.

Phi Thuk Khun - The substance of a living person which has to be sent out on astral journeys every week, or harm will come to its owner,

Phi Khamod - A spirit in the shape of a red star which, like a Will o' the Wisp, misleads wanderers.

Phi Nang Tani - A female tree spirit which is essentially beneficent and may fill the alms bowls of itinerant monks.

Phi Pa - A forest spirit. Hunters may leave a piece of the foot, lip, tongue or eyelid of a killed animal to show respect to this spirit.

Phi Poang Khang - A spirit in the shape of a black monkey which likes to suck the big toe of people sleeping in the jungle. It is said to live near salt licks.

Phi Ka - These spirits are inherited through women and can be contagious. The Ka, if not properly treated (with raw eggs) will attack and possibly possess people without the owner's knowledge. Perhaps understandably, ordinary people are said to be reluctant to marry into Ka clans!

Phi Hai - Hungry, amoral spirits associated with places where people have died an unnatural or violent death. Phi Hai are easily offended, and take every opportunity to possess people. Normally, they can be induced to leave their victim if suitable offerings are made, but on occasions an exorcist has to drive them out. In such cases, when incantations and lustral water prove insufficient, a whip may need to be employed.

Phi Pob - A malicious and very dangerous spirit which manifests itself as a beautiful woman. Phi Pob float through the air because they have no legs or lower body. They generally appear as a length of internal organs and intestines suspended from a strikingly lovely face - therefore, beware beautiful women gliding mysteriously by in long dresses! This type of ghost is probably more feared than any other species in Thailand.

Clearly, there can be no doubt that belief in ghosts and spirits remains widespread throughout Thailand. Indeed, there are now (covertly) thought to be more types of spirit at large than there were when Chiang Dao was founded. Chinese "bouncing" ghosts have long been a staple of Thai television and children's fantasy. Muslim ghosts have appeared which can be driven off by flourishing a piece of pork (preferably a pig's head) at them, and even vampires have made the long journey from Transylvania to Thailand. In this age of mass communication and international tourism, ghosts too - or so it would seem - have become world travellers!

Text copyright © Andrew Forbes / CPA 2003.

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