China, Japan, Singapore, Thailand

Tales of Asia’s Hungry Ghosts by Amy Van De Casteele

Many Asian countries, such as Thailand, China and Japan, while being cultural and ethnic melting pots, are still for the most part rooted in Buddhist beliefs. One of these beliefs revolves around the various realms of existence, which include Hell, the animal realm and the God realm, akin to Christianity’s Heaven. However there is another disturbing level of existence reserved for gluttons and addictive personalities – the realm of the hungry ghosts. The neglect or desertion of your ancestors can lead you to inhabit this realm after death according to Chinese beliefs, but another way souls reach this realm, unsurprisingly, is by being very greedy in their mortal lives, whether this meant a greed for food, money, drugs or even sex. Now trapped in hungry ghost form they are tormented by their insatiable desires which can never be fulfilled.

Hungry ghosts come in slightly different forms and have different features depending on the country but in terms of their general “physical” appearance they are quite uniform, said to resemble rotting corpses with bloated pot bellies – in other words, they look grotesquely ugly and anyone who sees them finds themselves rooted to the ground in terror. Often these ghoulish creatures are cursed with tiny mouths, the size of pin-heads, and thin spindly necks, preventing them from eating the food they so desperately desire.

In Japan there are two forms of hungry ghost, named jikininki and gaki. Jikininki translates as man-eating ghosts; these hungry spirits are doomed to spend their afterlife searching for human corpses, which they then devour, emerging every night after sundown on this grisly mission – despite the fact that, in some moral vestige of their souls, they despise themselves for it. Gaki are the spirits of greedy, malicious and jealous people cursed with an overpowering hunger which leads them to constantly search for sustenance, even stooping so low as to eat human faeces. In modern-day Japan gaki is also a remonstrative term for a spoilt child, while for hundreds of years Japanese Buddhists have devoted a day in mid-August to giving offerings and remembrances to these doomed souls in the hope that they might be saved from their eternal anguish.

Elsewhere in Asia, such as China and Singapore, there are fully fledged Hungry Ghost Festivals, such as the one held during the 7th month of the Chinese calendar. During this month it is believed that the gates of Hell are opened and the hungry ghosts are allowed to escape from their wicked realm and indulge their greed in the our mortal world, eating the offerings and taking the paper money and goods left for them by their human descendants. Special entertainments such as concerts and shows are held during this month, and the front row of seats is usually reserved for the hungry ghosts so they can enjoy uninterrupted views. During the evenings incense (representing prosperity) is burned outside homes and shops, and altars are erected in the streets behind which Buddhist monks chant special “ghost songs”. At the end of the festival lanterns are lit and placed outside homes or in running water to guide the ghosts back to Hell; supposedly when the final lantern has gone out all of the ghosts are back in their immortal realm.

Because of the country’s Buddhist beliefs and strong Chinese influence, Thailand has its own Hungry Ghost festivals such as the Por Tor Festival in Phuket Town, and Thai people have a firm belief in “Pret” (เปรต), the incredibly tall, pot-bellied hungry ghost of Buddhist folklore. They also believe in a wide variety of other ghosts, some of which could fit into the “hungry” category, such as the evil female spirit known as Phi Pop, which eats human entrails. After the massive devastation and destruction of the Boxing Day tsunami it was quite widely believed that the affected Thai beaches and coastal towns were haunted by hungry ghosts, as the souls of people killed prematurely can turn into these sometimes vengeful spirits. So widespread was this belief, people from other Asian countries stopped booking holidays to the region and Buddhist monks conducted cleansing ceremonies in the affected locales in order to propitiate the spirits and send them on their way.

Thailand

Thailand: Ghost & Spirits from the Land of Smiles – by Amy Van De Casteele

When it comes to ghosts and spirits, you won’t find a country with a more healthy respect for these supernatural beings than Thailand. For Thais the question isn’t if ghosts exist, it’s more a matter of how to live alongside them and appease the more malevolent spirits which can be found throughout the country. The Thai belief in ghosts is so powerful and all-encompassing that they regularly leave offerings at places where people have died or where ghosts are said to haunt, so as to assuage the spirits; they wear special amulets and even tattoos to protect themselves from the more evil kinds of haunts; and no property is complete without an ornate stilt-legged spirit house erected in the yard. The purpose of these spirit houses is to provide accommodation for the property’s resident ghosts to live in so they won’t have any reason to enter the home of the living. Gifts of burning incense and food are left on the spirit house as a sign of respect and goodwill, but you will also often find a separate shrine inside the real home itself, where the residents will leave more offerings to please the ghosts that live on their land.

The word ‘ghost’ in Thai is ‘Phi’ so each kind of ghost – and there are many of them – has a name beginning with this word; for example, Phi Krasue, or ‘the filth eating ghost’, an evil nocturnal spirit with the head of a woman which feeds off excrement and rotting food.

As I just mentioned, there are a surprisingly large number of Thai ghosts, ranging from the relatively benign – such as Phi Thanee, a seductive female ghost which lures men into the banana groves where she dwells to share a night of spooky passion – to the downright scary, like Phi Kongkoy, a squat, pot-bellied, monkey-like haunt which generally inhabits the jungles of the north-eastern Isarn Province.

Perhaps the most famous Thai ghost, however, is the subject of the legendary story Mae Nak Phra Kanong. I remember watching the 1999 film during Thai class when I was studying in Phuket – it sent the proverbial shivers down my spine and made me sleep uneasily for at least a week afterward. The tale, which takes different forms depending on who is telling it, centres around a woman called Nang Naak who marries the man of her dreams, Nai Maak. When Nai Maak is conscripted into the army and leaves to perform his military service, Nang Naak remains at their home, pregnant with their first child. When the time comes for her to give birth, however, things go horribly wrong and both Nang Naak and her child die from complications during the labour.

Despite this, a few months later, when her husband Nai Maak returns home from the army – unaware of the tragedy which unfolded while he was away – he finds his wife and child living at their home and they give him a joyous greeting. Unbeknownst to him they are both spirits, but they seem so life-like that he has no clue as to their true nature and the family lives happily together for a short time. Sadly though, Nang Naak cannot hide the truth from her husband for long, and in a famous scene he comes home one day in time to see his wife stretch her arm to an unnatural length to pick up something which fell through a hole in the floor of their stilted house. Horrified he realizes that his wife is a spirit and he flees, with the desperate ghost of Nang Naak in hot pursuit.

Supposedly she haunted the poor man wherever he went, slaughtering anyone who tried to come between her and the love of her life, until eventually her spirit was trapped in a ceramic pot by a young monk. The pot was cast into a river and that was the end of the hauntings of Nang Naak.

Or was it? Even now, Thai people still report sightings and tell stories of Nang Naak, in some cases casting her in a more benevolent light; in others, mimicking the gothic terror of that original ghost story. One thing is for sure – Nang Naak remains the most notorious Thai ghost, a spectre to be feared and respected, as well as pitied, for the tragedies which befell her before and after death.

However she is not the only Thai spirit with a mournful back-story. Ever since the Boxing Day tsunami struck the island of Phuket, those who live on the island have experienced frightening encounters with the spirits of the unfortunate souls who perished on that terrible day. People became so afraid that exorcisms were conducted on the beach at Patong, the island’s notorious tourist town, and locals have given offerings of paper money and ‘farang food’ to try to appease the wandering spirits who tragically died so far from home.

I never personally encountered a ghost during my time on the island, but when you live among a people who believe in spirits so wholeheartedly it’s impossible not to acquire their beliefs and fears. I remember sitting on Surin beach one night with my boyfriend, sharing a meal of tom yum goong and fried rice when suddenly, somewhere among the trees which lined the southern end of the beach, a pack of dogs began to howl. My boyfriend turned to me and said, “You know, we believe that when dogs make a sound like that it means the ghosts are here.” Instantly the tiny hairs on the back of my neck stood up and a cold knife of terror plunged through my heart. A few minutes later we gathered up our things and left the beach, not wanting to hang around in the presence of spirits.

Any one of Thailand’s ghosts would certainly be frightening to encounter, but one of the most alarming in the pantheon of Thai spooks is undoubtedly the Phi Braed, otherwise known as the hungry ghost. A looming skeletal figure which has a mouth the size of a pinhead as a punishment for being verbally abusive to its parents in its mortal life, these eternally hungry ghosts haunt the rubber plantations of Thailand, uttering eerie wailing cries through their tiny mouths. You can find life-size models of these ghosts, along with a variety of Buddhist statues, at Wat Phai Rong Wua.

If you visit Thailand at the right time of year you will also be able to witness the Hungry Ghost Festival – although these hungry ghosts are not Phi Braed but merely ancestral spirits or relatives who have passed on. Originally a Chinese festival, it has now become a Thai institution as well and you can even see them on the touristy island of Phuket during the months of August and September.

Supposedly, during the festival – known as Por Tor – the ancestral spirits return to their homes to visit their loved ones and accept offerings. There are colourful processions through the streets, and offerings are laid out for the ghosts, including plates of noodles, fruit, and rice. As a special Phuket tradition, huge red turtle-shaped cakes are also prepared; turtles symbolize long life and vitality. Pieces of the cake are handed out to people during the festival as a way of merit-making, an important part of the Thai Buddhist culture. The Por Tor festival is just another fascinating aspect of the Thai belief in ghosts and spirits.

So, in short, if you’re a keen ghost hunter, or just a casual appreciator of spooky tales, there isn’t a better place to visit than Thailand. The Land of Smiles could arguably also be known by another title – the Land of Spirits. But if you’re one of those who lean toward the sceptical side of things, be careful not to question or deride the Thai belief in ghosts, because for the people of Thailand spirits are as real as you or I – even if they can’t always be seen.