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Belief in ghosts in Thai culture is both popular and enduring. In the history of Thailand Buddhist popular beliefs intermingled with the legends about the spirits or ghosts of the local folklore. These myths have survived and evolved, having been adapted to the modern media, such as Thai films, Thai television soap operas and Thai comics.
Some of the ghosts of Thai culture are shared with neighboring cultures. Krasue, for example is part of the Cambodian, Lao and Malay culture as well. A few of these, including the tall Pret, are part of the mythology of Buddhism. There are, however, others, such as Phi Dip Chin, which have entered the Thai ghost lore through the Chinese community residing in Thailand for the past few centuries.
Thai spirits or ghosts are known generically as phi (ผี). A large proportion of these spirits are nocturnal. Except for the well-known Pret, most ghosts were traditionally not represented in paintings or drawings, hence they are purely based on stories of the oral tradition. The local beliefs regarding the village spirits of Thailand were studied by Phraya Anuman Rajadhon.
Ghosts are believed to be found, among other places, in certain trees, burial grounds near Buddhist temples, as well as some abandoned houses. There are different categories of ghosts. Certain ghosts dwelling in mountains and forests are generally known as Phi Khao (ผีเขา) and Phi Pa (ผีป่า). Geographic locations such as the Phi Pan Nam Range (ทิวเขาผีปันน้ำ), "the mountain range that the spirits use to divide the waters", and Phae Mueang Phi (แพะเมืองผี) are named after the ancient ghosts believed to dwell in these places. Female ghosts or fairies related to trees such as Nang Ta-khian and Nang Tani are known generically as Nang Mai (นางไม้ "Lady of the Tree").
Some of the most well-known Thai ghosts are the following:
The Phi-Ka (Thai: ผีกะ) ghost is a kind of ghost that originates in Northern Thailand. It looks like the Phi-Pob (Thai: ผีปอบ) ghost because it takes the form of a human body. It is believed that it likes eating raw meat. The Phi-Ka ghost can be divided into six types. First, the Phi-Ka-Phranang (Thai: ผีกะพระ-นาง) is one of the most well-known of this variety of ghost as it is believed that a sacrifice made to this ghost can bring fame and fortune to those seeking it. Another well-known example of this type of ghost is the Phi-Ka-Dong (Thai: ผีกะดง). This entity is known to be quite ferocious and it is believed that it usually hunts in a group or pack. The saliva of the Phi-Ka-Dong (when it takes its physical form) is believed by some to be able to help treat some illnesses and diseases. There is also the Phi-Ka-Arkom (Thai: ผีกะอาคม), which is a kind of ghost that was a human who violated or broke a tradition. In the past, before an academy would accept you as a student, they have to do the Keunkroo ceremony. If they do not do it, the students would be cursed and become a Phi-Ka-Arkom. Next, the Phi-Ka-Takood (Thai: ผีกะตระกูล) is a ghost that protect fields, so they can make fields more fertile. Fifth, the Phi-Ka-Taihong (Thai: ผีกะตายโหง) is a person who died unnaturally, but they do not know that they have died. If a person does not eat for a long time, their body will be weak, and it will be easier for them to become the Phi-Ka-Taihong. The last type of Phi-Ka ghost is the Nokkhaophika (Thai: นกเค้าผีกะ), it has an owl as a symbol. If the ghost comes to a village in the evening, a lot of owls will cry out unnaturally.
Ghosts in Thai culture may be benevolent. Certain ghosts have their own shrines and among these there are some, such as the Mae Nak Phra Khanong shrine in Bangkok, that are quite important. Usually though, humbler tutelary spirits live in little dwellings known as san phra phum (Thai: ศาลพระภูมิ), small ghost shrines that provide a home for these household or tree spirits. These shrines are common near trees and groves and in urban areas, close to buildings. It is considered a bad omen to neglect these spots and offerings are regularly made by people living nearby. Usually offerings to tree spirits are small things such as small food items, drinks, incense sticks or fruits, but when important favors are requested it is common to offer the head of a pig. After the ceremony is over the pig head is brought home and eaten.
The mo phi (Thai: หมอผี; RTGS: mo phi) or 'witch doctor' may invoke spirits of the dead. In this ritual, four sticks are usually planted at equal distance from each other on the ground near the burial or cremation place. A thread is tied around the sticks forming a protective square and a mat is spread in the middle. The mo phi sits down within this enclosure, often along with other people present at the ritual. In front of him, outside of the square there is a mo khao terracotta jar containing ashes or bones of the dead person with a yantra painted on the outside. Beside the jar there is also a plate of rice as offering and a stick or switch to keep the spirits at bay.
On the other hand, there are spirits that are considered dangerous and need to be disposed of. In these cases the mo phi may conduct a ritual in order to confine the dangerous ghost to an earthen jar, which may be sealed and thrown into a deep canal, river or lake.
The persistence of folk belief in malevolent spirits was demonstrated in a 2017 case occurring at Ban Na Bong, Nong Kung Si District, Kalasin Province. There, the mysterious deaths of two men and several animals prompted villagers to ascribe their deaths to malicious phi pop. Seeking help, villagers from 370 households paid 124 Thai baht per house to hire an exorcist from Chiang Yuen District in Maha Sarakham Province and a well-known monk from Wat Chaiwan to eliminate the malevolent spirits. The people of Ban Na Bong turned up en masse at the village hall for a ghost busting ceremony on 29 October. The rite took more than two hours. The exorcist and the monk, aided by 20 assistants, caught at least 30 phi pop, forcing them into bamboo tubes which were then incinerated. Police and district officials ensured the event went smoothly. Preventive medical specialists from the Kalasin Provincial Public Health Office later identified the cause of death in Ban Na Bong as leptospirosis (Thai: โรคฉี่หนู; RTGS: rok chi nu) and high blood pressure.
The most famous ghost story in Thailand is the Mae Nak Phra Khanong story. This tragic story is associated with events that allegedly took place in the early 1800s, during the reign of King Rama IV of Thailand. In 1959 the story was first developed into a movie, with many later cinematic versions to follow. The latest cinematic version of the Mae Nak story is the 'Pee Mak', 2013 comedy-horror film by GMM Tai Hub'. This movie debuted on 26 March 2013, making 500 million baht, and went on to become the top Thai movie in the box office for 2013. Over time, the Mae Nak spirit has evolved into a sacred figure/deity within Thai culture, with a large shrine to the spirit being built in Mae Nak's hometown, and with many Mae Nak followers throughout Thailand.
Thai cinema began popularizing the ghosts and legends of the folklore of Thailand in the 20th century. Ghosts of the local tradition appeared in horror movies, as well as in side-roles in mainstream movies. Phraya Anuman Rajadhon established that most of the contemporary iconography of Thai folk ghosts has its origins in Thai films that have now become classics.
Thai television soap operas have contributed to popularize the ghost theme. Some soap operas, such as Raeng Ngao, include the folk ghosts of Thai culture interacting with the living. The Raeng Ngao story proved so popular that four remakes have been made after it was first aired in 1986.