Logic and reason have once more lost out to fallacy and gossip in the heavily superstitious Isaan region of North-Eastern Thailand. Rumours of a rampaging phee (ghost) have gripped villagers with fear and caused them to come up with a uniquely Isaan form of psychic defence. Homemade straw dolls are being placed as decoys outside houses across North-Eastern provinces. There’s no point looking for logic because there isn’t any here.
What you will find upon investigation is a series of coincidences and the power of a fear borne of ignorance. Because these coincidences couldn’t be immediately explained, the rumour mill sprang into action and conveniently placed the blame on an imagined evil spirit. Desperate people employed desperate measures to ward off the spirit, and once the coincidences ran their natural course, the psychic defences were hailed as a success, further reinforcing the notion that there had been an evil spirit in their midst.
According to the Bangkok Post, the rumours started in the small village of Ban Don Hun in Khon Kaen province when three young and unmarried males died in a week. For three young and single men to die in such a small village in such a short period is an amazing and tragic coincidence, but a coincidence nonetheless. To a rational mind it is nothing more. For poor and largely uneducated people living in an area steeped in superstitious beliefs, however, a more sinister explanation quickly takes shape.
Let’s first of all take a look at and analyse the three deaths as separate incidents. The first death involved an 18-year-old boy. He had just completed school and was returning from a party where he had been celebrating with friends. As he rode his motorcycle home on an unpaved road, he lost control of his motorbike, had an accident and sadly died. Local villagers assumed that a ghost must have jumped out and scared him, causing him to swerve and crash. Personally, I believe some spirits may have been involved but they were more likely the bottled variety. This one is a no-brainer and, tragic as it is, it is just another drunk-driving road death statistic to add to all the others in Thailand.
A day later, a second fatal accident occurred when a pick-up truck rolled over near the same village. Again, a ghost was blamed for jumping out and startling the driver and now the rumour mongers were in full stride. The Bangkok Post gave no further details on the cause of the accident, so it is difficult to offer a reasonable explanation for this accident, although dirt roads, high speeds, a young male driver and alcohol could each have their part to play.
The third death is the most difficult to explain without all the facts. It involved a 23-year-old, “fit and healthy” man who went to bed one night and died in his sleep.
In the absence of scientific evidence, superstitious conjecture holds court in Isaan. A neighbour of the dead men told the Bangkok Post that the villagers had become really scared because the third victim’s house was the closest to the village temple which suggested to them that the ghost was now fearless and would stop at nothing in its quest to take more young men. Another villager said that many women in the village had even painted their sons’ fingernails to fool the ghost into thinking they were girls.
As with any gossip or rumour, the Chinese whispers effect means the story has picked up local variations along the way. All the stories seem to agree that a ghost took three young men within a week. However, villagers in Mukhdahan, Roi-Et and Yasothon refer to the dream of “a queen” who foretold the deaths of the three men. She was also reported to have said that the ghost would continue to take more young men unless householders placed a decoy straw doll outside their homes.
As the story spread westwards, the men were all said to have been unmarried males born on a Wednesday or Thursday. Some villagers attached notes to their dolls informing the ghost that there were no young men born on a Wednesday or Thursday in the house.
As no more men have been taken by the ghost following the third death, the ghost is now believed to have moved on and the straw dolls deemed a success.
It’s hard to imagine that, in the twenty-first century, such superstitious beliefs can still be taken seriously, but rural Isaan, for all its charm and wonderfully warm-hearted people, remains trapped in a time when science and logic didn’t hold all the answers.