Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Thai Ghost Story

This is a ghost story although, unlike many ghost stories, it actually happened. I know, because it happened to me.

But first, some background.

Almost all Thai people, whether they're relatively uneducated villagers or the most sophisticated city-dwellers, take ghosts seriously. Thais believe in a whole pantheon of ghosts, ranging from benign to horrific. I personally know four Thais who woke one night to see a member of their family -- someone who lived a considerable distance away -- standing in their room, usually at the end of the bed. Without exception, they learned the next day that the person they had seen -- a grandmother, an uncle, a mother -- had died. This is accepted. The spirit came to say farewell.

Other ghosts are not so harmless. There are many kinds of malign spirits, and they tend to take up residence where lives have ended badly. From the beginning of construction on the new Bangkok airport (set on a piece of land that used to be called "cobra swamp") workers complained that there were ghosts everywhere. Many workers resigned rather than have to mingle with the dead. And when the airport opened and the computerized baggage retrieval system broke down, the malfunction was briefly blamed on ghosts. And I mean officially.

While I have no idea what, if anything, may have happened at the prime minister's official residence (sort of the Thai White House), I do know that almost no one ever spends the night there because of the house's ghostly guests. We are talking the highest realms of government here, folks. Prime ministers, cabinet ministers, generals. Nobody sleeps there. The general official, high-level reaction to the place seems to be brrrrrrrrr.

So with all that as a setting, here's what happened to me.

About 25, 26 years ago I was in Pattaya. This was when Pattaya was still a relatively quiet little town, although the nightlife that ultimately transformed it into a sewer was beginning to blossom. I was staying in a small hotel set into a cliff overlooking the sea. I went to bed about midnight and drew the curtains so I could sleep in. That made the room extremely dark.

At about 3 AM I snapped awake, knowing I was no longer alone. Remember, the room was almost pitch-black. In one corner, diagonally across the room from me, was a figure.

I looked away. I looked back. I blinked heavily. It was still there.

I could only see it by looking slightly past it, but it was a female wearing a shapeless white dress that fell almost to her ankles, and black hair down to her waist. Her head was bent downward so she was facing the carpet, and her face was hidden by the fall of hair. Then, moving slowly, she grasped handfulls of hair and lifted them straight up and let them fall again. Then she reached down and did it again. The second time she pulled her hair into the air, she started to bring her face up.

I knew that if I saw her face, I was dead. I rolled over as fast as I could, snapping on the lights on the bedtables, and when they came on, she was gone. I lay there, fighting for breath, literally more frightened than I've ever been in my life. And I stayed there, wide awake, until the sun came up.

When the room was bright enough, I went into the bathroom, pulled the shower curtain, turned on the shower, and let the water hit me full in the face. When I'd had enough, I pulled back from the stream of water and opened my eyes, and something moved very fast on the other side of the shower curtain. I left the water running, grabbed a towel, wrapped it around me, and ran all the way to the lobby, where I demanded, and got, a new room, as far as possible from the old one.

Later that day, I went back with a maid to pack my things -- there was no way I was going in there alone -- and the maid said, yes, that woman had been seen before in the room, and she volunteered to take me to the temple later that day when her shift was over to burn some incense and do a brief ceremony to release that poor woman's spirit from whatever powerful force as holding it on this side of the curtain. And we did, and I felt a little better. But that night -- even in my new room --I slept with my lights on.

And no, I had never previously believed in ghosts.

Tim -- Sunday


  1. I don't believe in ghosts because I don't believe that the line between life and death can be crossed but I do believe that evil leaves a mark. I could never move into a house in which a murder had been committed because that space had been filled with hate. I also believe that the souls of the dead need prayers in order to enter fully into eternal life but all that is the Catholic in me.

    I think Leighton mentioned something about near death experiences in a post. One of my uncles had such an experience. He developed heart disease when his children were young. He rarely talked about his experience but the one thing he always said when he did mention it was that he was disappointed when he realized that he was back in the corporeal world but he realized, too, that it wasn't his time.

    We have a responsibility to the dead. You accepted that responsibility when you went to the temple. That ceremony was "prayer" to release her from whatever was holding her between worlds. I believe that physically we cease to exist but the essence of what makes us human (soul) lives on and it is that part that needs to find its rest.

    Living in Thailand, you have absorbed the culture, making you open to the possibility of ghosts. In your books, you make the belief in ghosts reasonable and believable. Like my uncle, I think that if one passes into the next world, there would be no desire to return to this one. Believing in ghosts, spirits, keeps us in mind of those who have died. The rituals that we create to honor the dead comfort the living and help the dead to achieve peace.

    The banshees in Irish folklore are described as women dressed in white with long, fair hair. Your ghost was lifting her hair; the banshee combs her hair with a silver comb. If one should ever see a comb on the ground, it must never be picked up because it has been placed there by the banshee to lure unspecting humans away. Although the original stories about the banshee are pre-Christian, the myth still carried weight in Catholic Ireland.

    We are surrounded by the people we loved who have died. That we can't see them, doesn't mean they aren't there. Again, the Catholic bit: as the living are required to pray for the dead, the dead pray happily for the liviing.

  2. What a fascinating story. I have no philisophical or religious text to add. I just found the post very well written and the setting enticing. I could picture every breath as you took it. Fantastic.


  3. Hi, Beth -- In Thailand you have no choice but to accept ghosts because they're everywhere, at least in the consciousness of the people. Tell one ghost story to a Thai and you'll hear ten back. I love the banshee reference, and I also love your idea that we're surrounded by the people we loved who have died. Unfortunately, that probably means that we're surrounded by those whom we didn't or would have loved. Thais believe, by the way, not so much that evil ghosts are the ghosts of evil people, but that they represent spirits that were either ripped from the body by violence or called away at a very inopportune time, leaving behind some vast incompletion. Women who died in childbirth are the sources of some of the most terrifying ghosts because they never got to love the infant they had brought into being.

    Michele, thank you so much. I'm very happy you liked it. I absolutely guarantee that it's 100% true. (I had another encounter, too, in Bali, although that time I didn't see the spirit, but I didn't have to. Its presence scared me so badly I ran half a mile. Maybe I'll tell that story some time.)

  4. The Irish have much the same idea regarding those who die "untimely" as they would say. These would be people who didn't have time to make things right with people whom they have harmed in some way. It also applies to those who didn't have the time to make things right with God, that moment of confession and sorrow for the things done and the things not done.

    They have an opposite view of women who die in childbirth. They died to give life so they are taken into eternal life and granted the certainty that they will be reunited with the child they left behind.

  5. Hi Tim,

    I love good ghost stories and yours is excellent. There is something about faces hidden by hair that always gives me the creeps.

    bye Yrsa

  6. this history is completely scary to me I feel like if I were in there with the characters it is amazing.

  7. Tim,

    I honestly believe you of what you have encountered (this spirit being) and no doubt, there are countless spirits who cannot rest in peace, especially if they have been murdered. My husband and his missionary companion at the time saw a female spirit walked right through the upstairs screen door (upstairs bedroom), while they were saying their prayers before heading to bed. To make a long story short, this female ghost or spirit was a daughter-in-law of the landlord who rented this house to the missionaries at the time. The landlord’s son murdered his wife and stuffed her body inside their bedroom closet (the same room where my husband and his missionary companion saw her walked inside the room slowly). This deceased spirit came across the room and sat down on her chair – she was barefooted and worn long white gown that covered her angles. Also, the deceased spirit never looked at the missionaries, but they knew she was there over ten minutes, but it seemed forever according to my husband’s description of what had transpired that morning.

    Two weeks later, the murdered woman’s husband turned himself in and told the police what he had done to his wife. After the husband confessed to murdering his wife, the missionaries never saw her again and the house was blessed.


    Dee Dee