One thing you need to know about Thai culture is that Thais take ghosts very seriously. And in this nation of haunted places and ghost stories, none is more famous than the legend of Mae Nak Phra Khanong. It’s a bone-chilling tale of love lost and undying devotion (or would that be undead devotion?) that every Thai knows well. The story has been recreated on stage, for TV, and in movies dozens of times, making it the Thai equivalent of Dracula or Frankenstein. It wasn’t until very recently, however, that I found out this ghost story is based on real events and you can visit the scene of the haunting easily during a trip to Bangkok.
The setting of this spooky tale is the Phra Konong district of Bangkok in the middle of the 19th century. At that time, Bangkok wasn’t yet the urban jungle that it is today. It was much more of a real jungle—or rather a swamp—with a large number of canals and rivers joining up with its main waterway, the Chao Phraya River. The main form of transport in those days was by boat, and the lifestyle of the people was closely tied to the rivers and canals. Phra Khanong is one such small river that flows through the southeast outskirts of the capital, although back then the area was so rural that it was essentially part of the countryside.
A young married couple lived in a house along the banks of the Phra Khanong. Their names were Mak and his wife Nak. Siam at the time was exercising authority over a large part of Southeast Asia. And Mak is conscripted to serve in the military during one of their campaigns in the borderlands. With much sadness, he sets off to serve his country while leaving behind his pregnant wife. In the battle, Mak is severely wounded and he must spend several months in Thonburi, just across the river from Bangkok, to recuperate.
In his absence, Nak goes into labor, but something goes wrong. The delivery is full of difficulties, and both the mother and her baby boy die during the failed childbirth. According to Thai belief, a pregnant woman who dies together with her child creates the most powerful and frightening type of ghost possible. Faced with such a bad omen, the villagers don’t carry out a proper cremation of the corpse according to Buddhist tradition, and instead they hastily bury the body in a shallow grave.
Mae Nak’s disembodied consciousness is full of attachment to her husband, and she finds herself unable to move on to her next birth. The force of this attachment is so strong that her spirit is able to manifest a physical body and cast a spell over her husband so that the house appears to be kept up and not abandoned and overgrown as it actually is. After several months pass, Mak is well enough to return home, where he finds his wife and newborn child waiting for him. While he was gone, he never received word of their untimely death from anyone, and so he’s completely unaware of the true situation.
Slowly, Mak starts to realize that something isn’t right when his old friends and acquaintances in the village avoid him. A few dare to tell him the truth of what happened, but he doesn’t yet accept the fact that he’s living with a ghost-bride. But then the true horror begins. In the middle of the night, the ghost of Nak attacks and kills those who tried to warn her husband of the truth—so afraid is she of losing him if he were to know of her true condition.
There are several versions of what happens next, but one of the most common tells how Mak is finally convinced of the truth. Traditional Thai houses are built raised up on posts about two meters above the ground as a protection against flooding. One evening, Nak is busy making a chili paste and accidentally drops a lime through a space in the floorboards. Not seeing anyone around, she reaches down through the crack in the floor and extends her ghostly arm a full two meters in order to fetch the lime off the ground. Mak just happened to be outside, next to the house, and seeing this causes him to come to his senses.
Another popular detail of the story is that he bends forward while standing up and looks between his legs. When he does so, he sees the true state of his abandoned house—full of dust and cobwebs, and overgrown with jungle creepers.
Later that evening, he makes an excuse to step outside (most likely to pee), and then runs away to the village temple, Wat Mahabut. When he gets to the temple, the monks create a protective circle using a white thread in the center of the ordination hall, and they begin chanting to keep the ghost at bay. Nak is furious and chases him to the temple, some accounts say she was able to enter the ordination hall and appeared standing upside down on the ceiling, but was ultimately kept at bay.
What happened next varies according to different versions of the story. Some say that her spirit was captured by an exorcist and sealed inside a ceramic jar. The jar was then thrown into the river, where it stayed for several years. But then one day some fishermen pulled it up and opened the jar, inadvertently releasing Nak’s ghost to once again haunt the population of Phra Khanong.
Nak’s troubled spirit is subdued finally by the highly venerated monk Somdej Toh, who digs up her corpse and removes an oval-shaped piece of bone from her forehead. He convinces her to remain within the bone with the promise that she will be reunited with Mak in a future life. It is said that Somdej Toh secured this bone as an amulet in his waistcloth and kept it with him at all times. The present whereabouts of the bone-amulet are a mystery, although it’s commonly thought that it slipped into the hands of the royal family at one point via the Prince of Chumphon, Abhakara Kiartivongse.
The story of Mae Nak was most recently retold on the big screen in 2013 as a comedy version called Pee Mak (พี่มาก..พระโขนง), which told the story from the point of view of Nak’s haunted husband and his buddy’s who fought alongside him in the army. With a cast of popular young stars, Pee Mak became the highest grossing Thai film ever.
One of the most well-made traditional tellings of the story was accomplished in the 1999 film Nang Nak. If you have the time, you can watch the entire film with English subtitles. It makes a great introduction to the tale of Mae Nak and also gives you a glimpse of the typical lifestyle along the waterways of 19th century Siam.
Now for the fun part! The shrine to Mae Nak at Wat Mahabut makes for one of the most interesting and unique places you can visit in Bangkok. It’s also really easy to get to. Simply take the skytrain to On Nut station. Then walk back a short distance to the first major road, which will be Sukhumvit Soi 77, and turn right. There should be a small market set up along the sidewalk with vendors selling a variety of fruits and other foods. Walk straight for several hundred meters beyond the end of the market until you see an overhead pedestrian bridge. Use the bridge to cross over to the left side of the road and then make a left turn at On Nut Soi 7. You’ll find Mahabut temple at the end of this lane.
Along this road you’ll notice many fortune tellers and astrologers. There will also be shops selling a variety of offerings to Mae Nak and her baby. Aside from the usual flowers and incense, some common offerings at this shrine are traditional Thai women’s clothing and children’s toys.
The actual shrine is at the back end of the temple grounds in the area right by the river. The interior of the shrine is set up to look like living quarters. You’ll find many sets of clothing and toys. There are also a number of portraits of Mae Nak given by donors on display. Interestingly, almost all the portraits show Mae Nak with long, straight hair, but in reality she probably had a closely-cropped hairdo as was fashionable for Siamese women of the time, such as her depiction in the movie above.
The creepiest feature of the shrine, without a doubt, is the statue of Mae Nak and her child covered in flakes of gold leaf by devotees. Her statue is especially unsettling because of the lifelike hair and very unnatural-looking painted eyes it has. Far from scaring folks away though, Thai people flock to this shrine to pray for good luck, especially women. In particular, Mae Nak is thought to hate the military draft since it’s what tore her husband away from her. And so it’s common for young women whose boyfriends or husbands are at the age where they have to draw a card to see if they must serve in the military to come here and request Mae Nak’s help for their men to avoid service. Of course, as with all Thai shrines, there’s a large number of people who come just looking for their lucky lottery numbers. And there are conveniently a good number of lottery ticket vendors on hand to take advantage.
One quirky feature of the shrine is the TV that is always turned on and positioned so that the image of Mae Nak can watch it. She likes to be entertained, and like most Thai women she seems to enjoy watching horrible TV dramas. When we visited in the middle of the day though, Mae Nak was enjoying a Muai Thai boxing match.
You may see a group of dancers performing just in front of the shrine. As at other famous shrines—such as the Erawan shrine outside the Grand Hyatt Hotel—people who have had their wishes come true after praying here often return and hire the dancers to perform as a way of saying “thank you” to the deity present.
At the river’s edge many people release aquatic animals in order to make merit. A variety of fish, eels, and turtles can be bought for this purpose. In Buddhist belief, releasing animals is considered a way to counteract the bad karma of killing beings in this and previous lifetimes. Although one has to wonder how long the newly released animals will be able to survive in the polluted water.
With a large number of fortune-tellers on hand, Wat Mahabut is a good spot to try out Thai astrology or Tarot card reading—if you can get past the language barrier. My friend and I had an good time having our fortunes read, but the astrologer was very keen on trying to up-sell various magic charms to improve upon our supposed fate. Our fortune-teller’s English skills were almost non-existent though, so if you don’t speak Thai you may have to bring along a Thai friend to get the most out of the experience.
If you have some time to spare in Bangkok, and want to get out from heavily touristed areas to see something of the real Thailand—and see something very different—I highly recommend a visit to the ghost of Mae Nak shrine.