Do you believe in ghost?
If you believe or love ghost stories, the supernatural and spiritual world of powerful female deities, this is the temple to visit in Bangkok. I went there and I must say that it is not a temple like one visits in the Thai capital, not because of its architecture or historical heritage but for a legendary female ghost called Mae Nak, a really weird place. The shrine is mainly popular with women who come to get her blessing and favors, which she also due to the fact that military conscription was the reason of the separation of her husband Mae Nak is known to answer the prayers of some young men who because of the selective Thai military’s lottery-style enlistment come to pray not to be drawn. Before Hinduism and Buddhism, Animism was the only believe and these practices have remained very strong in the Thai society. A Thai friend of mine told me all of this was a farce and had nothing to do with Buddhism. I let you judge by yourself, and invite you to read this story.
The Legend of Mae Nak
The story is based on events that would have happened in the middle of the 18th century. There are several versions of this fable, however, it does not influence the legend that unfolds like this.
Little time elapses following Nak’s marriage with Mak who leaves with sadness to serve in the military service and leaves behind his wife alone with her unborn child. Of a great fidelity, she awaits his return but everything does not go very well. Mak was sent to fight in the Shan state where he was seriously injured and had spent several months to be cured. Nak prepares to give birth, delivery goes wrong and mother and baby die. Conforming to Thai believe, a pregnant woman who dies with her child generates the kind of very powerful and frightening ghost. Confronted with such a bad omen, the villagers do not respect the Buddhist tradition of cremation and hastily bury the body in a shallow grave. But of deep love and devotion to her husband, she refused to pass into the hereafter and remained like a ghost in the house, frightening the villagers, some of whom would have seen her image along the klong.
Mae Nak’s attachment to her husband is so strong that her mind manifests itself in a physical body and is able to cast a spell on him. Which also suggests that the house looks well maintained and not abandoned. He was never informed of the death of his wife and baby and after healing, Mak is back home, where his wife and newborn are waiting for him.
His old friends and the villagers avoid him. Some of them try to tell him what happened, but he turns a deaf ear and does not believe the fact that he lives with a ghost. For fear of losing him, in the middle of the night, the ghost kills those who wanted to tell the truth to her husband. Then begins to realize that something is wrong
The most common version of what happens next tells how he is finally convinced to accept the truth. It happened at the end of the day when Nak was making chili paste (nam phrik) and dropped a lime from the top of the stilts house, seeing no one around she extends her phantom arm into the floor crack to pick up the lemon. Mak was two steps away and witnessed the scene that made him come to his senses.
A very popular detail of the story says that he would have leaned forward to stand up and look between his legs and seen the real state of the house full of spider web and invaded by jungle plants. Frightened, he later finds an excuse to go out and takes refuge in the village temple, Wat Maha But. In the center of the ordination room, the monks protect him in a circle surrounded by a white protective thread and pray aloud to keep the ghost at a distance. But Nak is enraged and some accounts say she managed to enter the temple and appeared head down on the ceiling, but was kept away.
There were also different interpretations of what happened next. A hired exorcist by villagers would have seized her spirit and locked it in a ceramic pot that would have been thrown into the klong. Several years later was fished out by fishermen and opened it, the ghost escaped and haunted the population of Phra Khanong again. Finally, Nak’s restless spirit is neutralized by the venerated monk Somdej Toh, who, after digging her up, pulled a piece of bone from her forehead, imprisoned her spirit in the bone, and fixed it in his belt. He convinced her to stay within the bone with the promise that in a future life, she will be reunited with Mak. Later, he would have made the bone an amulet, and the legend says it would be in possession of the royal family.
Wat Maha But, Mae Nak Shrine
If you Ask a Thai what about Phra Khanong? he/she will answer Wat Maha But, where the shrine of Mae Nak is (mother Nak), nowadays Ya Nak (grandmother). Books, TV series and films made this shrine famous and many adaptations have been a box office hit, but the latest in 2013 became the most successful international Thai film of all time, exceeding a million dollars in prize money.
I walked around the temples like a simple curious and many things caught my attention, of course, the sanctuary of Mae Nak and worshippers acting as in any other Buddhist temple, making offerings, prayers, and wishes. Entering the space of the sanctuary I noticed that a TV was turned on and she was watching it, a young guy told me is because she likes entertainment, especially Thai drama. On the sides, are traditional Thai women’s dresses and a piece of furniture enclosing handbags, jewelry, plastic flowers and some ceramic. Also, looking at the paintings of her portrait, I thought that her statue covered with gold leaf and make-up is not very flattering. Outside the big bodhi tree trunks wrapped of offering colorful cloth are impressive. You will see some shops selling live fish of all kinds, eels, turtles, and more. In Buddhist believe, offering the release of animals is to counterbalance the bad karma of having killed large or small creatures in this life and in previous ones, their release will purify one’s sin and bring good karma. But given the polluted water of the klong, it’s likely they won’t survive long. Know that the number of fish or other aquatic animal corresponds to your birthday, you can also release some according to your age. Along the klong, many pigeons and fish that despite a sign where is written not to feed the pigeons, devotees come with plastic bags full of seeds that are for sale in the temple. Many shops on the way to and inside the temple are selling children toys and clothes, dresses, flowers, prepackaged donation, drinks, and food.
Fortune Tellers, Slot Machine
Donation boxes are everywhere, and some are amazing. Numerous fortune-tellers, Thai astrology, and Tarot card reading, but do not speak English. One of the things that surprised me the most was the “slot machine” and the talking cows, I put a baht and got its blessing (in Thai). In the slot machine, I put 2 baht (1 it’s OK) and waited for the number, which was 10 so I took the note placed in the locker of the small shelf, in addition to the Thai, it’s translated into English and Chinese. I read it and “One who casts this number will have good fortune and make one’s wish come true” good. One figure that made me smile is a skeleton with a cowboy hat. By his side boxes that are used to collect donations for various good deeds, such as the temple water bill, rice for monks, disabled children, the poor and people who cannot afford a decent coffin.
I had a coffee break and exchanged a few words with the saleswoman who told me that sometimes there are dancers like at the Erawan shrine.
Some worshippers are regulars and many come only for Ta Kian’s blessing to give them the right numbers for the next national lottery draw. A surprising ritual I’ve fallen for. Now I wait to see if Nang Ta Kian will bring me luck.
Please respect the worshipers who believe in the spirit of Mae Nak. In the shrine, there is a sign, no photo, but everyone seems to ignore it (or not see it), I took some as discreetly as possible and donated 50 baht. But it is better to make the donation before taking pictures.
Going There and Back
BTS On Nut station, exit 1, left down the stairs to On Nut 77
You can walk down the Soi Sukhumvit 77 on the left sidewalk, the temple is about 1 kilometer at the end of the soi 7, or if you do not want to walk take a motorcycle taxi 30-40 baht or like me a songthaew, 8 baht, if no traffic, duration 3 minutes to Soi 7 and 100 meters walking to the temple.
To go back I recommend using the boat service, the boat stops 20 meters to the right on the quay. Short ride to the Phra Khanong market.
Timetable of the boat service. From 07.30 to 09.30 every half hour, then 11.30, 13.30, and 15.30. The last boat at 17.30
If you have any questions, I will be more than happy to help you out