Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Legend of Mae Nak

King Mongkut, known as King Rama IV, reigned in Siam in the mid 19th century. Today he's regarded as the father of science, having presided over an Enlightenment period in today's modern Thailand. However, not all of the good King's subjects were ready to embrace modern, rational ways.

King Rama IV, made famous by the movie "The King and I".

Visitors to Bangkok today arrive in large numbers at well known wats (temples) such as Wat Phra Kaew, wherein lies the famous Emerald Buddha. It is a beautiful, opulent place where believers seeking merit also go to make offerings to resident monks.

Far away from the tourists at Wat Phra Kaew, and the adjacent Royal Thai Palace, is a very ordinary Thai neighborhood Phra Kanong Nua in the Wattana district. Exiting the BTS skytrain at Phra Kanong station, my friend Buakaou, her sister Pear and I took a taxi to Wat Mahabut on the Phra Kanong canal.

A narrow back street lined with shops leads to Wat Mahabut. Once inside the grounds - while vague, there is a discernible perimeter to the grounds - I had a feeling of stepping back in time.  There are market stalls, some selling religious paraphernalia to worshipers.  There are also food stalls, a massage shop and other merchants. Two main temples dominate the grounds alongside of a building where resident monks live. The wat is a living vestige of times past.  It was easy for me to envision when this place was the center of the village, now a neighborhood of Bangkok, called Wattana. 

Pear (L) Buakoua (R)
Buakaou and her sister Pear purchased baskets colorfully wrapped in cellophane and reminiscent of old style Easter baskets. Inside the baskets were everyday items such as soap, toothpaste and other necessities needed by a barracks full of monks. The ladies added a little cash in an envelope and presented the gift to a monk apparently assigned to accept offerings, allowing the faithful to participate in the Buddhist practice of earning merit. Then we sat cross-legged with about fifteen other people under a lean-to where a chubby monk chanted. The chanting monk used a bundle of wicker reeds tied together like a broom to sprinkle water over the worshipers. The ritual reminded me of Catholic priests similarly blessing their congregation with holy water using a fancier appurtenance. 

After the short service the ladies, and other folks present, purchased buckets of small fish and els releasing them into the water of the Phra Kaonong canal bordering Wat Mahabut.  Releasing fish expresses gratitude and abundance.  It's a practice that works, producing results in real life.  Just two days later I witnessed two teenage boys struggling to lift a very large fish they had just caught from one of the many Bangkok canals.

My experience at Wat Mahabut was not the same as visiting the big tourist attractions.  There was something poetic about the place. It gave me a feeling a being connected to the world around me. The feeling for me was tangible and a little profound.  Buakaou and Pear were not surprised by my experience.  They told me it was a special place.

Wat Mahabut is haunted.

During the reign of King Rama IV a young couple, Nak and Mak, lived on the banks of the Phra Kanong Canal.  They lived happily, Mae Nak being an ideal wife to the handsome Mak. Mae Nak was beautiful, devoted and pregnant, expecting the couple's first child.  Mak loved her beyond measure.

Phra Kanong Canal today, not so different from Mae Nak's time.

Mak was conscripted to fight against the encroaching Shan Tribe in Northern Thailand and was injured in the fighting, nearly dying. During Mak's slow recovery he dreamed about returning to his happy life on the Phra Kanong Canal. Mae Nak and the baby died in childbirth.

But when Mak returns home Mae Nak welcomes him with great affection. They resume their happy life together.  Mae Nak so loved her husband her spirit refused to leave.

Alarmed that the unwitting Mak was living with ghosts, a few friends and neighbors tried to warn him. Mak could not understand why his friends would tell such lies.  Infuriated, Mae Nak would steal into the night and kill the informers effectively silencing the town.

One night while preparing dinner, Mae Nak dropped a lime between the floor boards.  Now an etherial being,  Mae Nak simply stretched her arm through the floor board and ten feet below to the ground in order to retrieve the lime.  Working beneath the house, Mak saw the aberration, realized his wife was a ghost, and fled.  

The story has two endings. In one version a venerable monk from Wat Mahabut  captured Mae Nak's spirt and imprisoned her in a piece of the skull from Nak's corpse.  The relic today is kept by the royal family.  In the alternate ending, the monk captured Mae Nak's spirit and put it in a jar from which she escaped. Mae Nak's spirt roams Wat Mahabut still today.

I like the second ending.  I told Buakaou and Pear I felt Mae Nak's presence. I was certain that Mae Nak likes me.  They laughed. Modern people don't believe in ghosts.  But I saw the hair on Pear's forearm rise:)