The Cult of Mae Nak

The story of Mae Nak is very popular and well-known in Thailand. Certainly, you remember the latest filming of this story: ‘Phi Mak Phra Khanong’ starring young actors Mario Maurer and Davika Hoorne. In fact, the gothic tale of Mae Nak has been filmed numerous times over the past decades and every one of the movies is a box-office hit. Thus, this story has also found its way into Thai popular culture.

Mae Nak Phra Khanong shrine offerings, portraits of the spirit and dresses (photo credit: Xufanc, wikimedia.org)

Mae Nak Phra Khanong shrine offerings, portraits of the spirit and dresses (photo credit: Xufanc, wikimedia.org)

The Cult of Mae Nak

However, it is unknown whether Mae Nak really existed or if her story is only a myth. As a matter of fact, there is no conclusive historical evidence of her existence. What is more, there are also different versions of her tale. Nevertheless, the main story line runs as follows:

Davika Hoorne as Mae Nak in 'Phi Mak Phra Khanong' (photo credit: bk.asia-city.com)

Davika Hoorne as Mae Nak in ‘Phi Mak Phra Khanong’ (photo credit: bk.asia-city.com)

Shortly after Nak and Mak get married, Mak is conscripted for military service. Thus, he leaves his pregnant wife involuntarily behind. Nak waits for her husband’s return but one day she dies during labour along with her unborn child. They are buried immediately, however Nak’s spirit refuses to perish and let go. When Mak returns home from war, Nak disguises herself and her son as humans. However, Mak soon learns the truth and runs away. Hence, the ghost of Nak follows her husband and kills everyone who comes between them.

The shrine of the spirit, part facing the canal (photo credit: Xufanc, wikimedia.org)

The shrine of the spirit, part facing the canal (photo credit: Xufanc, wikimedia.org)

To get rid of the spirit, the villagers try to exorcise Nak. Her husband finally finds habour in the Mahabute temple and the venerated Somdej Phra Puttajan from Thonburi seizes the spirit by imprisoning it in a ceramic pot. Then he drops this pot into the river. In some versions, Nak’s skull is made into a belt buckle by the monk and passed into the possession of the Prince of Chumporn. As far as the fate of Mak is concerned, in some versions he becomes a monk whereas in others he starts a new family. In some stories, Mae Nak reappears as an enraged ghost.

At the shrine (photo credit: Ananda, wikimedia.org)

At the shrine (photo credit: Ananda, wikimedia.org)

Her burial place is supposed to be where the Mae Nak shrine is today. This is located at the edge of Wat Mahabute, Sukhumvit Soi 77 in Bangkok. Here the devotees pray to her statue, which faces a television that is kept on day and night. People bring her many offerings including colourful dresses, cosmetic products, sweets, flowers and toys for her child. Devotees turn to her because she is said to be benevolent at giving out winning lottery numbers. What is more, she is popular among young men who will attend a ‘lucky draw’, which is the so-called ‘red bean black bean’ draft. She is believed to detest the call-ups since her husband had to leave her to fight in the war.

However, pregnant women are advised to stay away from this place because Mae Nak is not a blessing concerning pregnancy. In addition, there are two old takian trees next to her shrine which are considered to be very powerful. Thai people relate ancient trees to spirits. The devotees scrub the trees believing that winning lottery numbers will be revealed by the spirit. In fact, Mae Nak is considered to have brought fortune to some individuals of the community.

Making merit, actress Mai Davika at the shrine (photo credit: Instagram @davikah)

Making merit, Mae Nak actress Mai Davika at the shrine (photo credit: Instagram @davikah)

Finally, I think that the cult of Mae Nak prevails because her story deals with an universal theme, namely that two beings are torn apart because they are different and come from opposing realms. Her story shows that it is impossible for humans and ghosts to live together. Accordingly, most screenings of this story do not have a happy ending since man and ghost are separated. For example, in the ‘Nang Nak’ movie (1999), starring Intira Jaroenpura and Winai Kraibutr, Mak finally becomes a monk to pray for the spirit of his dead wife which cannot let go of him.

Nonetheless, the last filming of the story, ‘Phi Mak Phra Kanong’, breaks with this convention – in contrast to traditional Thai ghost stories, there is a happy ending because humans and ghosts can after all live together and be happy ever after.

Phi Mak & Nak, scene from Thai horror movie 'Phi Mak Phra Khanong' (photo credit: news.zing.vn)

Phi Mak & Nak, scene from Thai ghost comedy movie ‘Phi Mak Phra Khanong’ (photo credit: news.zing.vn)

Summing up, we may claim that Mae Nak has a special place in Thai culture and tradition. This is because her story is concerned with an universal topic that everyone can identify with.

Yours, Sirinya

(Reference: Siraporn Nathalang, Thai Folklore. Insights Into Thai Culture, Chulalongkorn University Press, 2000)




Father Red & Uncle Boonmee or A Thai Ghost Story

A Thai Ghost Story

The little narration I’m going to tell you now is based on a ghost story that my Dad used to tell me. It’s about his encounter with a ghost called Father Red (Phô: Daeng, Thai: พ่อ แดง). In the 1950s when my father was a young boy, he lived with his family in Bangkok. In the evening he and some other children often went to see a neighbour, a stout lady, who cooked delicious Thai meals but had a kind of uncanny aura around her. However, the children liked her because she always had dainties for them.

This Thai lady very much enjoyed telling various Thai ghost stories. What is more, she claimed that she could prove that spirits were actually around. Hence, every evening at sunset the lady would light a cigarette for a ghost she called Father Red. She put the cigarette on her front porch and Father Red would come to visit her house… Phô: Daeng would take some pulls on the cigarette. My Dad said that this was really creepy because it always looked in fact as if someone was pulling on the cigarette but of course no one was there. These were strange incidences indeed. Maybe it was only the wind that gave the impression of someone pulling on the cigarette and since my Dad was small at that time, he thought it was a ghost. Nevertheless, it might have been something completely different that is hard to grasp with common sense…

In fact, we will never know…but Father Red became my Dad’s own Thai ghost story that he has loved to tell me repeatedly.

Ghost story, a scene from Palme D'Or winner 'Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives'

A scene from Palme D’Or winner ‘Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives’. Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (photo credit: macleans.ca)

As a matter of fact, the belief in ghosts and the supernatural is very enduring and popular in Thailand. What is more, in the history of Thai Buddhists, popular beliefs intermingled with myths and legends about spirits and ghosts of local folktales. Thai spirits or ghosts are referred to as as Phi (ผี) and mostly they are nocturnal like Father Red, for instance. In Thai culture ghosts and spirits are believed to dwell in trees, burial grounds near Buddhist temples and certain houses in particular those which have been abandoned for a long time.

Gost story, a scene from the film "Uncle Boonmee who can recall past lives"

Ghost story, a scene from the film “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” (photo credit: allmovie.com)

There are different kinds of ghosts in Thai culture: the mountain and forest ghosts are referred to as Phi Khao (ผีเขา) and Phi Pa (ผีป่า). There are also ghosts named according to ancient spirits that are believed to live in special locations and places. For example, there is the Phi Pan Nam Range (ทิวเขาผีปันน้ำ), “the mountain range that the spirits use to divide the waters”, and Phae Mueang Phi (แพะเมืองผี) are the ghosts which are supposed to dwell there. There are also ghosts who house in trees and they are mostly female spirits referred to as ‘Lady of the Tree’ (นางไม้). In Thai they are known as Nang Ta-khian and Nang Tani.

On the whole, we can say that the supernatural has had a great tradition in Thai culture. I think it was very uncanny for my Dad to see the invisible Father Red taking his pulls on the cigarette. In fact, we might imagine it as creepy as this scene from the 2010 art drama Thai film ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’ (Lung Bunmi Raluek Chat, in Thai: ลุงบุญมีระลึกชาติ) when Boonsong comes for supper. Well, let me tell you here in short what this movie is about: Uncle Boonmee is a dying elderly man who returns to his farm to spend his last days there. Thus, he encounters the ghost of his wife, who passed away many years ago, and his son, who has transformed into a monkey spirit (Boonsong). Finally, uncle Boonmee wanders into the nocturnal jungle in their company and lies down in a cave and dies. We may say that uncle Boonmee goes back to nature, i.e. the jungle, where the transition from life to death takes place.


In addition, we may say that not only ghost stories are popular and enduring in Thailand but also the genre of the ghost and horror movie. These films are most often based on old Thai beliefs and folk tales. They all have in common that they conjure up spirits and truly unsettling atmospheres. What do you generally think about the Thai ghost story and what kind of stories do you know?

Yours, Sirinya

P.S to close this article, a funny Thai ad concerning the ‘variety of ghosts’ in Thailand 😉