Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Old Black Magic of Siam

Two years ago my friend, Pi-Noi, brought his work crew down from Ban Nok to install an air-conditioning system in a Pattaya bar. The 400-kilometer drive gave them a healthy thirst and that night under my mango tree we drank a case of Chang Beer. Nearing midnight the bottles were empty, but the out-of-towners wanted more and I introduced them to cheap Russian vodka.

The aficionados of lao khao downed the liter in minutes. The only evidence of being mao was the cranking up of the stereo volume and Pi-Noi asked for me to tell a ghost story.

"Pii ni-Thann?"

"Chaii." Thais love ghost story.


"Yes, very funny you tell in Thai." Pi-Noi has long claimed that I’m the last surviving speaker of Neanderthal Thai and another plastic bag of Lao magically appeared. Pi-Noi's friend poured a full glass of the white fire.


I drank as commanded and launched into a ghost tale about a underwater photo shoot in

Another plastic bag of Lao magically appearederwater photo shoot. LIFE had hired my friend as a photo assistant to shoot the female lead of SPLASH in bathing suits and bikinis. I had never heard of the actress and neither had my Thai friend, although when I mentioned she was the star in a comedy about a mermaid falling in love with a mortal man, everyone sat up straight in the shadows under the mango tree.

“Ngeuuak?” asked Pi-Noi.

“Ngeuuak.” The mermaid myth was known to every sea-going culture.


“Suay mak.” Darryl Hannah was a blonde goddess. The photographer was working to seduce her. I explained to the Thais that I was his ‘thaat’ or slave. They understood this term, since all Thais had been slaves until 1095.

“We stayed at an old hotel. Hotel have ghost.”

“Pee ngeuuak?” Thais have scores of designation for ghosts; phee phohng ‘evil spirit’ phraai water ghost, bpee saat or ‘animal ghost’ et al.

“No, ghost old lady,” I continued how the actress had complained about a female ghost entering her room. She was barely visible. Her words were echoes. The encounter frightened the actress, who wanted to sleeping my room.

“Sex with mermaid, good.”

“No, my friend is jealous. Says he won’t pay me, if I sleep with me.”

“Farang kee-nok.”

“Yes, he was bird shit. I get revenge by drinking rhum. I drink lots of Rhum.” 150 proof quelled the disappointment of not having sex with a movie star. “Mao mak. I go sleep. Someone touches my shoulder. I think it’s puying farang suay.”

I really had thought it was Darryl Hannah.

Instead my visitor was a long-haired apparition of an 80 year-old woman.

“Mai puying suay. Phi gair. Phee.”

I acted out the part of an ectoplasmic old lady.

“Guah.” Pee-Noi and his crew shivered with collective fear.

“Not scared. Mao.” I dismissed the old ghost and fell back to sleep in a drunken stupor. The tale was meant to be funny, but at its end Pi-Noi demanded with a chill, “Ching?”

“True 100%. The ghost was as real as you or me.”

“You sex with her?”

“No way.” I was too drunk to do anything but tell her to fuck off.

“Mai shua.” He preferred to think that I had made love to a ghost.

A really old ghost.

His friends told it was funny, but Pi-Noi rolled his eyes.

“Didn’t you like my story?”

His face was set with anger. “You don’t make fun of ghosts.”

“They do in the movies.” Thais at the Big C Theater roared hilariously about headless ghosts chasing fools through the night. I laughed too.

“Not same. This your house.”

“You believe in ghosts?”

Pi-Noi shrugged, as if he take them or leave them.

"I only scared my wife."

"I understand that."

I was scared of his wife too.

And I suspect so were most ghosts, then again my Irish blood grants a special affinity for spirits and I don’t disrespect the beliefs of this or any country.

Every year thousands of Thais and tourists line the Mekong River to view the glowing gas balls floating into the air from the mythical Naga creature. Temple steps are often decorated by a representation of this serpent. Farangs tend to deride the Thais’ belief in creatures eating your intestines or a greedy man doomed to wander eternity with a worm-sized mouth without taking into consideration that 65% of Americans believe in guardian angels.

While not 100% convinced, I really did see a ghost in Jamaica and ten years ago during a visit to Isaan with my one-eyed girlfriend we drove to a mae-mod or witch’s house. The old crone’s house was located beyond the electrical grid. A score of women sat in the candle-lit hut listening to their fortunes, while men lingered nervously outside. At one point the oldest women were assembled in a circle. Lots were chosen and the most wrinkled of them was led into the jungle by two men.

“Where she going?” I asked Vee.

“Women have lottery. See who die so others live longer.”

“They’re going to kill her?”

“No, she picked same woman every time. Other ladies never know or don’t remember.”

It was a scam, but a scary one in this setting.

The next morning a green potion was smeared on the rim of my glass. Vee said it was nothing and I drank some. We were both sick for two days. A year later we broke up and neither of us could leave the other. When I returned to the States for business, I didn’t sleep for three days and sweated out a fever. A Thai friend smiled knowingly and said, “Red-lum.”

“Magic?” Jack Nicholson had said the same in Kubrick’s THE SHINING.

“Red rum.”

‘Murder’ backwards.

He nodded. “At least she drink it too."



"Thai women like simple magic."

"That they do."

And like that I became a believer. Of course being half-Irish I wake at night to the slightest whisper, because not everything going bump in the night is a thief.

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