Perhaps the two most feared things in Thailand are ghosts and lizards. Thai ghosts aren’t of the friendly “Casper” kind, nor do they look like someone draped in a white sheet with holes for eyes. Almost all ghosts are both female and truly terrifying – some taking the form of simply a head and digestive tract. Probably the most famous ghost is Mae Naak. Born about a hundred and thirty year ago in Bangkok (that’s according to some versions of the story – there’s really no historical evidence for her existence, and some sources claim she lived in the Ayutthaya period), she died during childbirth and was buried with her unborn son. However, her spirit pined for her husband who had been conscripted to fight a foreign war, and she refused to pass on. When her husband returns from the war she disguises both herself and her son as human. However, when her husband sees her reach through the floorboards of their wooden house to retrieve a fallen lime he realises she’s a ghost. Not surprisingly, he flees, only to be pursued by his wife. She then goes on the rampage, killing everyone who crosses her path.

The story continues with the attempts of the villagers to get rid of her spirit, involving black magic and “spirit doctors” in the process – but nothing works. Her terrorised husband takes refuge in a temple, but the monks can do little to protect him. At last a gifted novice from a far away province captures her soul and puts it in a clay pot which he drops in the river.

All scary stuff. And as for Thai ghosts, you certainly wouldn’t want to meet one.

The fear of lizards is perhaps less understandable. Most houses have a few small lizards hanging around the light fittings of an evening, eating the occasional passing mosquito. OK, they are inclined to poo everywhere, but only in tiny quantities – and it’s far less offensive than essence of dog or cat.

Anyway, the belief is that if a lizard falls on you it’s bad luck. And today I can confirm that’s true: as I was opening my bedroom balcony doors this morning an adolescent house lizard fell on me. I’m not sure if I or the less-than-sure-footed critter was more startled. Anyway, I stepped backwards and caught my heel on my bed frame. Soon blood was gushing from my wound. So, proof definitive: having a lizard fall on you is bad luck.


According to Sydney Smith (a long-dead clergyman), heaven is “eating pâté de foie gras to the sound of trumpets”.

Today I was sitting in one of my favourite riverside restaurants with the deafening drumming of rain on the corrugated iron roof. Across the river was a magnificent Thai temple, gold paint glittering in the half light. Nearby was a sugar palm, its lollipop shape stark against the gloomy sky. And the river ferry carried on its work, taking motorcycles and passengers across the river, to-and-fro, to-and-fro.

I was waiting for my lunch: steamed pork spare ribs with soy sauce topped with finely chopped green chillies and garlic, a smoky, warm salad of grilled aubergines with minced pork and prawns, and some plain rice.

It then struck me that this has become so normal for me; I no longer look upon the temples with awe or feel thrilled by the brilliant food.

One can have too much even of foie gras to the trumpets’ clarion call.


A couple of years ago a then Deputy Prime Minister decided to lead a raid against Pantip Plaza (a large shopping mall specialising in IT equipment and software) in the interests of suppress vice and intellectual property crimes. This is a place where sellers come up to you, grab your arm and ask “Want to buy dirty video?” If you want a pirated copy of the latest Windows software there’s no need for such an indignity, you just need to look at the comprehensive displays. The Minister’s raid was a tad unsuccessful: only a single pornographic VCD and a couple of bags of marijuana were found. Doubtless the vendors had been tipped off about the impending raid and the illegal material spirited swiftly away.

Counterfeit goods are freely available in Thailand: it’s far easier to by a dodgy copy of Microsoft Windows or Office than to buy the real thing; stalls lining Sukhumwit road openly sell fake Calvin Klein and Adidas sportswear alongside counterfeit pills designed to put a smile on a man’s face and a spring in his step; fake car parts and pharmaceuticals abound. Despite the dent in Microsoft’s profits and the risk of the sick taking worthless (or positively harmful) pills, what little has been done about the problem has been largely ineffective.

Now that America’s US Trade Representative has started rattling Thailand’s cage about intellectual property rights the government has responded with a raid on Patpong (an area famous for its sleazy nightclubs where women, in the absence of male companionship, perform strange acts with ping-pong balls) where this is a well-known for its night market stuffed to the gills with counterfeit goods. About fifty officials from the Commerce Ministry raided the stalls of the night market, seizing fake items and arresting the vendors for selling pirated goods. The vendors weren’t too happy:

Raid on vendors at Patpong
[Picture from Thai Rath newspaper]

About 200 vendors threw stones and bottles and attacked the officials with wooden sticks.

The officials weren’t too happy, either, and fired their guns into the air.

Yet another nail in the coffin of the Thai tourist industry.

And we are told that such raids will be repeated every two days from now on.


As an aside, I just wonder if American companies are really losing out from piracy in Thailand and other developing countries? The price of genuine designer goods here is way beyond the means of the vast, vast majority of the population. The designer companies aren’t actually losing out on sales, and nobody is fooled into thinking that the fakes are genuine so the companies’ reputations aren’t harmed. In fact, the profiles of the companies are raised by the sale of counterfeits. Eventually, when people become affluent enough they will want to switch to the real deal. Until then Uncle Sam is simply shooting himself in the foot.


Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimolmangklararm Rajwaramahaviharn or as it is (mercifully) better known, Wat Pho*, is one of Bangkok’s top tourist attractions, famous for its massive reclining Buddha figure, 46 metres long and 18 metres high. It’s also a very active temple, with a large contingent of monks. Most tourists come away with a standard picture of the face of the Buddha figure – but because the hall is so tight around the Buddha figure, it’s impossible to capture its immenseness.

Reclining Buddha figure at Wat Pho

The Lord Buddha was recognised at birth as an individual of extraordinary destiny, not just because he immediately walked and that lotus flowers sprang from each footprint, but because his feet bore 108 auspicious characteristics. These marks are captured in mother-of-pearl on the soles of the Buddha figure at Wat Pho.

Sole of foot of reclining Buddha figure at Wat Pho showing auspicious marks

This image is of the back of the Buddha figure’s head, showing the tight curls of his hair – another auspicious sign:

Back of head of reclining Buddha figure at Wat Pho

[Curiously enough, despite the iconography which has developed around the Lord Buddha (an iconography itself derived from traditional Brahman teaching), the Lord Buddha was not of extraordinary appearance. According to the Tripitaka (the most authoritative of the Buddhist scriptures in the Theravada tradition), when King Ajātasattu went to meet him the king was unable to distinguish him from the disciples around him. And in another incident, Pukkasāti sat talking to the Lord Buddha for hours before he realised to whom he was talking.]

Before Wat Pho became a temple it was a centre of learning for traditional Thai medicine. This tradition continues. There are various statues showing yoga positions:

Yoga figure at Wat Pho

Yoga figure at Wat Pho

and plaques inscribed with medical texts:

Medical figure at Wat Pho

The plaques date from the era of King Rama III when the King had the temple restored, starting in 1788 CE. Last year they were recognised by UNESCO.

It would appear that Thai medical wisdom extends to the health of demonesses, too:

Medical image of demon at Wat Pho

There were some strange trees at the temple, with the flowers growing directly out of the trunk:

Flowers at Wat Pho

I was also drawn to this stack of roof tiles:

Roof tiles at Wat Pho

One way that temples raise money for restoration is by encouraging adherents to pay for a roof tile. In return they can write the name of a loved one on the tile in dedication. Somewhere in Ayutthaya there’s a temple tile with the name of my late father on it.

*For clarification, “Pho” is pronounced with a hard “p” sound, so sounds like the informal word for a chamber pot. Though the Vietnamese dish of noodles in broth is spelled the same way, that word is pronounced more like “fur”, the name being derived from the French “pot-au-feu”.