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.


About 20 km outside Ayutthaya stands Wat Kai – or in English, “Chicken Temple”. And, indeed, it does have chickens scratching about. However, it’s much better known for its monkeys than its fowl. They slowly loll across the temple grounds as if they own the place. Perhaps to keep them away from the main temple, there’s a man-made cliff on the opposite side of the road. Here visitors feed them fruit.

Unlike other monkey groups I’ve encountered, these aren’t aggressive; they won’t grab food from your hand or try to raid your pockets. They just wait to be fed. And by the number of banana skins littering the place, they’re fed well.

The temple is also known for its dozens of life size plaster figures, most of which feature the torments of hell. Whereas in the Christian tradition one is judged at the gates of heaven, according to Thai beliefs, one descends first to hell where one is judged and suitably punished until the penalty has been paid, before ascending to heaven, and later being reborn. Here’s the judge:

The punishment relates to the wrongs that one has done. Adulterers, for example, have to climb a spiny tree to escape from savage dogs, whilst having their genitals eaten by crows. Alcoholics have to drink from a red-hot bottle. The worst offenders get boiled alive.

Starving is another form of punishment; the tall figure on the right with the long tongue has a tiny mouth, so she can’t get enough nourishment. Other figures are being sawn in half, having limbs chopped off, bearing immense weights, and generally having a pretty bad time. The X-rated tableaux are all rather disturbing. Fortunately for you, dear reader, my camera battery went flat shortly after I arrived, so you are spared more gruesome pictures.


In the market there is a group of almost identical stalls set out with
dozens of amulets. Customers peer at the amulets through an eyeglass
examining the details. These small clay plaques are believed to
protect their wearer from harm. They’re housed in small metal cases
with a transparent window and worn on a chain around the neck. Often
the chain is of such a thickness as to look more suited as a leash for
a large dog. Aficionados – and most are men – may have half a dozen
or more amulets, each on its own chain, ostentatiously swinging from
their neck.

Recently the country has been swept by a craze for a particular amulet
by the name of Jatukam Ramathep. These amulets are round, about the
size of a digestive biscuit, and come in a number of different limited
editions with names such as “Arch-Millionaire”, “Super Rich” and “Rich
Without Reason”. The most expensive editions change hands for as much
as 2 million Baht (about £28,000). Their owners believe that their
Jatukam Ramathep amulet will bring them instant wealth, and as such
they are “better” than Buddha amulets, where the results are more

Jatukam Ramathep amulets

These amulets were first made in 1987 at a temple in the south of
Thailand. The first edition was produced by a local policeman who was
believed to be a master of the occult. The amulets sold for 100 Baht
each. That edition now changes hands for about 500,000 Baht. Since
then more than 400 editions have been produced. One edition was
created by the temple’s monks whilst they were flying on a chartered
plane above the temple – precisely why, I’m not sure. A top of the
range new edition, covered in gold leaf and from a respected temple
will now cost you 10,000 Baht – more than a month’s pay for many

Of course, these amulets are contrary to Buddhist teaching, but the
Religious Affairs Department and the Sangha Supreme Council keep
schtum. After all, they’re a nice little earner. Want a new temple
building? Just make some amulets, pray over them for a few days, and
sell them off. One revered monk, Phra Payom Kalayano, did make a
protest by baking chocolate cookies in the shape of the amulet,
proclaiming, tongue in cheek, that four bites would make you supremely
wealthy. His cookies are selling like … hot cakes. His intention
was to encourage people to spend their money on essentials, such as
food, not on pointless trinkets. As he said “recently, materialism
and the amulets have diverted people from the core of Buddha’s
teaching. This makes Buddha’s teaching fade away.”

But what of the name “Jatukam Ramathep”? This isn’t something from
Buddhist or Hindu teaching. One theory is that it’s a conflation of
the names of two princes from about 300 CE who guarded a sacred Buddha
relic whilst their father went to Sri Lanka. Others say it’s the Thai
pronunciation of the Pali Catugamaramadeva (God Rama of the Four
Villages). A third view is that the name refers to the legend of King
Janthara Bhanu, the founder of the Srivijaya empire who became a
Bodhisattva. But equally possible is that the name was conjured out
of thin air.