Thai Ghostbuster Wrestles Demons in Modern Times

Thailand’s forests were once teeming with ghosts but as the trees have been gradually cleared to make way for farms, towns and factories, the spirits have also moved on. For people like Ornta Laokam, who for decades made his living as his father and grandfather had before him – by catching ghosts and freeing the living from their torments – modernization has turned his career into a relic of bygone times. AFP Bangkok correspondent Thanaporn Promyamyai talks with Ornta about how he is hoping, against the odds, to find someone willing to learn his magical skills before he dies, and they die with him

PHU KHIEO, Thailand ~ Sitting in a small thatched hut overlooking rice paddies and sugar cane fields, Ornta Laokam remembers when Thailand’s landscape was still blanketed with thick forests that were teaming with ghosts.

Now 77, he was born when this was still the Kingdom of Siam, when rivers and canals were the main arteries of transportation, and the countryside was covered more by thick jungle than by rice paddies.

Among the trees surrounding his hometown in Surin, near the Cambodian border, Ornta’s grandfather and father taught him to see the spirits living in the plants and rivers, and even in the fertile soil itself.

Most of the spirits are benign, he says, some are even angels, but the malevolent few who tormented the living needed to be caught — and this what he always wanted to do.

“I began seeking this knowledge when I was 17 years old,” he recalls.

His father and grandfather passed on their mystical secrets, and when they could guide him no more, he followed a friend across the border to Cambodia, where he stayed in a small village and learned from a spiritual guide even more ancient spells for driving away ghosts.

Ornta remembers struggling with Khmer to learn the words that exorcise an evil spirit, and even save a human life.

But the most important part of being able to chase away ghosts, he says, is to live according to the five precepts of Buddhism: no killing, no stealing, no adultery, no lying and no alcohol.

This is the only way, he says, that he can keep his own soul pure when he goes out to wrestle with demons.

After his studies, he returned to Thailand and settled into a somewhat routine life as a carpenter and odd-job man in the northeastern region of Issan.

It was 10 years after he returned that he had his first chance to test his skills, when a man came to his house and begged him to chase away a ghost that was haunting his wife.

“I can’t remember much about it; it was a long time ago,” he says. “I just remember that my first client was a woman who was haunted by a ghost from the jungle. But ever since then, I have been well-known for being a ghostbuster.”

– Spirits are everywhere

After meeting his wife 50 years ago, he moved to this village, Phu Khieo, far from the Cambodian border in the middle of Issan. At that time, there were plenty of ghosts to chase.

Thais believe that spirits were everywhere in nature, and also in boats and houses.

Even outside the steel-and-glass skyscrapers amid the concrete jungle of downtown Bangkok, Thais erect small houses where they make offerings to the spirits who protect the buildings.

These are generally good spirits, and although the city does have some haunted houses, urban ghosts are usually old souls too powerful to be forced out, or the spirits of people who died suddenly or tragically.

After the tsunami ripped across the Indian Ocean in December 2004, Buddhist monks spent more than a year performing cleansing ceremonies to help the spirits of the dead ease their way into the next life.

Even Bangkok’s new international airport had a ghost named Poo Ming, who workers said would appear, before the main terminal building opened in September, crying and speaking in tongues.

Poo Ming was believed to be the guardian of the land on which Suvarnabhumi Airport was built. The airport’s operators brought in monks to appease him, and built a spirit house where offerings could be made to him.

These benign and protective spirits are not the ghosts that Ornta does battle with. His speciality, especially in his younger days, has been dealing with the angry jungle spirits that torment villagers in rural Thailand.

Sometimes ghosts have even been known to haunt the spirit of former ghostbusters, those whose minds were weak and corrupted by the dark secrets of the trade, Ornta says. He explains that when these weak ghostbusters die, their souls take over and assume the power to haunt anyone.

It all combined to keep him so busy ghostbusting that he did all but give up has day job.

“There was so much demand, I gave up most of my other work and decided to focus more on chasing ghosts,” he says.

“I wanted to help people, and I can earn merit by helping people who suffer from these spirits,” Ornta says, alluding to his Buddhist belief that good deeds in one life help ensure a favorable reincarnation next time around.

– The possessed will look you straight in the eye

The first thing Ornta does when he performs an exorcism is to make sure that his subject is not suffering from an illness such as malaria that might make him or her delusional.

“People who are haunted by ghosts have strong eyes. They will look you straight in the eye and not avoid eye contact. People with malaria wouldn’t do this,” he says.

Then he holds a small ceremony, reciting spells over his subject and tapping their body with a bamboo stick. Ornta fills his own mouth with holy water, which he then sprays over the body of the person being exorcised.

To keep the bad spirits from returning, Ornta then ties brightly colored holy sashes around the victim’s body while chanting protective spells.

For garden-variety ghosts, the entire ceremony takes only 10 minutes. But he says that a strong ghost can take up to half an hour to chase away.

“But my most difficult job took three days,” Ornta says, telling the story of a man who was possessed by a jungle spirit that just refused to leave.

Ornta had to repeat his spells for three whole days to complete the exorcism, while the man sat quietly with only his sharp eyes telling Ornta that the spirit was still in control of his body.

In his heyday, Ornta traveled extensively around Thailand’s northeast and could earn up to 500 baht (US$12) for his services.

“I used to travel to all the nearby provinces. I’ve driven away around 300 or 400 spirits,” he says.

His interventions weren’t always successful, he said.

“Sometimes we meet with strong spirits who say they want to take away someone’s life. These spirits can possess the owner until the body dies,” Ornta says.

As time went on, Thais began relying less on the jungle. Farms and factories grew, especially over the last two decades, and modernity and globalization began changing even remote corners of the kingdom.

People moved away from villages and into towns, and the demand for Ornta’s services dropped away.

“As more development came, ghosts were fewer and fewer,” he says. “It’s probably because people cut down so many trees, so the ghosts had to evacuate and move deeper into the jungle to live.”

Ornta had to diversify his income, so he took up farming and now grows cucumbers, corn and beans as his main livelihood.

“Now I start my day in the morning by watering and picking the vegetables to sell at the market,” says the ghostbuster.

– The spirits moved deeper into the jungle

Farming is not as profitable as chasing ghosts, so he supplements his income and uses his mystical skills to make sashes for trees and spirit houses that people use to protect the good spirits near their homes.

But his skills in chasing away demons are still sometimes called upon.

Son Mongkolkhiew, a 59-year-old farmer, turned to Ornta last year when, she says, she was being relentlessly haunted by a ghost.

It all began as she was returning from a Buddhist temple one day and saw a woman she didn’t recognize pushing a bicycle near a rice paddy a few meters from Son’s home.

When Son turned back to have another look, the woman was gone. But Son felt a heavy weight as she pedaled her own bicycle back home. Not long after, the pains began – she had trouble breathing and felt a strange and constant pressure on her neck.

She wrapped a holy sash around her neck and felt a little better, but there was still a nagging pressure on her back and neck, she says.

“I went to a few hospitals,” Son says. “The doctors did everything – x-rays, scans and ultrasounds – but they couldn’t find anything wrong.”

Finally, after a year of suffering with the mysterious pain, she went to see Ornta, who recited his spells over her.

“I felt better and better, and was back to normal within a week,” she says. “I could have died if I didn’t go to see him.”

Despite the intermittent demand for his services, it is still too low to interest Ornta’s four daughters in following in their father’s footsteps. He’s hoping, improbably, that one of his grandchildren might want to learn his skills.

“Even though there are fewer ghosts, I still believe this knowledge is useful,” he says. “I believe it will not die.”

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