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Spirits, deities and ghosts have long held an important place in Thai culture. Most Thai people don’t question their existence, and stories about them — usually with heavy doses of love and revenge — are exceedingly popular. The most famous is the legend of Mae Nak (aka Nang Nak), a tragic tale of a woman who couldn’t bear to be separated from her husband. Mae Nak can be visited today at a south Bangkok shrine; just be warned that according to the locals, this is one haunting that wasn’t made up.
The story begins in the mid 1800s when a beautiful young woman named Nak was wedded to her beloved Maak. The happy couple built a stilted house beside the Phra Khanong River south of Bangkok, which would have been a lushly forested area back then.
Not long after Nak realised she was pregnant, Maak was sent off to fight in one of Siam’s many military pursuits of the day. As Maak was treated for a battle wound some months later — and no doubt longing to see his wife — Nak struggled to deliver her first child. The labour lasted hours upon hours, and Nak endured horrific pain caused by complications. In the end, neither Nak or the baby survived.
Rather than moving on to another realm or being reborn, Nak’s spirit lingered in despair. Along with the spirit of her baby, she returned home and waited for Maak’s return. When his boat finally rowed up to the house one afternoon, Maak and Nak ecstatically reunited as a family at last. Little did Maak know — his beautiful wife and newborn child were ghosts.
Before long, villagers took notice of how Maak believed he was living with his wife and child, whom he thought were alive and well, and he shouted angrily at those who attempted to tell him the truth. Yet that was nothing compared to what Nak did to them, terrorizing the villagers and killing any who so much as talked to Maak. Before long, Maak was isolated from his old friends and family, and it was then that he saw the truth for himself.
As she pounded a curry paste inside the house, Nak is said to have dropped a lime on the ground below. Not knowing that Maak had returned from the forest at that very moment, she used her ghostly powers to stretch out her arm to over two metre’s length and pick up the lime without moving the rest of her body. That night, a terrified Maak told her that he was going outside to pee. Instead, he fled into the darkness.
Though Mae Nak’s ghost gave chase, Maak managed to reach nearby Wat Mahabut and took refuge with the resident monks inside the temple’s sacred ordination hall (Thais believe ghosts cannot enter such sacred spaces). Mae Nak hovered outside while calling for Maak to come back to her in a desperate wail that resounded throughout the entire village. As her despair gave way to fury, Nak wreaked havoc on the village without restraint.
From here, the story takes on a few different variations. The most popular tells of how the village mau phii (literally, “ghost doctor”) used his powers to capture Mae Nak’s spirit in a clay jar. He then threw it into the river, banishing her to the murky depths for what was supposed to be eternity. Some years later, however, the jar was discovered by fishermen who unwittingly opened it and freed the vengeful ghost once more.
To contain this second round of Mae Nak terror, a monk with potent intuitive powers by the name of Luang Por Toh dug up Mae Nak’s actual remains, subdued her spirit through his meditative prowess and encapsulated it in a piece of bone taken from the fore of her skull. The relic is said to still exist today, guarded in secrecy by the Thai royal family.
Luang Por Toh may have put an end to the wrathful ghost itself, but Mae Nak’s legend is as vivid as ever in the fears and fascinations of Thai people, as well as in Thai entertainment. Every so often, she surfaces once again in a Thai TV drama, and the story was made into a full feature film in 1999. A brand new film based on the story, Pee Mak Phra Kha Nong, is also now showing in theatres throughout Thailand.
Yet nowhere does the legend live on more powerfully than where it all is said to have happened. A shrine to Mae Nak can be visited today within the same Wat Mahabut complex where Maak fled in fear. In the shrine’s inner sanctum is an image of Mae Nak sitting while holding her gold-leaf covered infant, surrounded by portraits of her in various styles.
Visitors offer flowers, incense, money, traditional Thai clothes and even jewellery to Mae Nak along with toys for the baby. The shrine room has the eerie feel of a woman’s bedroom — one gets the sense that if Mae Nak’s spirit actually is hanging around here, it would at least be distracted if not satisfied. Outside, you’ll find a smaller shrine with portraits and dolls of Mae Nak to go with a banyan tree and sacred pieces of golden teak wood, which are believed to contain feminine spirits.
Steady streams of believers, mostly women, visit the shrine each day to ask Mae Nak that their sons or husbands not be drafted into the military or that their families otherwise stay in tact. Women who are expecting or hoping for a child, however, are often advised to avoid the entire area. (You’ll find them across town at the Phallic Shrine).
The shrine is located immediately beside the Phra Khanong canal, not far from where Maak and Nak’s house is thought to have actually been. Not surprising given Mae Nak’s deadly reputation, very little development has taken place in the immediate area and it’s easy to imagine how it would have looked 150 years ago. After making an offering at the shrine, you might stroll along the canal, feed the pigeons and fish, and check out the lonesome house that dares to exist across from the shrine.
Wat Mahabut itself has become synonymous with Mae Nak, but it’s still a working temple with a fairly large seated Buddha image, an outdoor shrine to Kuan Yin and various temple buildings. Thanks to Mae Nak, the temple is viewed by Thais as one of Bangkok’s most mystical places; a string of fortune tellers sets up shop every day along the side street that leads to the temple.
How to get there
Wat Mahabut is located at the dead-end of On Nut Soi 7 along the Phra Khanong canal. To get here, take the BTS skytrain to On Nut and leave the station via exit 1. Hang a U-turn at the bottom of the stairs and walk east for a short way along Sukhumvit Road, then turn right on to On Nut Road (aka Sukhumvit Soi 77). Cross the road when possible and walk for one kilometre, then take a left into Soi 7. Wat Mahabut is located at the very end of the street, and the shrine is tucked along the canal in the back of the temple grounds.