The Ghost of Phrakanong

Nang Nak Banner
Nang Nak Banner

Mae Nak Phrakanong or Nang Nak, the Ghost of Phrakanong, is the most famous ghost story in Thailand.  However, most Thais don’t consider it just a story, but believe it is tied to real events.  For me, the story of Mae Nak is of particular interest because I grew up in the middle of Phrakanong and witnessed the locals’ fears when unexplained creepy events took place in our neighbourhood.

For those who are unfamiliar with Bangkok, Phrakanong today is a district of that mega-city.  Sukhumvit runs right through it and it is located next door to Khlong Toey and just east of the main expat ghetto.  The events concerning Nang Nak are thought to have occurred in the 1830s and Phrakanong at that time was a small riverside market town situated along the Phrakanong canal.  In those days, it was a lot more isolated from the capital.

The Legend of Nang Nak

The basic legend of Nang Nak concerns a recently married couple, Nak and Mak, who lived in a wooden house alongside Phrakanong canal.  During the Siamese-Vietnamese war (1831 to 1834), Mak is called away to fight.  Mak leaves behind a pregnant Nak.  Unfortunately, while Mak is away in battle, Nak goes into labour alone and due to complications during childbirth both the mother and infant die.  However, due to her extreme love and devotion to her husband, Nak’s ghost remains in the house, waiting for his return.  The locals in Phrakanong discover that Nak has died, but are scared away from her house because they can hear her ghost crying and occasionally see her image along the canal, waiting for her husband.  As a result, the locals are terrified and steer clear of her house (paddling on the other side of the canal if they do have to pass by).

Mae Nak portraits (courtesy of Wikipedia)
Mae Nak portraits (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Mak survives the war and returns home to Nak.  Upon his return, he finds his wife and infant son waiting for him.  At first, he does not realise that his wife is a ghost.  When in Phrakanong market, the locals try to warn him about his wife, but he refuses to believe them.  However, at home he starts noticing strange events and eventually realises the truth that his wife and son are dead.  What happens next has a bit of variation depending on the different versions of the story, but the common event is that a monk is called to exorcise Nak’s ghost and return it to peace.  The monk eventually succeeds and Nak’s ghost is said to be housed in a shrine within the local temple, Wat Mahabut.

Popular Retellings of the Legend

The legend of Nang Nak has been retold many times in various version in Thai film.  In fact, it is one of the most popular stories to be told in Thai cinema (perhaps second only to Thailand’s famous love story, Ku Gam).

The first time this legend was told in film was in about 1984 (I recall seeing it in cinema in Thailand at the time).  Unfortunately, this movie seems to be no longer available and I even struggled to find reference to it on the internet.

In 1999, a film entitled Nang Nak was released, which was the biggest Thai film released that year and which would remain until 2013 as the best version of the Nang Nak legend.  This movie has excellent casting, and tries to be as true as possible to the original story.

Nang Nak (1999)
Nang Nak (1999)

In 2005, British Director Mark Duffield had a go at presenting a modern version of the Nang Nak tale in his film, The Ghost of Mae Nak.  Set in modern day Bangkok, the film follows recently married couple Mak and Nak, who are looking for a new house.  They eventually find an old home along the banks of Phrakanong canal which they obtain for a very low price.  It turns out this was the original house that Nang Nak lived in.  Although it is a big twist on the original Nang Nak tale, this is not a bad movie and recommended for Nang Nak fans.

Ghost of Mae Nak (2005)
Ghost of Mae Nak (2005)

In 2012, Thailand produced a Mae Nak Phrakanong play, that performed during that year.  I never saw it, but from what I heard, I don’t think I really missed anything.

2013 was a real watershed and is perhaps the point where this ghost story finally gained international attention.  The film Pee Mak Phra Khanong was released and this became Thailand’s highest grossing film ever (even beating the likes of Ong Bak).  The story fairly closely follows the version as told in 1999’s Nang Nak (other than the ending), but adds a very strong comical aspect to the film that makes it watchable even by those who are usually too scared to see horror movies.  To date, this is my favourite Thai movie and the actors do an excellent job (they even explain away Mak’s (played by Mario Maurer) half European features by explaining that his father was a missionary).  The actress playing Nang Nak, Davika Hoorne, is absolutely gorgeous.  However, I still maintain that the most faithful retelling of the legend is the 1999 version.

Pee Mak Phra Khanong (2013)
Pee Mak Phra Khanong (2013)

There are other versions of this legend in film as well, but most of those would be very much a B grade production (and most are no longer available).

Mae Nak Shrine

Wat Mahabut, located along Soi 77 off Sukhumvit Road, is where the shrine dedicated to Nang Nak is located.  There is a statue of Nak, together with her son, as well as many paintings of her.  Thais will often go to the shrine to pay respect and pray to her for either an easy childbirth or else to pray for their husbands to avoid military conscription (conscription is done via a lottery system in Thailand).

Mae Nak Shrine (courtesy of Wikipedia)
Mae Nak Shrine (courtesy of Wikipedia)
Mae Nak Shrine (courtesy of Wikipedia)
Mae Nak Shrine (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Did the Events Actually Take Place?

An article dated 10 March 1899 in the Siam Praphet Thai newspaper referred to a Amdaeng Nak, the daughter of a subdistrict chief within Phrakanong.  In the article, it recounts that Amdaeng Nak died while pregnant.  She had an existing son, who was worried that her father would remarry and he would have to share his inheritance with a step-mother.  As a result, he dressed in women’s clothing, threw rocks at passing boats and effectively created the ghost story in order to prevent his father from being able to find a new wife.  Thais are so fearful of ghosts that the father would be too scared to find a new wife, and no local woman would dare to marry a man whose dead wife’s ghost continues to follow him.

Conclusion

Growing up in Phrakanong in the 1980s was an interesting time for me.  There was no internet and the ghost stories were all passed on orally by the locals.  Parents used the Nang Nak story to keep their children in check.  For example, parents used to tell their daughters to make sure they come straight home from school or else Nang Nak would catch them.  It was very effective.  On nights when the moon was full and all of the local dogs would start howling in unison. the locals would all huddle up in fear indoors, believing that Nang Nak was outside walking the streets, looking for her missing husband.

However, in more recent times, thanks to the power of information sharing via the internet, a lot more of the story has been revealed, and it seems that the truth behind the legend has been revealed.  Notwithstanding that, the tale itself, as it has evolved over the years, is quite beautiful yet tragic.  I can certainly understand the attractiveness of the tale in Thailand as it represents another variation of the star-crossed lovers, who even in death, cannot be parted.

Second Update to: Tips That You Didn’t Know for Getting the Most out of Bangkok – Part Two

Thai Police HQ
Thai Police HQ

This is a further update regarding police searches of foreigners in Bangkok.  From my conversations with tourists (and potential tourists) to Bangkok, this seems to be one of the big concerns on tourist minds at the moment that is putting tourists off from visiting Thailand.

Unfortunately, since my last post on the topic (available here: https://petertorjesen.wordpress.com/2015/01/16/update-to-tips-that-you-didnt-know-for-getting-the-most-out-of-bangkok-part-two/), it would seem that the issue hadn’t died now completely.  There were still some reports of stop and searches (although not at the same rate as before).  The pamphlet that I spoke about in my previous post actually became difficult to obtain.  I even heard anecdotally of people going to the Thong Lor police station and asking for a copy and being given a wall of silence (and no pamphlet).

The Police Colonel that was in charge of Thong Lor police station (who did at least take the step of having the pamphlet created) has been moved to a police station in the provinces.  A new Police Colonel has been assigned to Thong Lor police station and he has made a press announcement that Thong Lor police will only be stopping and searching foreigners that are acting suspiciously, for example, if you act startled when you see police.  Given all the stories that Westerners are hearing about Thai police, I would expect many foreigners to flinch or act startled upon seeing a Thai policeman sizing them up.  Anyway, at least the Thai police force are concerned about the impact that all of this negative publicity is having, and it just goes to show the importance that social media can play in enforcing tourists and foreigner’s rights in Thailand.

Incidentally, the law in Thailand has always been that police cannot search any member of the public (whether a foreigner or otherwise) unless the police have a reasonable suspicion that such person has committed a crime.  This is the same rule as in Western countries.  Further, police cannot demand a random urine test in public.  The suspect must be escorted back to the police station for such testing, and if the test is positive, then a doctor needs to carry out a further test to confirm the result.

On the topic of passports, you do not need to carry your passport on you at all times while in Thailand.  Instead, get either your hotel or a local photo/copy shop to make a credit card size copy of your identification page and the page containing your current Thai visa and (if you are in a copy shop) get this laminated.  The cost will be anywhere from free to 200 baht ($6), with most places charging 50 to 100 baht.  Taking photos of your passport with your phone isn’t sufficient.

The police press release can be read here: http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/general/475404/police-curb-searches-on-foreigners

Notwithstanding all the news about this, I still don’t think it is worthy of putting people off their travels.  The police stop and searches, when they occur, are really only a concern for those that are taking or in possession of illegal drugs.  Due to the immense social media pressure, the police have significantly reduced the stop and searches in any event.

Tips That You Didn’t Know for Getting the Most out of Bangkok – Part Four

MBK Shopping Centre
MBK Shopping Centre

This one is for all you shoppers and movie lovers… where to find those hard-to-find movies in Bangkok.

The old days of movies in Bangkok

In the old days, everyone used to just rent pirated video tapes in Bangkok.  It only cost between 10 and 20 baht, you had the movie for a week and they even delivered your order on motorbike.  If you liked the movie, you could then pay the rental place a small extra fee (pretty much the cost of a VHS cassette) to make you a copy.  Of course, TVs were smaller screened back then and so quality wasn’t a huge issue.  In fact, in the 1980s, I can’t think of any places in Bangkok that sold genuine, non-pirated VHS tapes, other than the US commissary.

Pirate movies

From the start of the 2000s, Bangkok became a major destination for pirate dvds and once bluray came out, for pirate bluray discs.  However, at the same time, genuine dvd stores were building up a strong presence as well.  Stores like Mangpong (translated as Scorpion), GMM (Grammy) and Boomerang, who in the 1980s specialised in Thai music (on cassette), started expanding their store line to include genuine dvds and blurays, offering a foreign selection in addition to their Thai line-up.  Interestingly, the cost of many of the movies sold at these stores was (and is) often less than the cost of the pirate movies for sale in the tourist areas.

Interestingly, the unscrupulous conduct of the Thai pirate industry is, in my opinion, the reason for their demise.  The number of times that I purchased movies from a pirate seller, only to discover that the quality was lacking (eg a cam version when the seller promised that it wasn’t) or else part of the movie is unplayable (or sometimes the entire disc is unplayable).  In some tourist areas, Westerners have even been beaten up by pirate sellers when they complain and try and get a refund.  Pirate movie sellers are still around, but I haven’t noticed anywhere near as many as there were several years ago.  The fact that you can download movies fairly easily off the internet is another big reason for the pirates’ demise given that you can kind of vet quality based on comments of other downloaders.

The benefit of genuine movies

However, today we live in the world of high definition movies and high definition home theatres.  I love movies, and even have a dedicated home theatre with cinema quality high definition projector and 100″ screen.  Trying to watch a pirate or downloaded movie on my set-up is truly painful.  Low resolution, compression artifacts, poor sound quality and lack of true surround sound becomes painful to watch.  Even on a good 40 or 50″ home setup, most downloaded or pirated movies are obvious.

As a result, I tend to prefer genuine movies.  For older movies (or Thai movies that aren’t available on bluray) I will put up with DVD (as long as its dual layer).  For newer movies (particularly, action or sci-fi) where I know I want to watch it on a big screen, I will pay extra for bluray.

Many of you will say that, for movies only on DVD, the pirate copy would be fine… however, my experience has been that most pirate copies (even though advertised as being DVD9, ie dual layer) tend to only be single layer (ie 4.5gb instead of 9gb).  This is because dual layer discs cost more to stamp (and avoid “burned” discs because over time the ink de-laminates, particulary towards the end of the movie).

So… where to buy genuine movies in Bangkok?

Okay, I have spent a bit of space venting about my dislike over the movie piracy industry in Thailand… however, they have pissed me off big time over the years.  Anyway, on to the main point of the story… where do you find movies genuine, decent quality, movies in Bangkok?

GMM (Grammy) – GMM is the largest music producing company in Thailand.  Most Thai music that you hear playing around Thailand is signed up to this label (or one of their spin-off specialty labels).  They have a few stores (although fewer than before) scattered around town that sells, in addition to music, dvds and some blurays.  Their movie mix includes an excellent collection of Thai movies (GMM has produced some really good quality Thai movies; although the dvds rarely have English subtitles), as well as a bunch of hollywood films.  In addition, they tend to have a bunch of b-grade Western films… films that you would struggle to find at stores in the West.  Pricing for dvds is often quite low, and keep an eye out on sales.  I once picked up the entire Critters collection, paying only 89 baht per disc.

GMM’s stores are on the decline (probably due to competitors offering bigger ranges), and I can’t find anything online giving full listings of which stores are left.  However, the only store that I have still seen open, is in Siam Paragon (I forgot which floor, but once you find yourself near the upper end hifi stores and electric guitar stores then you are very close).  There is also a store in Central World (level 1).

Boomerang – These guys have branched out all over the place and you will find a Boomerang store located in most major shopping centres.  They sell the same sort of movies as GMM, but they aren’t tied to any particular brand.  They also have a pretty decent bluray collection (including the more popular tv shows on bluray).  However, keep in mind that blurays tend to be imported into Thailand, and therefore tend to be really expensive compared to prices in the West.  I also find the staff at these stores tend to be pretty hip and have a good sense of humour (ie they are movie and music lovers and happy to chat about their favourites).  Most shopping centres that have a Central Department store will usually also have a Boomerang outlet located in the shopping centre (but not in Central Department store and not in Central Chitlom).  This includes Central World (level 4), and Silom Complex.  In addition, the outlets of “The Mall” each have a store, as does Terminal 21 (basement), Emporium and Siam Discovery.

Mangpong Mega Store
Mangpong Mega Store

Mangpong (Scorpion) – This company started out early as a dedicated movie and music retailer in 1989.  Today, I consider them to be the second best movie store in Bangkok.  They have an awesome collection of movies in both DVD and bluray.  In addition, if you like music, then this is the place to go (including for vinyl).  In addition, they have a mega-store along Lard Prao Road (a bit out of the way for most people, as its around Soi 90; after the Raminthra overpass) which is quite trendy and often has special events.  As with Boomerang, Mangpong has a lot of stores around in most popular shopping centres, including most shopping centres that have a Central department store in it (once again, not within the department store section, but in the main shopping centre), as well as: MBK, Central World (level 1), Siam Paragon (lvls 2 and 3),  and Emporium (level 4).

Now the best for last… this is a smaller chain than any of the others, but in my opinion, they really do have the biggest selection of movies (including hard to find movies that tend to be out of distribution in the West)…. drum roll please… the winner is Cap Music.  Notwithstanding their name, they sell movies as well as music (and they even have a decent vinyl collection of music).  They also tend to be the cheapest store on average.  To give you an idea on pricing, I managed to pick up the bluray box collection of The Matrix on sale for 900 baht (individual blurays are typically 1,800 to 800 baht).  Their main location is level 4 of Central World, but they also recently opened up their newest store in The Gateway, Ekamai.

If you still aren’t able to find what you are after, there is one final option that is worth mentioning.  International DVD Empire, also on level 4 of Central World, has hard to find (and new release) DVDs and blurays.  However, pricing at this place is very expensive because everything is imported directly by this store (ie in smaller quantities).

Conclusion

I didn’t make this point earlier, but some of you may have noticed the pattern by now.  If you are shopping for movies in Bangkok, there is one shopping centre that offers the biggest selection, given that it houses GMM, Boomerang, Mangpong, CAP and International DVD Empire, all under one roof… Central World.   This is where I always go when I am on a movie buying spree.  Well, there you have it… another Bangkok secret unveiled.  Happy shopping!

A Ghost in My Room in Colombo

Sri Lanka Lighthouse
Sri Lanka Lighthouse

The Isle of Spice, Sri Lanka, is slowly rebuilding its tourism industry after its decades old war with the Tamil Tigers winds down.  For those that want to see unspoiled nature and culture, before the ravages of mass tourism corrupt all that is pure and beautiful, now would be the time to make that journey.

I had an interesting yet chilling visit to Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city.  For those that aren’t familiar with the geography, Sri Lanka is a large island nation off the coast of India.  It’s population is primarily Buddhist and it has a very rich history, both in terms of its early cultural development, as well as its colonial history with the various Arab and European traders/settlers of the day.  Because of this, Sri Lanka really is one of those rare places left on the planet where you can become immersed in its ancient history and at times feel like you have time traveled back to the colonial days.

Anyway, while I was there, I had the strangest experience.  The first part of my stay was at a guest house in Mount Lavinia (an old beach resort to the south of downtown Colombo).  The guest house was a large old mansion that had once belonged to a very rich Sri Lankan lady.  However, after she passed away, her children turned the large estate into a guest house.  I spent the first night in a front room where I had a noisy air-conditioner and traffic noise.  Fortunately, for the second night, the master bedroom had become vacant, so I switched rooms.

On the second night, I awoke suddenly, with the feeling that there was someone in the room, watching me.  Sure enough, I could see the shape of someone standing in front of the window… it was the shape of a long haired woman and I could see enough detail that it even looked like she was wearing a sari and she was standing by the window, right beside my bed and looking down at me.

I was convinced that she had broken into my room and was intending to rob me.  I therefore very (extremely) slowly and quietly slid along my (king size) bed to the opposite end from where the lady was standing, until I eventually reached the light switch.  When I flicked the switch the shape in front of the window just disappeared!  There was no sign of her.  I looked under the bed, around the furniture, in the bathroom.  I then looked out the window to see if there were any trees or buildings that could have created a shape… nothing.

To this day, I have no rational explanation for what I saw that night.  I didn’t believe in ghosts… and still refuse to.  However, after the event, I told some of my friends and we had a look at some of the photos of the original owner of the house… and, yeah she did fit the profile that I had seen, and I was sleeping in her bed that night… very creepy!

Needless to say, I then made arrangements to change hotels, moving to downtown Sri Lanka.  I stayed in a real classic piece of colonial history known as the Galle Face Hotel.  It’s right on the beach and if you stay in the old wing (stay in the old wing… I recommend it), you get a room with old world creaky timber floors, hand made colonial furniture (including wardrobes, writing desks etc) and charming old lamps and chandeliers.  Fortunately, it does come with some modern day conveniences such as airconditioning and free wifi.  The hotel is also right on the beach.  As one does when staying at a beach-side hotel, I decided to dine along the beach that night… and became salt-encrusted (I was wondering why the outdoor dining area was fairly empty)… the waves crash quite violently against the shore and the off-shore breeze ensures that diners become brine covered.  Don’t wear anything that will rust (like the buttons on my jeans).

For attractions in Colombo… there isn’t a whole lot to see really.  The shopping is nothing to write home about (so I won’t), and most of the city consists of low rise cramped shop-houses and streets congested with insane drivers on three wheel motorcycle taxis and utility trucks (pick-ups).  Near the Galle Face and inland near the lagoon there seems to be a bit of development and there are a bunch of recently constructed high-rise buildings, but these seem quite at odds with the rest of Colombo.

However, if you head slightly inland from the Galle Face towards the old Governers’ Mansion, this is where the best tourist attractions are located.  First off, what I class as the one tourist attraction worth seeing in Colombo (other than the colonial architecture scattered about everywhere) is the National Museum.  This is housed in the old Governors’ Mansion building, and the building itself appears to be largely unchanged, other than the fact that it now houses museum exhibits.  The exhibits are very well presented, and I learned a lot about Sri Lankan history.  My favourite was in the paintings section… check out the thousand year old ancient pornographic paintings.

Behind the main museum is the Natural History Museum (I have always had a thing for Natural History Museums).  This one was a bit dusty and had very few visitors.  Most of the exhibits felt like they had been there since the 1960s to 1970s, but that in itself made the visit worthwhile, as I felt almost like I was in an Indiana Jones movie, and I half expected to be chased by Nazi treasure hunters.

Finally, next door to the Natural History Museum is Viharamadevi Park (this was originally known as “Victoria Park” during the English colonial rule and was where all the colonials would take their strolls in the evening).  One guidebook claims this is Colombo’s version of New York’s Central Park, but in reality it is probably more akin to a smaller version of Bangkok’s Lumphini Park.  There is a tiny lake (or perhaps pond is the proper term) where paddle boats can be rented.  There are also a few religious statues and features.  The thing that had me stumped is the old railway tracks that have been retained, travelling through part of the park… where’s the rest of the railway?  For those that love Indiana Jones movies, the park has plenty of large bats hanging upside down off the larger trees… and for some reason keeps reminding me of the Temple of Doom.

Sadly, I took a heap of photos and cannot locate where I have saved them.  Therefore for the time being, this article will be photo free (other than the stock photo I added at the start).  If I do find my photos, I will update this article accordingly.

To sum up, Colombo was an interesting place to visit.  Notwithstanding that it is the main tourist dropping off point in Sri Lanka, there aren’t a lot of touristy things to do in Colombo itself.  This does make sense to me, given the real charm of Sri Lanka lies in the tropical beaches and the ancient temple ruins that are all located away from the capital.  However, the two great things that the capital does offer is its lack of mass tourism and its retention of colonial buildings/history/timelessness.  I highly recommend this place.