Mystical Thailand: the ghostly legend of Mae Nak

Increasingly modern as Thailand may become, it will always remain a mystical country. Buddhist beliefs are intermingled with legends about magic, ghosts and local folklore. In this series of posts I will try to open the door to these stories. The legend of Mae Nak Phra Khanong may be the most famous Bangkok ghost story. In this urban metropolis, people still fear ghosts. No wonder, as many sites of these ghost stories can still be visited today. Just like a key location in this legend.

The story starts in the late 19th century, during the reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV). Back then, Bangkok was still called ‘The Venice of the East’, because of its many canals. On the banks of one of these canals, called Phra Khanong, a beautiful lady and her loving husband lived in a traditional house.

Mae Nak and Pee Mak were an ordinary couple who could not believe their luck when Nak turned out to be pregnant. Their luck was short-lived as Mak was drafted to go to war. Accounts of which war this was, differ.

Pee Mak was injured in battle and had to be nursed to health in central Bangkok. While he was in the hospital, Mae Nak went into labor. Both mother and child passed away, during delivery.

When Pee Mak was finally strong enough to travel, he returned home to find his loving wife and new baby waiting for him. Neighbors who tried to warn unsuspecting Mak that they were both ghosts, died a mysterious death.

The couple resumed their daily life until one day when Mae Nak was preparing Nam Phrik (spicy sauce), out on the porch of their elevated house. In her haste to retrieve it, Nak stretched her arm beyond the reach of a living person. Mak saw and got frightened. He had to find a away to get out of there without alarming Nak.

The next night he went out to go to the bathroom and ran off. Soon, Peek Mak realized that Mae Nak was following him and hid behind a Nat bush. According to folklore, ghosts fear this bush and Mak succeeded to throw Mae Nak off his trail. Pee Mak ran to the local temple, Wat Mahabut, to take shelter. Ghosts cannot enter holy ground.

Struck with grief, Mae Nak started to terrorize the people of the Phra Khanong neighborhood. A powerful exorcist was called in to capture her ghost. He locked her in a jar and threw her in the canal.

Later, either an old couple or fishermen dredged up her jar and opened it, releasing Mae Nak’s ghost once again. This second time, she was conquered by Somdet Toh, one of the most famous monks of the period. He was said to have had magical powers. His amulets, images and statues are some of the most sought after in Bangkok, to this day. He trapped her spirit in the bone of her forehead and bound it inside his waistband. The waistband is said to still be in the possession of the Royal Family.

Mae Nak’s remains are supposedly burried at the Wat Mahabut. The temple still exists to this day, hosting a shrine to Mae Nak and her child. Women use it make offerings to ask for their husbands to be exempt from military service, or for easy child birth.

To visit Wat Mahabut, go to BTS (Skytrain) station on the Sukhumvit Line. Follow Sukhumvit Soi 77 for about 900 meters. The temple is down Soi 7. The route is indicated on this map.



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