Mystical Thailand: Kuman Thong, or Ghost Babies

Beneath Thai Buddhist society, a strong undercurrent of superstition and black magic exists. Mysterious and taboo, these influences require research to be fully understood. Case in point is the phenomenon of Luk Thep. At face-value it comes across as adults infatuated with dolls, but deeper down it traces back to the dark history of child ghosts and occult ceremonies. Let’s dig into these subjects, shall we? Along the way we’ll discover the reason for the popularity of red Fanta in the vicinity of shrines.

Around 2015 the hype of the Luk Thep (‘Child Angels’) emerged, seemingly disappearing two years later. Adults were spotted walking around Bangkok with baby dolls, convinced that they carried an infant spirit. Raising them as their own child, they believed that their worship would bring wealth and good luck. Often brushed off as another variation along the lines of of Furbies and Tamagochies, their origin is related to the practice of Kuman Thong. Dating back centuries, their history isn’t Buddhist, but Animist.

Luk Thep

Luk Thep dolls

The history of Kuman Thong started over 600 years ago in the Ayautthaya period and originated in the practice of necromancy, communicating with the dead in order to predict the future. ‘Magic Golden Boy’ effigies were traditionally made with the bodies of babies that died in the womb. The fetus was surgically removed from the mother’s abdomen and taken to a cemetery. In a nightly ritual performed by animist sorcerers, the remains were roasted until all fluids and fat were removed, leaving a dry corpse.

Kuman Thong

Recreation of a Kuman Thong

In the original ceremony, the fetus was soaked in Nam Man Phrai, an oil extracted by burning a candle close to the skin of a woman who died during pregnancy, a deceased child or a person who died an unnatural death. It is said to be a powerful substance and is used in all sorts of folk magic. The genuine substance is obviously illegal in modern-day Thailand.

Nam Man Phrai

Vial of Nam Man Phrai

Once completed the effigy was painted with Ya Lak (a kind of lacquer that is used to protect amulets) and covered with gold leaf. Kuman is Pali for ‘sanctified young boy’ and thong means ‘golden’. In the case of a female spirit, the effigy is called Hong Phrai.

Kuman Thong are believed to bring luck and fortune to its owner, if properly revered.

The occult tradition of Kuman Thong was spread by 19th century poet Sunthon Phu’s tale ‘Khun Chang, Khun Phaen’, a story that had been orally transmitted for centuries and is as complicated as a Thai soap opera. I’ll try to give the relevant summary, for this context. A more detailed depiction can be read here.

Khun Chang Khun Phaen

Cover of ‘Khun Chang, Khun Phaen’

In the tale, Khun Phaen, handsome but poor, and Khun Chang, ugly but wealthy, compete for the love of beautiful Nang Phim Phalalai for over 5 decades. At some point in the story, Khun Paen resorts to dark sorcery to get the upper hand in the love triangle. When his mistress gets pregnant, he cuts his own baby out of her womb and performs a ceremony to create a guardian spirit. Other versions of the story are set around the rivalry between son-in-law and father-in-law, but in both cases the practice of Kuman Thong is introduced into literature.

With the original practice prohibited in modern day Thailand, new ways of producing Kuman Thong have emerged, using clay from 7 cemeteries and special kinds of wood and metal. Nevertheless, reported cases exist of people buying fetal corpses from illegal abortion clinics and from time to time original effigies, historically made using authentic methods, surface in the amulet market.

The most innocuous modern variation of the Kuman Thong are small wooden statues of a boy with his hair in a topknot, sitting with his hands in prayer, for sale at temples.

Kuman Thong statue

Taking a Kuman Thong home and setting up a little shrine is similar to adopting a new child. The effigy should be taken care of like one’s own child and should be offered food, drinks and toys on a regular basis. For drinks, they like Nam Daeng (‘red water’) exclusively, which is a kind of sweetened beverage made with bright red artificial coloring and flavoring from snake fruit. Red Fanta is acceptable as a subsititute. All Thai gods and spirits seem to enjoy this sweet beverage. One could speculate that it acts as a substitute for animist blood offerings of the distant past.

Just like a real child, Kuman Thong needs attention. His presence needs to be acknowledged regularly and he likes being played with. In return, he brings good luck and fortune.

If not treated well, the situation turns into a curse. Even when the Kuman Thong is happy there can be unintended side-effects. People who keep one are often reported to have strange things happen, such as hearing phantom sounds of a child’s laughter or little footsteps running around. Other poltergeist activity can occur such as doors seemingly opening or closing on their own and objects moving around.

One just can’t simply get rid of a Kuman Thong once you’ve already had it. Instead you are supposed to take an unwanted Kuman to a temple, where a ritual can be performed to release you from the burden of caring for a ghost.

Luk Thep can be seen as a recent incarnation of the Kuman Thong. As with a lot of Thai phenomena one needs to know the backstory and history to fully understand them. What Luk Thep and Kuman Thong are concerned, Glitterati Blog readers are now up to speed.

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