Wat Mahabut, an enormous temple in Bangkok has, at its heart, a captivating ghost story and, between its colorful displays, is a shrine dedicated to a legendary dead bride.
According to the Thailand’s most famous ghost love story, Mae Nak Phra Khanong was a beautiful woman with a deep, undying love for her husband Mak, who was sent to war while she was pregnant, not knowing he would never see his love again.
At least, while she was still alive.
While Mae Nak was pregnant, Mak was conscripted into the Thai Army and sent to war where he was seriously wounded. In some versions of the story it is the Kengtung Wars, or Burmese–Siamese War of 1849–1855, while others are not specific.
Either way, while he was being nursed back to health in central Bangkok, Mae Nak and their child both died during childbirth. But when Mak returned home, he found his loving wife and child waiting for him. Neighbors warned him that he was living with a ghost but he rebuffed them.
One day, as Mae Nak was preparing nam phrik, a type of Thai spicy chili sauce, she dropped a lime off the porch. In her haste to retrieve it, she stretched her arm to an impossible length pick it up from the ground below. Upon seeing this, Mak realized his wife was a ghost. That night, he sneaked out the house and fled with Mae Nak in pursuit.
He ran into Wat Mahabut temple, which as holy ground, a ghost cannot enter.
In her grief, Mae Nak terrorized the people of Phra Khanong, furious at them for causing Mak to leave her. However, a powerful exorcist captured Mae Nak’s ghost and, after confining her in an earthen jar, threw it into the Phra Khanong canal.
There are regional versions about the rest of the story. In one, an old couple new to Phra Khanong find the jar while fishing while, in another, two fishermen dredge up the jar. But, in both cases, Mea Nak is freed when the jar is opened.
In other alternative versions, a venerable monk named Somdet Phra Phutthachan (To Phrommarangsi) defeats Mae Nak binding her spirit to his waistband, and legend says the waistband is currently in the possession of the Thai royal family.
In another, the monk assured Mae Nak that in a future life she would be reunited with her beloved husband, so she voluntarily departed for the afterlife.
Today a shrine within the temple honors this storied ghost bride and her tragic tale.
People seeking refuge from the bustle of Bangkok’s streets come to leave offerings at the shrine, as well as to release fish and turtles into the river.
Devotees often make offerings to the statue of Mae Nak and her infant, accompanied by a request for help, generally by women seeking easy childbirth or for their husband to be exempted from military conscription.
Offerings are usually lengths of colored cloth, wrapped around the trunk of the tree, while others include fruit, lotuses, and incense sticks.
Toys for her child and portraits of the ghost are displayed in the shrine’s inner sanctum.
Offerings are also made at Phra Khanong Canal, where fish purchased live at markets are brought in buckets to the edge of the canal and freed.
Stalls at the shrine sell toys, fish, lotus buds, incense sticks, and garlands for those who wish to make an offering.
Either way, the story of Mae Nak has a special place in Thai society. The ghost has been immortalized through story-telling, folk songs, and art, and many people still believe in the authenticity of the legend, which is why worshippers still flock to the shrine at Mahabut temple.
Mae Nak is also mentioned in the epic poem Khun Chang Khun Phaen where is it implied that Mae Nak’s foetus is used for black magic. The sorcerer obtained a foetus for the ritual and it was revealed that it was a boy from Mae Nak’s womb.
We may never know whether the tale is based on a true story or not, but one thing is certain: nothing will ever stop the fondness Thais have for this story.
Images from web – Google Research