11 July 2024

A new exhibition shines the spotlight on ASEANs best-known spirits

Sensational street food, warm hospitality, exotic cultures and beautiful nature are not all that countries in Southeast Asia have to offer. Walking along the street and embracing the vibe of the cities, you may find something that will pique your curiosityand, in some cases, even make your hair stand on end.  

In Southeast Asia, you will frequently see people praying to spirit houses or shrines to the gods. During some traditional holidays, you will probably witness elaborate processions complete with non-stop fire-crackers to ward off evil spirits. Passing some three-way intersections, you will often notice small portions of food offerings spread on the ground for the wandering ghosts to feast upon. In ASEAN, supernatural practices and ghost worship mingle seamlessly with the mundane routines of daily life.

Krasue – which manifests as a woman’s head with her internal organs hanging down from her neck – is known by many names across Southeast Asia.

To explore the roots of the supernatural and shared beliefs, Thailands Culture Ministry is staging ASEAN after Dark: Tales of Spirits and Supernatural of ASEAN at the ASEAN Cultural Centre on the 3rd floor of Ratchadamnoen Contemporary Art Centre in Bangkok. The exhibition, which continues through December 30, showcases models and stories of the gruesome ghosts and ghouls who haunt Southeast Asia.  

Throughout the world, belief in the supernatural and the existence of an afterlife can be traced to animism and ancestor worship in pre-historic cultures. Different cultures around the globe often use ghosts to help explain complicated ideas, including the oft-asked question, “Where do we go after death?With no scientific knowledge, people in ancient times dreamt up ghosts to explain natural phenomena. Lightening, rain, thunder, earthquake and so on are the acts of the spirits, says Professor Emeritus Surapone Virulrak, PhD, who provided information for the exhibition.  

A gruesome ghost howls and screeches in the haunted house.

Ghosts are believed to be paranormal entities that can bring positive or negative things to humans. In ancient times, people prayed to spirits for protection and in return, they would follow some customs and rituals to avoid the wrath of the supernatural and the ghosts.  

Influenced by the regions rich history, diverse cultures, customs, traditions, and religious beliefs, the people of ASEAN have blended their local animism and ancestor worship with more modern traditions and folklore.

Khanom Tom (Thai coconut balls) have been traditionally used as an offering to deities and spirits since the Sukhothai era (1238-1438).

We came up with the concept of Heaven, Patala (the underground realms of the universe located under the earth), and Hell to distinguish between the benevolent ghosts or deities and the evil ghosts. In the old days, Thais used the word Phi or ghost to represent all supernatural beings like deities, fairies and spirits. Good ghosts include Phi Fah and Phi Tan. Generally, good ghosts live above the humans realm while those stay below us are bad ghosts, says Surapone.  

In the exhibition, visitors can explore the realm of the dead and dig down to the roots of some cultural artefacts, foods, rituals and traditional dance related to ghost worship. Workshops like one showing how to make the Tung (Isaan Spider Web flag used to ward off evil) are available and visitors can also enjoy tasting Khanom Tom (Thai coconut balls), which have been used as offerings to deities and spirits since the Sukhothai era.

Pocong, the ghost from Indonesia, was used to scare people and keep them in the house during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.

All ASEAN countries have their indigenous ghost worshipping rituals which later blended with religion rituals and foreign cultures. We pray and offer foods and drinks at the Brahmin shrine and spirit house and ask for protection. During the Chinese Festival of the Dead or Qing Ming, Chinese descendants in ASEAN pay homage to their ancestors. In the Hungry Ghost Festival, we pay homage to deceased family members and offer tribute to other unknown wandering ghosts so they will not bring misfortune to our family, adds Dr. Surat Jongda, Assistant President of Dramatic Arts (Bunditpatanasilpa) Institute.  

ASEAN countries not only share customs and rituals but also tales about vengeful ghosts. In Thai folklore, Krasue, a nocturnal spirit that manifests as a head with her internal organ trailing down from her neck, feasts on blood and waste. The floating monster is one of the scariest demons for pregnant women since she feasts on their blood and that of their newborns. This same female ghost is known as Chee Sar Sone in Burmese, Aswang and Manananggal in Tagalog, Ahp in Khmer, Palasik in Indonesian, Penanggalan in Malay and Malai in Vietnamese.

Feasting on blood, the Manananggal from the Philippines can sever its upper torso and sprout wings to fly.

Other notable examples are the beautiful Nang Tani, a Thai female ghost residing in the Tani Banana tree, and the hungry spirits with bulging stomachs and inhumanly small mouths called Preta known as Pret in Thai.  

Appearing during the full moon, Nang Tani is noted for her benevolent nature but is vicious towards males who abuse or wrong women. Her tales have been passed down from generation to generation in Laos, Cambodia, and Singapore. Preta, the forever hungry spirits, were believed to be corrupt, deceitful, jealous or greedy in their previous lives. The stories of Preta have circulated in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam for centuries. Similar tales of the hungry spirits can also be found in India, China and Japan.  

The highlight of the exhibition is the haunted house. Visitors with nerves of steel walk along the dark and eerie passageway where the famous ghosts of ASEAN are lurking. Expect your adrenaline to surge as you meet banana tree fairy Nang Tani, Pocong, a spirit trapped in a shroud, and blood-thirsty Penanggalan.

But why do these gruesome ghosts feel the need to hauntus?  

Most of the hideous fierce ghosts suffered sudden or violent deaths or didnt get a proper funeral. Some were involved in unsolved murders, forced suicides or preventable tragedies. They haunt to seek justice for their violent deaths,says Surapone.    

These scary ghosts are also great sources of creativity and opportunity. In the past, various traditional dances were created to please the ghosts and the ancestor spirits. Some used ghosts to teach people not to do bad things. These days, many blockbuster movies are based on ghostly tales like the comedy Phee Mak Prakanong. The top rated period drama series Love Destiny(Bupphesanniwat) was about a spirit that travelled through time.

Humans have been using ghosts since ancient times. Ghosts can create careers, bring fortune and also make us succumb to temptation. They can be both beneficial and harmful, so it is up to us to know how to use it for a good cause. If you use them wisely, they will surely benefit you both morally and financially.

The “ASEAN after Dark: Tales of Spirits and Supernatural of ASEAN” exhibition runs through December 30.


ASEAN after Dark: Tales of Spirits and Supernatural of ASEAN exhibition runs from now until December 30 at ASEAN Cultural Centre on the 3rd floor of Ratchadamnoen Contemporary Art Center. Its open daily except Monday from 10am to 5pm. Admission is free. The gallery is on Ratchadamnoen Klang Road, Bangkok and paid parking is available. You can also take the MRT Blue Line to Sam Yot Station. The gallery is a 20-minute walk along the Mahachai Road or around five minutes on a public bus.

Photos by Chusri Ngamprasert