- Religion and Philosophy
Mae Nak - A Thai Ghost Story
The Enduring Story of Mae Nak Phra Khanong
The story of Mae Nak Phra Khanong, sometimes referred to as just Mae Nak or Nang Nak (both equivalent to 'Miss Nak'), who lived in the Phra Khanong district of Bangkok, is a well known Thai ghost story.
Other than assuming the story to be true, its origins are largely obscured by its popularity. It has been the subject of a number of movies, an animated feature, TV shows and live performances, including opera and musical. One of the earliest of all these is a 1920s folk performance (lam-tat) of 'Ee Nak Phra Khanong', which would at least date the telling of the story from, or prior to, that period.
A True Ghost Story
Among Thai people, it is generally accepted that the story of Mae Nak is actually true, or at least based on real events. This may just be due to its prevalence in popular culture and the normality of superstitious belief in Thailand. But, true or not, the tale of Mae Nak lends itself to being told, as it contains many of the basics of a classic tragic love story.
The majority of accounts describe the events of the story as happening during the reign of King Rama IV (1851 - 1868). There are some versions of the story which set it at least one hundred years earlier, during the time of the Ayutthaya Kingdom (which lasted from 1351 - 1767), but for reasons given below the mid-nineteenth century would seem to be the correct period.
The Story of Nang Nak
Mae Nak (Nang Nak) is a beautiful young woman who lives with her husband Tid Mak in Phra Khanong, not far from Wat Mahabut (Mahabut temple). With Nak pregnant, Mak is called off to war. In some versions of the story the war is against the Shan tribe, while others are not specific or simply refer to the north of Thailand. Tragically, before his return both Nak and the baby die during childbirth and their bodies are buried.
Tid Mak makes it back to Phra Khanong some time later. Some versions of the story relate that he spent time recovering from injuries in central Bangkok, while others again are not specific, presumably implying that he has come straight from the battlefield. In either case, his return seems to be unexpected by villagers, who are unable to forewarn him of what has happened. Upon reaching his house, Mak is greeted by the ghosts of his loving wife Nak and their new child and, unaware that they are not 'real', his life continues as it was before. Neighbors who subsequently try to tell Mak of the death of his wife and child, and that he is living with ghosts, are met with disbelief - also incurring the wrath of Nak who ensures they meet with grisly ends.
One day, whilst preparing food, Nak drops a lime which falls through the floorboards to the ground. In some versions of the story, it is a knife or spoon dropped by Mak as the result of a cool breeze making him shiver (traditional Thai houses are single storey elevated wooden buildings). Fruit or cutlery, all versions of the story agree that in her haste Nak extends, to some length, a ghostly arm downwards to retrieve the item. This is witnessed by Mak who, realizing the truth, is then filled with terror as he runs from the house. Nak pursues - her only desire to be with her husband. Mak however, manages to take refuge in Wat Mahabut, where she cannot enter. Enraged by grief and despair, the ghost of Mae Nak terrorizes the people of Phra Khanong. Eventually, a monk succeeds in confining Mae Nak's ghost within an earthen pot. This pot is then thrown into the nearby canal.
Some versions of the story tell that the monk's success occurs only after a series of failed attempts by the villagers to rid themselves of the ghost, using a variety of other religious and magical means.
At this point there are several endings to the ghostly goings-on. One has it that two fisherman, who may or may not have been new residents to Phra Khanong and therefore unaware of its history, catch the pot in their net. Curious to find out what's inside, they unwittingly free Mae Nak to terrorize the people of Phra Khanong again, including Mak's new girlfriend. Mae Nak is suppressed once and for all by the venerable monk Somdet Phra Phutthachan (To Phrommarangsi), or in some versions a gifted novice, who binds a piece of her exhumed skull within his waistband. Alternatively, the monk is said to foretell that in a future life Mae Nak will be reunited with her husband, at which her ghost voluntarily leaves this world for the afterlife. Some other versions of the story do not include the fisherman part at all, and just end with either of the interventions of the monk.
At the end of the story Mak becomes a monk himself, or starts a new family and lives happily ever after. However, this otherworldly story of a grief-stricken spirit is not quite over. Numerous accounts of Mae Nak's reappearances have been widespread and continue to the present day.
'Nang Nak' Movie Trailer
Movie Versions of the Nang Nak Story
"The cinematography is astounding and the portrayal of magical realism, ancient Thai culture, and beauty is equally noteworthy."
The ghost of Mae Nak lives on in this tale of a haunting in Bangkok.
The History Behind the Story
The story of Mae Nak Phra Khanong has such inspirational and timeless qualities, that it is difficult to trace its origins or follow its evolution from the 'real' events. What is described could just as easily have happened yesterday as 150 years ago. Though it's certainly not a run-of-the-mill story, as there are some interesting elements that make it stand out.
One of these is the ghosts, which appear to be able to take on a solid form, as they must interact physically with Tid Mak in order for him not to notice that there is anything wrong. Some versions of the story actually include Mak's unease when touching their unusually cool and thin bodies. In some accounts this is explained as Mak being cast under a ghostly spell. But, Mae Nak is also interacting with the world around her - she does household chores and cooks, as she is doing when the truth is discovered.
The story says little about the ghost of the baby (a boy), other than a few versions which describe him leaping to the beams of the house in a display of otherworldly prowess - akin to Nak's ability to stretch her arm. The main protagonist in the subsequent harassment of villagers is generally Mae Nak alone.
The setting of the story in Bangkok's Phra Khanong district coincides with the mention of Wat Mahabut, where Mak takes refuge from the ghost. Wat Mahabut, built around 1762, is a popular tourist attraction, primarily due to a shrine dedicated to Mae Nak which is to be found nearby. The temple and shrine are currently located in Suan Luang district which neighbours Phra Khanong, where they were both originally situated until a boundary change in 1997. Much to the consternation of the people of Phra Khanong, they continue to petition local government to have the boundary moved back.
As mentioned, some versions of the story have the events occurring towards the end of the Ayutthaya period. From our knowledge of when Wat Mahabut was built, this would be at the limits of consistency. Coupled with those versions of the story that include the venerable monk Somdet Phra Phutthachan (1776 - 1872), it would therefore seem more likely that the original setting for the story is the mid-nineteenth century.
From the venerable monk himself there may be an interesting relic of the events, if true. This is the waistband within which the bone from Mae Nak's skull was bound. Legend has it that over time this waistband has passed through the hands of various persons and that it is currently in the possession of royalty. Though it is highly likely that the belongings of such an esteemed monk would be kept, given the alleged circumstances it would probably not be possible to verify this provocative aside.
All versions of the story state that Tid Mak leaves Mae Nak to go to war. If described, it is usually said that the war is in the north of Thailand, sometimes against the Shan. Geographically, Shan state is found in Burma (Myanmar), bordering China to the north, Laos to the east and Thailand to the south. The state gets its name from the Shan people, one of several ethnic groups that inhabit the area. In 1849, there were upheavals in the Shan township of Kengtung and the Kingdom of Chiang Hung (Jinghong) in southern China, as a result of weakened Burmese influence and an ongoing dynastic struggle. With the two states subsequently fighting each other, Chiang Hung sought Siamese support. King Rama IV sent troops northwards, invading Kengtung in 1852, but unable to reach Chiang Hung. In 1855, another attempt was made, but this also ended in failure.
In terms of the story of Mae Nak, this all fits rather well. It also gives us precise dates for when the events would have happened. As for confirming the existence of a real Mae Nak and Tid Mak, this evidence is yet to be found. What is true however, is the belief that love transcends this earthly realm and that in her longing to be with her husband, Mae Nak's persistence is mirrored by that of the story itself.
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