Living Among Bangkok’s Ghosts: The Legend Of Mae Nak Phra Khanong

As a child I was petrified of ghosts.

There, I said it.

I’d feed this fear by reading real life ghost accounts, haunted house stories, books with grainy photographs borrowed from the non-fiction section of the local library. Through my adolescent and formative years this fear was gradually laid to rest. I grew out of ghosts, shadows of the dead exorcised from my urbane sheltered life, spooks no longer hid under the bed; specters no more.

Until, that was, I came to Thailand.

Here, ghosts are everywhere.

There’s ghosts in the toilet, spooks in the garden, apparitions in the kitchen sink.

There’s even some kind of spirit in the glove compartment of my Nissan.

Ghosts are in every house; some good, some bad. These ghosts are hungry and thirsty, especially for Strawberry Fanta and mango sticky rice. In Thailand, there are more ghosts than you can shake a proverbial selfie-stick at and they’re not going to disappear if you close your eyes, poke your fingers in your ears, and merrily hum the Ghostbusters theme tune.

There are bodiless ghosts, headless ghosts, ghosts that suck your blood and ghosts that make you money. You can even buy a seat on an international flight for your ghost doll. Trees have ghosts, pets have ghosts, and, best of all, some of the ghosts even have shrines.

The legendary Mae Nak Phra Khanong, for instance, has set up shop in Bangkok near BTS Phra Khanong.

mae nak phra khanong shrine

The Mae Nak Phra Khanong Shrine via Youtube/Guido Vanhaleweyk

The Mae Nak Phra Khanong ghost story is probably Thailand’s favorite, or at least best known, piece of folklore. It’s inspired countless films – the first in 1959 and the most notable a 2013 comedy (Pee Mak) that took‎ ฿1 billion at the box office.

The shrine itself is a popular stop-off for locals wanting to make merit with the vast supernatural world that surrounds us in our ultra-modern metropolis. They ask the spirit for a smooth childbirth, and pray that loved ones not be called into military service and posted down south.

By all means, pay a visit – but first, here’s the backstory.

Hope you’re sitting comfortably…

Some time around the late 1800s or early 1900s, there lived a young woman named Nak who was besotted with her husband, Mak, and expecting their first child together. Mak was sent away to war, as men during that age often were, and Nak was left to give birth to their child without him. Unfortunately, the birth was traumatic and both mother and child died, unbeknownst to Mak away at war.

Upon his return, none the wiser, he found both mother and child seemingly well, however. They lived together for some time and Mak was as happy as could be – until he started hearing stories in the market and around the village. Stories that both his wife and child were, in fact, dead and that he was either living alone, or with a bunch of ghosts.

Needless to say, Mak freaked and ran through the streets with arms waving akimbo.

He fled to the nearest temple, lit a few joss sticks and waited it out while the Ghostbusters of the day (Buddhist exorcists) did the job. Sure enough, one particularly nimble exorcist captured Mae Nak’s spirit, shoved it in a bottle and tossed it in the canal, where it no doubt still rests today among the rubble and the hardy fish.

Phra Khanong fifty years ago was mostly rice fields, and looking back another fifty years to Nak’s day, it would have been completely rural; buffaloes grazing, cattle egrets pecking through the irrigation pools, and you guessed it – ghosts in every home.

I wonder if that bottle’s still down there?

Or if there is any truth to the story?

We should take into account another report that says the ghost story was made up just to dissuade Mak from remarrying.

It’s a great story either way.

Whatever the truth, the shrine is an interesting attraction in Bangkok. This is a new city with ancient animist beliefs living among the high-tech skyscrapers and shopping malls. You’re never far away from both the ultra-modern and the sacred-ancient, and this is what makes the city so fascinating.

Almost every local you meet has at least one ghost story and only a few are prepared to admit they are non-believers. In a society that hinges on karma and rebirth, superstition is rife. And why not?

We live in a city of ghost enthusiasts; what could be more fun than that?

The Mae Nak Phra Khanong shrine, for those interested in Sukhumvit’s most famous ghost story, can be visited within the grounds of the temple near Phra Khanong BTS station.


Featured image is a still from Pee Mak (2013) via Digitista



About Author

A writer of several stories and film scripts, James is currently experiencing a midlife crisis and producing an acid folk concept album to prove it. He's also the author of crime noir book Fun City Punch. Read his blog and follow him on Twitter.

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