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Thais try to lay to rest troubled spirits of tsunami victims

Patrick Barkham, The Guardian, January 17, 2005

Khao Lak, Thailand -- Thousands of Thais will take part in a week of formal Buddhist and Chinese rituals beginning tomorrow to lay to rest the "wandering spirits" of the tsunami victims.

In a deeply spiritual country many survivors have become increasingly concerned about the presence of angry spirits. The survivors cite traditional Buddhist teaching, which says that the spirits of those who suffer a sudden, violent death often roam the land until they are calmed and blessed.

Ceremonies will take place in Phuket and Phang Nga and small groups of Buddhist monks are also touring beaches, particularly the razed resorts at Khao Lak, where they turn to the ocean and lay to rest the spirits that are still out at sea.

In nearby Krabi City monks have sought to ward off stray spirits by encircling the entire settlement with a holy thread.

By day the shores of southern Thailand are a hive of industry: churned up mud is levelled, splintered steel is hauled away, fallen trees are burned and mangled motorbikes are carefully collected on the roadside.

By night people sit, reflecting on the disaster that befell them and telling tales of the tsunami and what they have seen since.

Many are straightforward ghost stories, often derived from the Buddhist belief in the wandering spirits.

One night last week a taxi driver in Patong Beach was said to have been hailed by four western tourists, who asked him to take them to the airport. He chatted as he drove, grateful to have a rare tourist fare. When he pulled up and turned round to let them out there was no one in his cab. His story was taken seriously and reported in a local newspaper.

It is no accident that the main morgue at Wat Yanyao is based inside a Buddhist temple. Many Thais are deeply troubled by the presence of so many unidentified bodies. They believe it is not just survivors and pathologists who want to identify the corpses but that the wandering spirits, too, are seeking their bodies from the 4,000 stacked anonymously in grey refrigerated containers inside the temple grounds.

No ordinary Thais pray at the temple at Yanyao while it remains a morgue, but there has been a surge in the number of people visiting other temples to make offerings.

Among the volunteers helping identify bodies and comfort the homeless are Roman Catholic priests and evangelical Christians.

One young missionary from Cumbria said he was not surprised at the talk of spirits or the increased attendances at the temples.

"When your life is taken apart, when your home is destroyed, your family lost to such devastation, what do you have left?" he said.

Jureeporn Khongkhem, 24, sells chilled juice to local people who stop by a lagoon to watch it be drained. The tsunami carried cars full of families into the lake and there are still bodies to be found.

She is not worried in the day, sitting in a blue plastic chair by the lagoon, but she would not come here at night.

"Two people died from the tsunami in my house," she said. "When I sleep now the door opens by itself. I get up and close the door and when I wake it is open again. Some nights it looks like people carry chairs about in my room."

When Mrs Khongkhem gets scared and can't sleep at night she calls her neighbour round.

"My friend had dreams asking her to go to a place to find the bodies because they haven't been collected yet," she said. "That's the spirits speaking."


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