Monday, June 21, 2010

Ghost Story

Timothy Hallinan is back, this time with a true-life ghost story from Thailand, where he lives six months every year.

Tim has written ten mysteries and thrillers under his own name and several others in disguise. His current series, set in Bangkok, features American "rough travel" writer Philip "Poke" Rafferty, who lives in Bangkok with his hand-assembled family: his Thai wife, Rose, a former Patpong bar dancer, and their adopted daughter, Miaow, who was eight years old and living on the sidewalk when she met Poke.

The first three Rafferty books, which have made Ten Best lists everywhere, are A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART, THE FOURTH WATCHER, and BREATHING WATER.

The fourth, THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, will be published in August by William Morrow and is available now for pre-sale on

Tim’s ghost story and explanation had me Googling “spiritual vortex,” which turns out to be a very complicated subject. When I asked Tim about spiritual vortices in Bali and Thailand, here’s what he said:

“The original title of A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART was HUNGRY GHOSTS, referring to the most fearsome of all Thai ghosts, women who have died in childbirth.

"You asked me why Thailand and Bali were spiritual vortices. That's a very good question. These places seem to arise everywhere -- Stonehenge and Angkor are two internationally known examples. But some societies, such as the Thai and the Balinese, share a single religion -- until recently 99% of Thais were Therevada Buddhists, and the same for the animist Hindu beliefs cooked up on Bali. And they not only believed the same thing together, but they believed it fervently.

"Every village has its temples, usually two or more. Every Thai male enters the priesthood at some time in his life. Balinese propitiate the gods with scattered offerings several times a day. 

Maybe, after a while the landscape becomes saturated with belief. In both places, unusual trees and stones are wrapped in monk's robes and offerings of flowers and food and whiskey are made regularly.

"I just think those worlds are saturated with belief and more open to manifestations than spiritually dryer locales.”

And here’s Tim’s ghost story.
Unlike most ghost stories, this one is absolutely true. I know because it happened to me. But first, some background.

Thai people, whether they're relatively uneducated villagers or sophisticated city-dwellers, take ghosts seriously. Most Thai people believe in a whole pantheon of ghosts, ranging from benign to horrific. I personally know four Thais who woke one night to see someone in their family -- someone who lived a considerable distance away -- standing in their room, usually at the end of the bed. Without exception, they learned the next day that the person they had seen -- a grandmother, an uncle, a mother -- had died. This is accepted. The spirit came to say farewell.

Other ghosts are not so harmless. There are many kinds of malign spirits, and they tend to take up residence where lives have ended badly.

From the beginning of construction on the new Bangkok airport (set on a piece of land that used to be called "cobra swamp") workers complained that there were ghosts everywhere. Many workers resigned rather than have to mingle with the dead. And when the airport opened and the computerized baggage retrieval system broke down, the malfunction was briefly blamed on ghosts. And I mean officially.

While I have no idea what, if anything, may have happened at the prime minister's official residence (sort of the Thai White House), I do know that almost no one ever spends the night there because of the house's ghostly guests. We are talking the highest realms of government here, folks. Prime ministers, cabinet ministers, generals. Nobody sleeps there. The general official, high-level reaction to the place seems to be brrrrrrrrr.

So with all that as a setting, here's what happened to me.

About 20, 21 years ago I was in Pattaya. This was when Pattaya was still a relatively quiet little town, although the nightlife that ultimately transformed into a thriving sewer was beginning to blossom.

I was staying in a small hotel set into a cliff overlooking the sea. I went to bed about midnight and drew the curtains so I could sleep in. That made the room extremely dark.

At about 3 AM I snapped awake, knowing I was no longer alone. Remember, the room was almost pitch-black. In one corner, diagonally across the room from me, was a figure.

I looked away. I looked back. I blinked heavily. It was still there.

I could only see it by looking slightly past it, but it was a female wearing a shapeless white dress that fell almost to her ankles, and black hair down to her waist. Her head was bent downward so she was facing the carpet, and her face was hidden by the fall of hair. Then, moving slowly, she grasped handfuls of hair and lifted them straight up and let them fall again. Then she reached down and did it again. The second time she pulled her hair into the air, she started to bring her face up.

I knew that if I saw her face, I was dead. I rolled over as fast as I could, snapping on the lights on the bed tables, and when they came on, she was gone. I lay there, fighting for breath, literally more frightened than I've ever been in my life. And I stayed there, wide awake, until the sun came up.

When the room was bright enough, I went into the bathroom, pulled the shower curtain, turned on the shower, and let the water hit me full in the face. When I'd had enough, I pulled back from the stream of water and opened my eyes, and something moved very fast on the other side of the shower curtain. I left the water running, grabbed a towel, wrapped it around me, and ran all the way to the lobby, where I demanded, and got, a new room, as far as possible from the old one.

Later that day, I went back with a maid to pack my things -- there was no way I was going in there alone -- and the maid said, yes, that woman had been seen before in the room, and she volunteered to take me to the temple later that day when her shift was over to burn some incense and do a brief ceremony to release that poor woman's spirit from whatever powerful force was holding it on this side of the curtain.

And we did, and I felt a little better. But that night -- even in my new room --I slept with my lights on.

And no, I had never previously believed in ghosts.
My thanks to Tim for sharing this experience!


Paul D. Brazill said...

Chilly! A friend of mine had a ghostly encounter while in Thailand.

Mark W. Danielson said...

I don't believe that Ghosts are limited to Thailand. Though I haven't had any personal encounters, Lyne has had a couple of odd experiences in her past that cannot be explained. We are all limited by what we know, so it's always interesting to see what's outside the box.

Anonymous said...

I'm a great believer in ghosts. I don't doubt that it's standing room only around this computer. Seriously.

I suppose ghost is just another word for spirit, and so far the spirits in my life have been good ones.

Trying to cover all the bases, I also have Indian dreamcatchers hanging around. I don't need any bad dreams. (:

Pat Browning

Chester Campbell said...

When I visited Thailand back in the eighties, I saw all sorts (and sizes) of spirit houses that people put on their property to appease the spirits. I remember the Erawan Hotel in Bangkok, now a Grand Hyatt, had a shrine next to it because of problems that occurred during construction. People bought incense sticks to place around the shrine. There was also a white elephant statue nearby. The shrine has been enlarged in later years and is now a major tourist attraction.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Paul, Mark and Chester, for chiming in. I had an e-mail from Tim that just said WhoooooooWhoooooo. (:

Speaking of -- tomorrow is the summer solstice and the faithful are gathering at Stonehenge.

Pat Browning

Anonymous said...

I'm behind the times. Today is the summer solstice.

Chester Campbell said...

Yep, the sun'll start going downhill now.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I'm a firm believer in spirits, if not ghosts. Every one of my deceased family members have come back to visit me within three weeks following their deaths, as well as a fiance who died in a car accident. Some of us are more aware of their presence than others.

Beth Terrell said...


Pat, thank you for asking Time to share this story, and Tim, thanks for sharing it.

I love all Tim's Poke Rafferty books and will be doing a review of THE QUEEN OF PATPONG for next Thursday's post.

Bodlagz said...

A friend of mine is a firm believer, said he had a couple ghostly experiences in Chiang Mai. he left the house on the Monks advice. He told me you have to believe in ghosts before you will see one.