Today we went to the shrine of Mae Nak, Bangkok’s most popular ghost. She was a lady who lived in the neighborhood of Phra Khanong (then a village, I expect) under the reign of Rama IV; her husband Mak (in some accounts he’s “Chum”) went off to war and took a long time to get back, during which time Mae Nak died giving birth to their child. But she kept up appearances and did not tell Mak when he returned that she was dead. They lived happily until one night while she was cooking dinner she dropped a lime and stretched her arm down to the ground to get it at which point Mak/Chum (who may have suffered a head injury during the war) caught on and ran to the sacred grounds of Wat Mahabut to escape from his ghost-wife. This made Mae Nak angry and she proceeded to terrorize the neighborhood until she is subdued by famous monk Somdej Toh, at which point, I think, she becomes an ex-ghost.
Mae Nak is extremely popular, and there have been a huge number of dramatizations of her story, listed here. Many of these can be seen on YouTube; this one is a tad melodramatic, but it does have high reptile content and the subtitles aren’t as poetic as this one.
Her shrine is at Wat Mahabut, where Mak fled; there’s a small statue of her and her ghost-baby:
I don’t know why she appears to have two babies here. Maybe the one on the left is a doll? Her fuzzy appearance is because she’s covered in little sheets of gold leaf which have been gilded on her; while we were there, the shrine was being vacuumed and the air was full of tiny motes of gold.
She’s surrounded by things that she’s been given by her devotees (a lot of clothing; some other toys for the baby) and portraits that have been painted or drawn of her, none, disappointingly, of her extensible arms. Picture-taking didn’t seem polite (though it wasn’t specifically forbidden) so these photos aren’t as good as they might be.
Because there’s only so much room inside, there’s a secondary shrine out back:
I don’t know exactly who this man is.
Nor am I sure about this plaster rabbit and chicken.
Though possibly these real chickens might be explained? The shrine is surrounded by stalls selling small fish, turtles, and frogs that can be released into the canal behind the wat to make merit – you can see one on the left in this picture – maybe releasing a chicken makes you a lot of merit. Or maybe they just live at the wat, like the dogs and cats.
There were plenty of little turtles and fish to inspect. I thought about buying some to set them loose, though it seems ethically (and ecologically) a little murky; downstream, local children seemed to be using nets to recapture some of the released.
The woman overseeing this pool of catfish and turtles (not quite visible) is not Mae Nak; she appears to be Guan Yin, the Chinese bodhisattva whose shrine near Wat Prayun we bumbled through yesterday.
At the canal, of course, there were catfish to be fed, so we fed them for a while.