Night Creatures from Asia’s Folklore
It is the spooky season once again! Halloween was once a tradition only really celebrated in the United States, however in recent years it has become an international event with people decorating their homes for the whole of the month of October, having Halloween parades, dressing up and trick or treating. In Asia, Halloween has continued to gain tremendous popularity and is now a date that both the young and old look forward to, whether to carve pumpkins and decorate their homes or to get dressed up and spooky, enjoy parties and trick or treating.
When on holiday some of us are content to laze away a holiday on a beach or enjoy the fresh air and scenery in the hills, forests and mountains. But for others, it’s all about the action, the festivals, the traditions and getting under the skin of the towns and villages they visit. So, with Halloween upon us, let’s get under the skin of the supernatural and explore the spook factor of Asia…something not quite of this world. In celebration of the Halloween season Secret Retreats would like to introduce you to some of Asia’s most notorious ghosts. Please contact our concierge for details on where to obtain holy water and a suitable crucifix for your journey…just joking…or am I?…
Indonesian folklore features a wide variety of tales about animist ghosts and spirits. And the so-called ‘Pontianak’ (or ‘Kuntianak’) is perhaps the most notorious of all.
In Southeast Asian cultures, swamps are considered eerie places where nature’s spirits dwell and spook the living. Legend has it that the area in Western Kalimantan at the crossing point of the Kapuas and Landak rivers was haunted by Pontianaks. The Pontianak is a vengeful spirit that takes the form of a beautiful woman and preys on men, children and vulnerable souls. Believed to be the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth, or a violent death, they are one of the most powerful and feared spirits of Indonesian and Malaysian folklore. As bloodthirsty vampires they eviscerate their victims with their long nails and dine on the internal organs.
Despite the dire warnings shared with him by the local Dayak people, Syarif Abdurrahman Alkadrie (1771–1808) decided to set up a trading post at this crossing point in the swamp. The Pontianaks soon made their presence felt on Abdurrahman and his builders, and the story goes that they fired cannon into the swamps to destroy the area considered to be the Pontianaks nest. A Mosque and trading post were established and the developing city was named Pontianak. The trading post became very successful and Abdurrahman was made a Sultan, the first Sultan of Pontianak.
A star of many horror movies both in Indonesian and Malaysian culture these vengeful spirits are still alive and well in the nightmares of people. It is said that the scent of drying laundry will attract a Pontianak, hence many Malaysians will not leave laundry out overnight. Powerful spirits that can perform black magic their presence is often heralded by a fragrance similar to the plumeria flower or the scent of rotting flesh. But it is also said she can be tamed to become the most perfect, and beautiful, wife. Simply drive a nail into the hole at the nape of her neck to enjoy a blissful marriage to a beautiful woman – well, is a love life ever simple? Might be wise however to have her sign a pre-nuptial to ensure you hang on to your internal organs in the event of a breakup!
A vampire-like creature, the Pishachas in Hindu theology are believed to feed on the flesh of both the living and the dead. And horrifically, they are particularly fond of dining on pregnant women.
Described as having a human-like form with protruding red eyes and bulging veins all over their bodies they are a particularly unpleasant looking demon. Pishachas haunt cremation and burial grounds abandoned homes and places where violent deaths have occurred. In more modern times they are said to haunt places such as discos and nightclubs where they feed on negative energies in what are seen as vice-ridden venues, and where they look to possess vulnerable individuals.
An ancient spirit that has been around since creation, the Pishacha have their own language, known as Paiśāci. They are believed to possess the paranormal ability to become invisible and to shapeshift and assume any forms at will. These ancient and tricky spirits can possess minds, driving their possessed human to negative thoughts and behaviours and feeding on the conflict and misery that arises as a result. The possession can drive the possessed to insanity. Special mantras are needed to exorcise these harmful spirits. To keep the Pishachas satiated and at bay they are given their share of offerings during certain religious functions and festivals.
Hui Bi Hua
One of Saigon’s most famous ghost stories, The Daughter of Hui Bi Hua is the legend of the ghost of a young girl who roams the corridors of what is now the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Art at Pho Duc Chinh Street in District 1.
Back in 1934, when the trio of buildings was first built, it was a home to the family and business of Hui Bi Hua, an extremely wealthy real estate magnate who was reputed to own about 20,000 properties in the city. The main building used to be the family mansion and it is apparently haunted by the ghost of Hui’s daughter.
The story goes that she contracted leprosy during a city-wide epidemic and was confined to a bedroom on the upper floor. During that time, leprosy was thought of as more of a curse than what it really is: a disease. Ever superstitious and conscious of their public image, the family decided to cover up the fact that their daughter was ill with leprosy and announced that she had died from a “mysterious illness” which they then followed with a public funeral to put the matter to rest.
However, the truth is Hua’s daughter was locked away in her room, with her meals slid through a slot at the bottom of the door. They kept her locked in her room for years until the loneliness and misery of being locked away eventually drove her insane and she took her own life. Multiple versions of this story have claimed that she hanged herself, while an alternate story claims that she burned herself alive. Since then, many people have reported seeing the ghostly figure of a woman roaming the halls of the building and heard the plaintive sound of someone crying in the dead of the night.
Ma Phae Wah
The Yellow Ribbon Lady
A harbinger of death, rather like the Black Dog of England or the Banshee of Ireland, Ma Phae Wah is a spirit known in Myanmar as a Nat. These spirits are an ancient mix of Hindu and local animist beliefs that are also became associated with Buddhism. There are basically (actually nothing is ever basic in the spiritual world) two orders of Nats, the 37 Great Nats that are spirits of people that died a violent death, and then all the other Nats which are probably from the older animist beliefs and are natural elemental spirits, the guardian spirits of place and nature. Ma Phae Wah, is just such a spirit, just such a Nat.
Known as the guardian spirit of cemeteries and graveyards in Myanmar, Ma Phae Wah has made her home in these lonely places of death. As with all Nats, she takes a human form, and appears as a woman with long flowing black hair. In the dark of night, at midnight (well like 4pm is time for tea, midnight is time for ‘Pee’…and no I am not referring to the trials of a troubled prostate, ‘Pee’ is the Thai name for supernatural spirit, and conveniently rhymes with tea) she hoists a coffin on to her shoulder and leaves the cemetery and heads into the nearby village or town. In her role as a harbinger of death, her long hair flowing in the spectral breeze that accompanies her shuffling gait, she seeks out the home of the soon to die. On arriving at the home of the doomed, she places the coffin on their doorstep, and before long someone in that household, and sadly usually a child, will sicken and die.
In the late 1990s Ma Phae Wah appeared in the dreams of a monk in Kayin State and through these visions Ma Phae Wah announced her intention to eat the flesh of babies. After much deliberation the Abbot suggested that people should encourage her to dine on dogs instead. Subsequently, security-conscious parents sought to protect their newborn babies by posting signs in front of their homes saying, “Our baby’s flesh is bitter, but the dog’s flesh is sweet”. Man’s best friend saves the day yet again, this time though as dish of the day for the Yellow Ribbon Lady…
The Hungry Ghost
Thais believe that wicked people will be reborn as a truly terrible night creature called a Preta, the archetypal Hungry Ghost. These beings are the tortured spirits of once living people who are made to suffer greatly with an insatiable hunger usually for something disgusting. And for some more unfortunate Preta, it can be a desire to eat their own flesh. There are many different types of Preta with each one the result of a specific type of misconduct such as being too stingy or taking advantage of people during the time that they were alive as humans. The idea of suffering for eternity wandering the earth in your birthday suit in the form of a tortured night creature is a scary belief not only for the Thais. This type of ghost also appears in many of Asia’s ancient cultures under different names.
In appearance, a Preta looks like a disproportionately stretched-out version of Gollum from Lord of the Rings. They have long necks, lean bodies with a distended pot belly, dark skin, and hands as big as palm leaves. They are as tall as a palm tree and have a mouth as small as the eye of a sewing needle, which explains why they are perpetually hungry. Those high-pitched whines you hear on a dark balmy night in Thailand, are believed to be the sound of Pretas roaming through the night.
Pretas rarely directly affect humans, usually invisible to the living they seek an end to their suffering by attending merit making ceremonies at temples where kind Buddhists make offerings to them. When a Preta has accumulated enough merit they are freed from their Preta status.
Sightings of Preta are regularly reported in the Thai media and rather like a mediaeval moral tale they are used as an example to children on what bad behaviour will lead to. Many temples have built Preta statues as a reminder to people to be good.
Quirky River Demons
For the light-hearted side of this Halloween edition, we would like to present you the quirky river demons as found in Japanese folklore. A culture rich in supernatural tales of ghosts and fantastic creatures, no list would be complete without the “Kappa”. Spirits of the natural world and ghosts are deeply imbedded in Japanese religion, history, and culture. And for this last offering for our Halloween edition there is even a sushi roll named after it — the kappa-maki, or cucumber roll.
Kappas love cucumbers. What strange little things they are. They are said to be roughly humanoid in form and about the size of a child. They have a shell like a turtle, green scaly skin, and a plate on top of their heads that must always be brimming with water to stay alive. These uniquely Japanese supernatural beings live in Japan’s lakes, streams and rivers.
In Shintoism, Kappas are respected as gods of water and statues of them can sometimes be seen at shrines around Japan. Kappa quirks include having a huge appetite for cucumbers (hence the kappa-maki) and for never being able to break a promise.
Of the more gruesome legends about them, it is also said that they love to pull lost children and animals into the water to drown and eat…perhaps with a side dish of fresh crunchy cucumber.
Happy Halloween and …Sleep Well tonight…