The Magical World of Thailand

In the Magazine
Devotees reach for food and flowers given by Buddhist monks during the annual Magic Tattoo Festival at Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Prathom province, about 80 km (50 miles) from Bangkok March 23, 2013. Thousands of believers from across Thailand travel to the monastery to attend the annual tattoo festival to have their bodies adorned with tattoos and to pay their respects to the temple's master tattooist. They believe the tattoos have mystical powers which ward off bad luck and protect them from harm. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj (THAILAND - Tags: RELIGION SOCIETY) Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Khaosod News ("Every News Fresh, Every Taste Fulfilled") is the third biggest newspaper in Thailand. It, like all the other dailies in the country, is feverishly reporting on the political and popular forces battling in the streets of Bangkok, following the mobs of revolutionary citizens rising up to depose the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra. Every day, the news is full of tear gas, rubber bullets, real bullets, political murders and bulldozers driven full speed over police blockades. One of the less routine stories, reported by Khaosod on January 4, told of a new force released into the fight for Thailand's future: magic.

"Members of the Student and Peoples Network for Thailand Reform (STR) set up an altar dedicated to angels, local ghosts, spirit of Bangkok city...near Gate 2 of the Government House at 11.00 today," Khaosod reported. "The protesters later conducted a religious ceremony at the site...to help cleanse evil spirits from the Government House."

The security chief of the STR said the ritual was performed to lift a curse placed in 2010, when the Redshirt faction - supporters of the powerful Shinawatra political dynasty - poured gallons of blood donated by their protesting throngs. "Although leaders of the Redshirts said the gesture represented the blood of the people being spilled, the presence of a Brahman necromancer at the blood-pouring suggested that some sort of religious ceremony was also intended," Khaosod reported.

When tourists refer to Thailand as "magical," they're more right then they realize. Another recent piece in Khaosod reported that magic-minded Thais are in a bidding war for phone numbers starting with number nine. (Saying "nine" in Thai sounds like the word for "step," so numbers starting with nine imply "taking a step forward.") Believing the number will produce phone calls filled with celestial favor, affluent Thais are offering cell phone dealers up to $3,000 for a fate-changing number-nine mobile phone number. SIM card sultans have recently materialized to meet the need, cold-calling citizens throughout Thailand who possess number-nine phone numbers. Offering cold cash for the hotly desired digits, they travel the land, buying up all the number-nine phone numbers in circulation. Back in Bangkok, those destiny-changing SIM cards sell for thousands. Meanwhile, local provider i-Mobile's recent campaign: "Lucky Numbers With Positive Force for Your Life" further fuels the forces of mobile phone magic. Selling phone numbers that have been selected by a popular astrologer to bless one's destiny, they promise a prepackaged fortune top-up for people who can't shell out for number nines.

Far from frivolous consumer fad, the Magic Mobile wars reflect beliefs that float upward into the highest realms of the state. In 2002, the Thai cabinet meticulously balanced the budget to hit 999.9 billion in the local currency. The following year, the Minister of Transport made headlines by paying $95,000 to state vehicular agencies in order to get his son a 9999 license plate. Hard facts like that lend credence to softly whispered rumors that former Prime Minister Taksin Shinawatra was performing magic rituals to retain power during the stormy year of 2006. Beyond public office, superstition holds sway amidst esteemed Thai corporations, valued at billions on the international markets.

In 2012, ghosts were blamed for a bad landing at Bangkok's major airport. "While initial investigation pointed to a malfunctioned landing gear, the managing director of Thai Airways...is not taking chances," Khaosod reported. "He said his company will conduct a major ceremony to appease the malevolent spirits said to be haunting the airport." For most Thais, these ancient spirits were old news. Thai Rath, the best-selling newspaper in Thailand, reported that one officiating dignitary suffered from "grandfather ghost possession" during the airport's opening ceremony. Apparently, a powerful snake God was upset when the structure was built on the swampland where snakes slithered in plethora. To offset the offense, eight major shrines have been built by airport staff to ward off evil spirits at Suvarnabhumi airport.

Perhaps the most frightening person to touch down in Thailand in recent years is Chow Hok Kuen, a U.K. citizen of Taiwanese descent. The same year Thailand's largest airline was appeasing spirits, this black magic hustler was busted in a Bangkok hotel with a suitcase filled with dead babies. These fetuses - pulled from the womb, dried as incantations were said over them, tattooed then painted gold - are valued as sources of tremendous magic power in some Asian cultures. Mr. Kuen was stopped before smuggling them into Taiwan for up to $40,000 each. But his hideous crime was merely the second-best Dead Magical Baby Story of 2012. In May of that year, South Korean customs authorities seized thousands of pills inbound from China. As reported in The Business Insider: "Officials say the capsules were made in northeastern China from babies whose bodies were chopped into small pieces and dried on stoves before being turned into powder.... The capsules are in demand because many believe they are stamina boosters that can cure any illness."

Blessed pendants are a big business in Thailand, where some fetch up to $30,000. People with pendants sometimes add additional powers through magical tattoos. Angelina Jolie had one put on her back by Ajarn Noo Kamphai, one of the most venerated tattoo masters in Thailand. His traditional work is ritualistically applied, while spells are chanted and incense wafts. Believed to provide magical protection, adherents claim to have survived gunshots and car wrecks thanks to his work.

Any edge is welcome in this land where traffic fatalities lead the world, and embattled Thai taxi drivers have their own set of magical symbols. Seen squiggled on the ceilings of their cabs, the powerful incantations ward off accidents and other misfortunes.

Surrounded by taxis now, my friend and I inch through the dark plane of damnation known as traffic in Bangkok. Small comfort is provided by the gold Buddha on the dashboard of Aem's new car. An executive with an international logistics company, Aem is a well-educated professional who does real estate deals in her spare time. She laughs about the "Lucky Numbers With Positive Force for Your Life" cell phone fad, but mentions that she had a friendly numerologist analyze her license plate. She had misgivings about the "13" in her state-issued number, but was relieved to learn that the powers in a subsequent "56" evened the odds. Her plates remained but not because she is a skeptic. Aem has already changed her last name, for better numerology. (Fortune-tellers change each letter into a digit for readings, so certain letter combinations will translate into better destinies.) Her sister did the same and also bought a more favorable phone number. Both sisters say they had better job offers within months. "Some of the new generation of Thai people don't want to know about magic," Aem tells me. "But since the day you were born, on the day you were born, it is involved."

The mall where we park is a marble and glass collision of upscale cologne boutiques and designer fashions. Her friend Nook, a local Thai businessman and millionaire, is waiting for us at Starbucks. Fast-speaking and sharply dressed, the 30-ish man is a tremendously successful network marketer, partly thanks to magic. We sip lattes while Nook tells me how practical business appraisal met ancient mystic arts in his office selection. After narrowing the choices based on facilities, parking, furnishings, and other standard qualifiers, Nook brought in a fortune-teller for heavenly considerations. The process involved a face reading, where attributes of Nook's features were divined for character and fortune indicators, then matched with his time of birth, plus the numerology in his name. The mystic then drifted through the offices with a device Thais call a kalor. Built like a compass but intricately marked with arcane symbols and Asian letters, the slowly spinning needle pointed toward the most-blessed business location. The $150 fee was money well-spent. Nook said his business profits were four times higher than in his previous headquarters.

When asked if input from sages was commonplace, Nook guessed that about 90 percent of Thai businesses use a fortune-teller in similar manner. Aem, who was translating for us, agreed. Face-reading, they claim, is just part of the hiring practice at some of Thailand's largest conglomerates. Interviewees will be judged on past job performance, of course. But in addition, their name will be translated into digits, analyzed for destiny, then matched with the digits in their birth date, and the shape of their face. This doesn't mean just pretty people get hired. It means otherwise qualified candidates might be turned away, due to inauspicious ears, or unfortunate eyebrows. It is a matter of course, in Nook's experience, for potential business partners to exchange astrological information. Tesco Lotus, Thailand's supermarket mega-brand, places spirit houses outside every new branch. Blessed in priestly ceremony, they appease whatever spirits of fortune occupy that particular patch of land. Magic is just part of business in this part of the world.

It is part of politics, too, as the ritual performed on January 4 proved. Summoning spirits into the embattled streets of Bangkok might seem silly to Americans, but let's not forget how far the forces of magic have pervaded our own august halls of power. Taksin is only rumored to have tried magic, but at least one U.S. president ran the planet while watching the stars. Just read Donald Regan's memoir, For The Record: "Virtually every major move and decision the Reagans made during my time as White House chief of staff was cleared in advance with a woman in San Francisco who drew up horoscopes to make certain that the planets were in favorable alignment for the enterprise."

Unfortunately, favorable alignment in today's warring streets of Bangkok is yet to manifest. Chatter about a possible coup from the Thai military rises as the city slides towards chaos. People fear that tanks rumbling through city streets and armadas of heavily armed soldiers will end the protests with iron-fisted finality. Regardless, the ceremony on January 4 was perceived to be a great success. "Mr. Kittichai of the STR said today′s ceremony should perfectly undo the curse laid by the Redshirts almost four years ago," Khaosod reported.

Whether the rite will lead to riots or peace is still in the stars. While forces gather in the streets of Bangkok, the world watches Thailand, a place both magical and cursed.

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