Thailand’s most popular ghost story tells the gruesome tale of a woman who dies in childbirth but returns to her unsuspecting husband.
Everyone loves a ghost story, and Thais are no exception. The country’s most enduring ghost story features the spirit of a woman named Mae Nak and her baby. Her tale is so popular it has been told in numerous films, comic books and even a musical.
According to Thai folklore, this tragic tale took place in the village of Phra Khanong during the reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV). A beautiful young woman named Nang Nak was pregnant, when her husband, Nai Maak, was summoned to battle. Due to complications during labor, Nang Nak and her unborn child both perished.
Nai Maak, though, never heard this news. After a long period of absence, he returned home to greet his wife and child — not realizing that they were both, in fact, ghosts! Her powerful spirit had lingered and created the illusion that she and the baby were still alive. At this point, she became known as Mae Nak, with mae meaning “mother.”
Concerned neighbors who tried to warn her husband of the deception met untimely demises at the hands of the furious ghost.
One day, as the phantom Nak was preparing a meal, she absentmindedly dropped a lime. It slipped through the floorboards to the ground. In her haste, she extended her arm right through the floor to retrieve it. Maak witnessed this and finally realized that the woman he thought was his wife was actually a ghost.
That evening, filled with a sense of dread, he wished with all his being that he could forget what he had seen. Heart racing, he excused himself to go to the bathroom, but instead ran to the safety of the nearby Mahabut Temple; he knew he’d be safe because a soulless spirit cannot enter consecrated ground.
Finding Maak gone, the ghost pursued him, and in her grief terrorized the village. However, a powerful forest-dwelling ruesi, or shaman, captured her spirit. He confined it to an earthen jug and tossed it into a canal.
Like any good story told in the oral tradition, there are actually several versions as to how Mae Nak was eventually captured. In addition to the ruesi tale, there’s one in which the venerated monk Somdet Phra Phutthachan performed an exorcism. He obtained a buckle-size piece of bone from the skull of the exhumed remains of Mae Nak. He then confined her spirit to the skull fragment, which he wore on his waistband until his death, when the relic was given to a member of the royal family.
Mae Nok’s Shrine
A shrine dedicated to Mae Nak is located within Wat Mahabut in Bangkok, where she is worshipped as a benevolent mother goddess. Devotees make offerings of dresses and children’s toys in hopes of ensuring health and prosperity. Worshippers also pray to Mae Nak for winning lottery numbers, and in the days before the drawing, the shrine is active with ticket sellers, fortune tellers and merit-offering vendors.
Mae Nak’ s name is also commonly invoked as a boogeyman to make a child behave, as in, “Be quiet or Mae Nak will come and eat you!” –Duke