During the COVID-19 pandemic, streaming businesses and online platforms enjoyed explosive growth, especially for the entertainment industry. In Thailand, however, one particular traditional music business — molam — plunged into dire circumstances. Yet to be afforded legitimacy, molam artists receive little to no support from the government. Today, they hang onto a dimming hope that they will return to the stage as their art form gradually dies.
When spirits have a chance to return to the physical realm their cravings are pointed: they want whisky, a lot of smokes (sometimes more than one at a time), and the mild narcotic, betel nut. In Rasi Salai’s Spirit-Medium Festival held in October, some 200 spirits got to enjoy some time on this earth, imbibing in human vices but, from their inter-worldly vantage point, also warning their believers to take care of the land. In turn, they will provide protection to those who take heed of their warnings.
Guest contribution by Courtney Robinson
OCT. 31, 05:30 : Lamyong Trairat is starting her day as a shopkeeper, checking stock behind the counter and making a few sales in her modest, single-aisle store. The shelves have typical rural shop fare: charcoal, 3 -in-1 coffee sachets, cheap snacks and gutrot rice gin, brightly colored stationery and notebooks with fading covers. An average shop run by an average shopkeeper–meek, demur, and rather quiet–on what appears to be just another average day.
06:15: Sixty-two-year-old Lamyong leaves her shop and is taken a vehicle for two or so kilometers through fading golden rice fields on a paved road, and then another two down a dirt road to an edge of a deep forest. Down below to the east, the sun had just risen and beams stream through the trees onto a shrine. No one is around. She negotiates with her stiff joints to kneel. She’s making an important request today, one she makes only twice a year. She makes an offering, calling upon the spirits, letting them know that the time is near.
07:10: Now bespectacled, she’s back in her house again, carefully accepting offerings from a group of villagers in advance. Lamyong is making sure there will be enough offerings for all spirits summoned. Important is orange soda and rice gin, two must-haves for any spirit’s trip back to this dimension. Photo by Mike Eckel
07:19: Over 300 people, predominantly older folk, are arriving with offerings to the ceremony. Smiles all around in excited expectation, live moh lam music blaring. The ceremony, called buang suang chao pho dong phu din is held twice a year: in April to ask the spirits to bless their farmlands before planting, and in October to thank the spirits for a bountiful harvest.
07:31: Lamyong returns to the forest shrine. The mood is light and carefree. Lamyong shares a warm moment with a relative a few moments before the ceremony begins.
7:43: Lamyong prepares herself to be medium for the spirit of Pho Phra Ked who, when ready, will borrow her body. Piece by piece, Lamyong dons the garb favored by Pho Phra Ked. While the costume of each individual varies, most are somewhat resembling the character of the spirit that will embody them.
07:48: Now seated on reed matting, Lamyong’s behavior is transformed. Pho Phra Ked has arrived, he’s hungry and people know it. Now he’s smoking cigarettes two at a time, taking shot after shot of rice gin. He’s holding court as a powerful feudal lord. The man in the white attire sitting beside Pho Phra Ked is recognized at “the King of the Spirits,” yet he allows Pho Phra Ked to command the proceedings.
07:59: The spirits are hearing petitions brought before their court. There’s some urgency to it all. Pho Phra Ket, after all, doesn’t have day–he’ll return to the spirit realm at 11 a.m. So supplicants have to ask only the most important questions, because there’s a veritable throng of other supplicants pressing in with their own burning questions and requests. Photo by Mike Eckel
08:01: A wish is granted as he bends in and delivers a blessing by way of a long, slow blow over the crown of the supplicant’s head. The questions vary from person to person: “Will my child get into the desired school? How are family members far from home doing? Am I in the right career?” Photo by Mike Eckel
08:06: Animated by the spirits, more than 100 mediums perform a ritual procession around the shrine. Led by Pho Phra Ked, they are positively pulsing: raising their arms to a cacophony of “oohs” and “ehs” from their quivering lips sounding through the forest in celebration of their temporary corporeal moment. Photo by Mike Eckel
08:10: The air heavy with incense, the spirits step away from the parade to acknowledge the offerings prepared by the hundreds of attending villagers. Hog heads, fruit, soda, and rice gin adorn the table. Photo by Mike Eckel
08:23: Still hooting and hollering, the spirits start a procession down to the river to release the traditional boats in respectful acknowledgement of the water spirits. Photo by Mike Eckel
08:55: Back from the river, Pho Phra Ked and the other spirits bless the food offered to them earlier, in turn offering what remains of the food back to the villagers. Photo by Mike Eckel
9:07: Pho Phra Ked’s powerful, commanding presence belies a remarkable tenderness as he ties strings around the writs of villagers–literally tying the blessings to them.
11:03: It’s time for Pho Phra Ked and all the spirits to return to the spirit realm. Monks have been invited to perform blessings, so that the whole event ends on a nicely Buddhist tone.
With the spirit gone, Lamyong returns.
She’s recounts what it feels like when her body is used as a medium for a spirit: “I feel the air come out of my ears, like it is being pushed out. I don’t know what I’m saying, my body moves by itself, talks by itself. I’m not in charge of my body. It feels like motion sickness. That’s how it feels.”
Pho Phra Ket bellows a blessing to the author. Photo by Mike Eckel
Lamyong first channeled the spirit of Pho Phra Ked at the age of 29. At first she didn’t want to be a spirit medium, and even asked a monk for advice on how to prevent it from happening. Yet over time, she came to realize that she’d been chosen and accepted the fact. Ever since, she’s embraced the role, and she’s helped others to accept being chosen as spirit mediums.
11:30 a.m.: Lamyong is back home now, wearing her eyeglasses and picking up where she’d left off a few hours ago: checking the stock in her small shop and selling odds and ends to the usual trickle of passing customers.
Courtney Robinson majors in Global and International Studies with a focus on human rights at Pennsylvania State University. This semester, she is studying about development and globalization issuesin Khon Kaen.