This article was written by Gordon Fairclough of the Wall Street Journal, but since it can be tough to follow links to their pieces for subscribers, here are large extracts from this fascinating clean-up effort.
PHUKET, Thailand -- When the tsunami waves hit here last month, the hotel where Jinda Sinta worked erupted in chaos. Ms. Jinda frantically called an ambulance to help one unconscious child, but rescuers were unable to revive him. The next week, Ms. Jinda says, the dead boy returned to the damaged hotel lobby. Wearing the same dark-blue shorts he had on when he died, the ghost of the black-haired 10-year-old "was running around, playing," says the 40-year-old front-desk clerk. Then he disappeared.
As Thai people grapple with the physical aftereffects of December's natural disaster, they are also dealing with another serious problem: Ghosts. For many Thais, steeped in Buddhist teachings of rebirth and even older animistic beliefs in spirits, ghosts are very real. When people die suddenly and violently, as they did in the December waves, spirits cling to their bodies and to familiar places, unsure of how to cross from the world of the living to the world of the dead, many here believe.
Psychologists say the ghosts are likely a manifestation of the mental trauma suffered by the tsunami survivors, a way for people to face their fears and come to terms with what happened. But for many, the ghosts are a problem that requires a practical solution, not therapy.
"If we don't send them off, the spirits will stay around where they died," says Saengthong Suwanjan, the 60-year-old keeper of a Chinese temple overlooking the sea. "If they can't go anywhere, they will stay here and haunt us. And if they don't know how to get to the next life, they might try to take some of us with them." (contrast the dismissive, if reasonable and understandable, attitude of psychologists with the pragmatically expressed need of the residents to move their loved ones through an acknowledged process- Henway)
Ghost stories abound. Prasert Tamnakla, a 37-year-old dive-shop owner on the devastated island of Phi Phi, says that for days after the waves hit, he could hear the spirits of the dead wailing in the night. "Mostly, it was women's voices. They were calling for help," says Mr. Prasert. Pitak Noonoon and other night watchmen at a building facing Patong beach, where dozens of people drowned in an underground shopping center, heard a lot of banging and scraping early one morning. When they went in to investigate, they discovered that large sheets of plywood had been tossed around. "One big piece moved 10 meters," Mr. Pitak, 24, says. "Now that's not natural." Others say spirits have visited them in their dreams. Somjai Rungchaiwitoon says her father came to her when she was asleep one night. "He seemed so real, I ran and hugged him," she says. "He told me he was trapped in a drain pipe and asked why nobody had come looking for him. He said other people were also trapped." (Even in this media-plentiful event and location, note that ghost stories are always anecdotal, unsubstantiated, unproveable- H)
So Ms. Somjai, 27, traveled from Bangkok to Khao Lak, where her parents owned a grocery story that was washed away by the waves. She brought a group of Buddhist monks to pray at the site, where bodies were stored in tents in the early days of the recovery effort. They asked for her family's spirits to be freed to travel to their next lives. In Phuket, Thailand, Keng Saeyiow conducts a ceremony intended to propel the spirits of the tsunami's victims on to the next world. Soldiers tell tales of seeing the ghosts of foreign tourists playing on the beaches and swimming in the ocean. A monk says he saw hundreds of spirits standing by the highway along the west coast. (Does the drama of the visions relate to the imcomparable scale of the tragedy?- H)
It was with great trepidation that 65-year-old Bayee Ouisakun moved back to her home in Nam Khem, a fishing town devastated by last month's tsunami. "I'm not afraid of the waves," says Ms. Bayee. "But every night when I hear the dogs howling, I worry about the ghosts."
So, Ms. Bayee did what she considered the sensible thing. She too called in Buddhist monks. More than 40 crowded the small ground floor of her damaged home, chanting blessings. One sprinkled holy water, reciting prayers in Pali, the ancient Indian tongue that is the liturgical language of the religion here. "I want to make sure that those who are dead now don't come back and cause trouble for the living," says Ms. Bayee, who has also affixed a swatch of red cloth at the foot of the staircase that leads to the family's sleeping quarters. The cloth is imprinted with symbols designed to ward off evil.
In places like Nam Khem, some of the townspeople are trying to sort out a new modus vivendi for the living and the dead. "Even if we're scared, we have to steel ourselves," says 12-year-old Sunisa Kaewjan. "My brothers and sisters are all ghosts now," she says. "We have to respect them, give them offerings like in the old days." (I was particularly touched by the girl's desire to be kind to the ghosts since all her siblings had joined them.- H)
Now, Thailand is embarking on the next phase of its post-tsunami cleanup: sending off the spirits of those who died, so they will stop haunting the beaches, villages and hotels along the Andaman Sea coast. On Saturday, the people of Phuket threw a supper for the ghosts, designed to fete them and send them on their way so they will no longer disturb the peace.
At sunset, Keng Saeyiow, 63, stood on a beach at the south end of the island in a black robe. He chanted in reedy Hokkien, a Chinese dialect, summoning the spirits of those killed by the tsunami in Thailand. With his left hand, he swung a long bamboo pole, with a two-tiered paper "spirit trap" on the end, its red streamers trailing in the wind. Once he had collected the spirits in the trap, he walked it over and placed it at the head of a long table set for a feast. On the table were 24 place settings of fruit, chicken, fish, squid, Chinese liquor, water and 140 bowls of rice for the spirits to eat. A row of empty plastic chairs lined one side of the table. On the other, scores of townspeople crowded around to pour drinks and offer the food to the spirits.
After more singing by Mr. Keng the spirits were again gathered up and taken over to two miniature wood-framed houses covered with colorful paper. The houses were surrounded with paper facsimiles of money and other things the spirits might need in their next life -- including television sets and red and blue Nokia cellphones. (This is not so different from the ancient Egyptian burials with furninshings and servants for the future - H) The pile was set ablaze. As burning embers flew into the night sky, Mr. Keng chanted in Hokkien: "Go, go to the spirit world." "If we hadn't done this, the spirits would be stuck here. At night they'd keep coming back. But now they've been sent off to heaven," says Senee Mornphan, a 34-year-old tour-company operator, who participated in the ceremony. "I feel much better now. I think we all do."
Just to be sure, a local charity group plans to scour Thailand's west coast for errant spirits later this week, using two men who act as spirit dowsers, locating lost souls and collecting them. The enterprise is being funded with donations from a group of Singaporean tour operators, according to Somsuk Jitkaew, manager of Good Morning Holiday & Tours Co. in Phuket.
"I think once we do this, then the tourists won't worry so much about the ghosts," says Ms. Somsuk, whose company mainly arranges tours for people from Singapore and Malaysia. "Some people are definitely worried about the ghosts. They believe. And if we do this, they will feel better."
As for Ms. Jinda, the hotel receptionist, she decided to take matters into her own hands. She went to a Buddhist temple and made an offering of toothpaste, soap and other necessities to the monks there. She said a prayer for the little boy who had perished in the lobby. "Let him go in peace," she pleaded. He hasn't been seen since.
I have to doubt, have to point out that this can't be proven. And yet I want to believe it. More than that, part of me finds it reasonable- O yes, many trapped spirits from something like this, let's try to gather them and point them in the right direction. (slapping my palms together) Very good, then. Onto fixing the roof.