[Belief in the spirit world has always been a major component of Thailand's Muay Thai culture. The following is a brief primer on the ghosts and spirits of Muay Thai, as told by Boom Watthanaya, a fighter from central Isaan in Thailand's rural eastern region.]
Ghosts are like humans—some are good, some are bad. The belief is that after people die, those who lived a good life and made merit will be reincarnated into a better life. The spirits of the bad people who sinned, though, will be caught in this world. Since they didn't make enough merit while they were human, they have to make merit now in their ghost form before they can leave.
There are ghosts everywhere, even in a Muay Thai gym. Some of them are wandering spirits, some are ghosts of old teachers who have passed away and still protect the gym, or ghosts of departed friends, family, and others from the community. As fighters, we're raised from an early age to look to ghosts for protection during fights. It's just part of our beliefs, part of the structure of fighting. It might be a literal belief for some fighters but I think for others, it's more symbolic.
I wouldn't call myself overly superstitious or religious, but even I follow some of the customs. For example, sometimes I get a little nervous when I travel or go to new places, so I make sure to pay respects to the local ghosts. Or when I fight, I might make offerings beforehand.
When Mr. Dit, the owner of my gym, sets up the ring for his own promotions, he'll make a platter of offerings, mostly simple food and drink. Mr Dit will bring the platter to the fight, and once the ring is set up, he'll talk to the ghosts alone and ask for protection for all the fighters, not just the ones from our gym.
If you're the one fighting, you step into the ring and wai to the spirits, show respect. You say to the ghosts who are listening, "Keep me safe tonight." Then when you go to your corner, your cornerman will take off your mongkol and recite the incantations meant for the spirit world.
These things in our Muay Thai culture, incantations and talking to ghosts and making offerings, it's all handed down by generation. I grew up with it. I can't separate Muay Thai from its spiritual aspects; they go hand-in-hand for me. It's all about your home, your gym and your camp. These are ghosts of your ancestors, from your village where dozens of generations have passed before you and will pass after you. You have a connection so much deeper than just, "This is my gym and this is where I train." The spirit world is what gives you roots. It says to you, "This is your home, this is your family, and this is where you belong."
The Muay Thai life is dangerous in a lot of ways. The fighting and training alone are dangerous, but so is leaving home, either to travel for fights or to train at a new gym across the country. Fighters need a lot of support, so they look to the spirit world. Plus, Muay Thai fighters usually come from rural areas of the country, like my hometown here in central Isaan. People around here are more inclined to be superstitious, to believe in ghosts in a literal sense, and to practice these old traditions. It's not just rural people, though. You've got big Bangkok promoters and famous champion fighters still performing these rituals too.
Like Lamsongkram Chuwattana, he's a top-level fighter, and my wife Frances told me this story when she got back from fighting on the same card with him in China recently. "Lam is all about his ghosts," she said. She told me how he came to the fight wearing a necklace with nine Buddhas on it. He took the necklace off, held it while he said his incantations, then handed it for safekeeping to the promoter, a guy who works out of Bangla Stadium down in Phuket. My wife helped prepare Lam for the fight, gave him a rub down and had to corner for him because apparently the Bangla promoter was joking about how he had no idea how to corner fighters. All he was doing was guarding Lam's Buddhas. Lam said some extra prayers, then jumped into the ring for his fight.
Immediately after the fight, Lam asked the Bangla promoter for his Buddhas. He said he couldn't do anything until he got them back. He wanted his Buddhas back on him immediately, before showering, before anything else. Only once he had his Buddhas again did he ask for the next most important thing—his cigarettes.
I don't know what sort of offerings Lam made to his ghosts before that China fight, but in general, you give them various offerings to make them want to protect you and give you good luck. After a big fight, if you win, you have to give them a pig's head and extra whiskey or beer. Often it's the gym owner who makes this large offering, like he's saying to the spirits, "Help my fighter win, and if he wins, you get all this!" … I guess it's kind of like a bribe.
In return, the ghost is supposed to protect the fighter from bad luck or from destructive ghosts. There's a belief that some ghosts are bad, and want to do you harm. Maybe those are the ghosts that your opponent's gym bribed. For all I know, the ghosts are fighting each other during the matches, just like the living nak muay in the ring.
My only direct experience with a ghost had nothing to do with Muay Thai. It was shortly after my brother passed away. He was successful, he'd joined the navy and had a lot going for him, but he died suddenly in a motorcycle accident when I was a teenager. He was only 22 years old. It was an awful time for my family.
One night I was sleeping at my father's house near the rice fields, and I felt something. I jolted awake and saw a big shadow in the corner of the room. It was the shadow of someone walking toward me, except there was no person casting that shadow. I called out for my other brother, still living, but no one answered. I didn't even know if anyone else was in the house. The shadow came closer and closer, then it just stopped, just went away completely. At first I was shaking and sweating, but when I realized it was my brother's spirit, I calmed down and I wasn't scared anymore.
A lot of Thais believe that people's spirits remain on earth for a few days or a week after they die so they can visit their families before being ushered into the underworld for judgment. I remember there was this fighter from the north whom I'd heard about. He'd gotten a contract with a gym in Bangkok, so he moved to the city and never really had the chance to visit his home village much. He missed his family, he said, but he couldn't visit them because he was training and fighting all the time. He said he wished they could come watch him fight, but they didn't have the means to come down to Bangkok.
Anyway, during one of his fights at a big stadium in Bangkok, he glanced over at his corner and was shocked to see his mother had finally come to one of his big fights! He hadn't seen her in a few years since he was last home. He was so happy, he could barely concentrate on that round. He was already a bit outclassed by his opponent, and he started losing even more points. He went back to his corner during the break but couldn't find his mom, figured she must have stepped out for a moment.
The next round was the same. The bell rang, he started fighting, and again his mother was back, smiling at him from his corner. But then during the break, she disappeared again. It was right before his last round, and he was losing. He asked his cornerman, "Where is my mother? I saw her standing here with you." And the cornerman said, "I don't know where she is. Just focus on your fight. Don't think too much."
He hadn't been doing too well up until that point, but in the last round he brought it back. He must have found a reserve of energy, because he ended up winning the fight. "A lucky win," was what the gamblers called it. When the judge raised his hand, he looked back to his corner and saw his mother standing there, crying because she was so happy.
After he paid his respects to his opponent's corner, he ran back to his corner but his mother was gone again. He asked his cornermen about her, but again they said they didn't know where she was. He wandered around stadium for a while but couldn't find her.
The next morning, a call came in to the fighter's gym in Bangkok from his home village in the north. His mother had died the night before.
I heard him tell this story once. He said he believed he won his fight because his mother's spirit came to help him. "She took care of me during my fight," he said, "just like she did when I was little." The way he talked about it, I could tell he really believed it.
I believe that story too. Sometimes when I fight, I look for my own mother in the corner. She passed away a few years ago. I've never seen her spirit, but I still ask her and my departed brother to protect me while I'm fighting or traveling. Sometimes when I have quiet time, I'll close my eyes and try to connect with their spirits. Come help me, come see me in my dreams. They both passed away years ago, but I miss them. You don't ever stop missing the people you love.
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