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Mae Nak: Thailand's Most Famous Ghost

Mike is a freelance writer exploring obscure media, wyrd tales, and cultural oddities.

Mae Nak shrine (Courtesy of Guava.com)

Mae Nak shrine (Courtesy of Guava.com)

Mythology in Thailand

Thailand may be known as the land of smiles, but it's also home to many ghost stories and urban legends. Indeed, ghost lore is extremely popular in Thailand, and many hold strong beliefs regarding spirits and phantoms. However, according to Thai mythology, not all ghosts are created equal.

The most potent and dreadful of all specters are the ones of women who have died in childbirth. Perhaps the most famous of such hauntings is Mae Nak Phra Khanong, "the waiting woman" who tried to fool her husband into believing she and her child lived following their terrible fate.

The Legend of Mae Nak

Many years ago, a beautiful woman named Mae Nak lived on the banks of the Phra Khanong Canal in the country of Siam (modern-day Thailand) with her husband, Mak. While urbanized now, Phra Khanong was a small and simple village back then. The couple hoped to raise a family and live a peaceful life together in this village, and Nak was soon pregnant with Mak's child.

Unfortunately, during this time, Siam would go to war with the people of the Shan Tribe. Mass-conscription soon followed, and Mak found himself at the front lines. At the front, Mak suffered a terrible wound and soon found himself in Bangkok, where he was slowly nursed back to health. Unfortunately, while Mak had escaped death, tragedy would strike back home as both Nak and her child would die during childbirth.

When Mak eventually returned home, he would find his village in ruins, with most of the houses being abandoned or destroyed. As if by a miracle, though, he would find his own home standing upright and untouched. And, there inside, he would discover Nak and his infant son both unharmed and waiting for him.

Mae Nak Shrine Offerings

Mae Nak Shrine Offerings

All Is Not as It Seems

The couple and their child lived together seemingly in peace for some time, with Mak completely unaware he was living with ghosts. He was also unaware of the terrible deeds Nak was committing to keep him in the dark. Old friends and neighbors tried to reach Mak and tell him the truth about his wife and child. But, each time someone got close to telling him, they would meet a terrible fate by Nak's hands.

It wouldn't be until one fateful day that Mak would finally see the horrible truth. While Nak was preparing food, she dropped a lime on the floor. Then, briefly forgetting to keep up her facade, she would make her arm longer to reach the fruit. Seeing this, Mak then knew his wife was now a ghost.

Mak would flee and take refuge inside the temple of Wat Mahabut. Unable to enter this sacred space, Mae Nak would take her fury out on the local populace until one monk would imprison her spirit inside an earthen pot. The monk would then throw this pot into the river. For a while, it seemed the hauntings were over. But the story wouldn't end there.

Sometime later, the pot ended up in the hands of two fishermen, who would invertedly free Mae Nak's spirit. By this time, Mak had moved on and lived with another woman. Distraught, the jealous ghost would kill this new woman in a fit of rage and begin terrorizing villagers once again. Finally, another Monk would placate her by promising that she would live again with her husband in the next life if she stopped her killing.

Mae Nak Shrine - Canal Side

Mae Nak Shrine - Canal Side

Variations of the Tale

There are many variations of this tale, especially concerning its ending. In some stories, Mak or a monk buries Nak, and a tree is planted above her head to keep her spirit still. In others, a monk takes her frontal bone and turns it into a magical amulet. Some believe that the royal family currently possesses this amulet.

Other stories feature mediums instead of monks, while the famous Somdet To plays the hero in others. Another variation of the tale sees Mak discover that his wife is a ghost after putting his head between his legs and peering at his house upside down.

More minor details, such as the mentioning of the Shan tribe and Mak's war injury, are left out or changed. Oh, and sometimes the lime that Mae Nak picks up is a lemon.

Mae Nak in Thai Culture

As previously mentioned, ghostlore is rife in Thailand, and Mae Nak and her story remain popular. Mothers often tell a form the story to their children, warning them that Mae Nak will get them if they dawdle on their way home from school or stay out too late.

Others show a kind of reverence towards her, with many making the trip to visit her shrine located (perhaps ironically) at Wat Mahabut. Here people ask Mae Nak's spirit to bless their lives with good fortune, with many leaving offering such as gold leaves, baby clothes, toys, and dresses. Her shrine is especially popular with expecting mothers and young women, who often ask Mai Nak to spare them her fate. Meanwhile, young men ask that she spare them the horrors of conscription and war.

Mai Nak's popularity has also made her a common subject for pop culture media. Her story has seen over a dozen film adaptations, the most famous being 1958's Mae Nak Pra Kanong and the 1999 film Nang Nak, with the latter receiving international acclaim. In addition, she's been the subject of several TV shows, radio dramas, comic books, and even musicals.

Trailer for 'Ghost of Mae Nak' (2005)

Bibliography and Sources

Johnson, A.A. 2016, "GHOST MOTHERS: Kinship Relationships in Thai Spirit Cults", Social Analysis, vol. 60, no. 2, pp. 82-96.

Mae Nak (thaiworldview.com, no date). Accessed at http://www.thaiworldview.com/bouddha/maenak.htm

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Mike Grindle