Monday, December 26, 2005

Tsunami Ghost

In wake of tsunami, fears of ghosts still haunt Thailand

By Griffin Shea in Phi Phi Island (Thailand)
Sunday, 25 December , 2005, 10:59

Few will actually admit to seeing a ghost themselves, but everyone has heard about them on this once idyllic island still rebuilding after the tsunami killed 700 people.

There was the woman who saw foreign tourists struggling to escape the sea almost a year after the tsunami, and the hotel worker who heard ghosts playing on the beach.

Guards at an oceanfront plaza on nearby Phuket's famed Patong beach said one of their men had quit after hearing a foreign woman cry "help me" all night long.

Similar stories abound of a female foreign ghost walking along the shoreline at night calling for her child.

Many Thais say they believe the souls of the nearly 5,395 people who were killed in the tsunami continued to haunt the Andaman coast long after the debris had been cleared away and reconstruction began.

It's not so much that the spirits are angry as confused. Many Thais of all faiths say that if people die in pain or by accident, their spirits remain lost until they understand what has happened and can move on.

For 26-year-old Lungyai Suriyaporn, her fear that ghosts were still wandering the beaches of Phi Phi was one of the reasons she stayed away from the island for nearly 10 months after the tsunami.

Lungyai returned in October to reopen her backpacker lodge. Guests have been trickling to the modest two-story house, where she also runs a small convenience store off her porch.

She believes most of the lost souls from the tsunami have already moved on and no longer haunt the beaches, but says the memorial ceremonies planned for the first anniversary will help the ghosts that remain.

"This is good, to inform people about the tsunami, and to give ceremonies for the souls, for the ghosts that are still here. And we need to remember all of those who were here and lost their lives in the tsunami," she said.

Thailand will hold interdenominational ceremonies again on the first anniversary of the tsunami, with morning services on five beaches timed for the moment when the waves hit, and a larger candlelight vigil at dusk.

Fears of ghosts have kept Thais and many other Asians from returning to the tsunami-hit beaches, preferring instead to visit the Gulf of Thailand, where the deadly waves did not hit.

Sujitra Wichianirat, 35, an office worker in Bangkok, said she would not go to the Andaman coast even one year later.

"First, I'm scared of ghosts. Second, I'm scared of tsunamis because I'm worried it might happen again. If tsunamis happen, at least we know from the tsunami warning system and I can run away from it. But for ghosts, I don't know how to escape from them," she said.

Hundreds of bodies have yet to be identified -- the Disaster Victim Identification unit says it has 805 bodies or body parts from unknown victims — which Sujitra said means the dead could be reappearing as ghosts to seek help.

From the moment the tsunami hit, Thai Buddhists have turned to monks to help soothe these lost souls.

When Thais along the Andaman coast began retrieving corpses, they carried them to temples, where hundreds of bodies were kept for months as the largest international forensics team ever assembled began the ongoing work of identifying them.

Temple grounds also became emergency shelters, where thousands of people sought refuge after losing their homes.

Just days after the tsunami hit, monks in their flowing orange robes began walking the beaches, sprinkling holy water, and visiting homes and businesses for cleansing ceremonies.

Muslim, Christian and Hindu religious leaders were also invited to join interdenominational prayer services and "merit-making" ceremonies, which Buddhists believe will help the souls of the dead find a better life as they become reincarnated.

Despite the fears of ghosts, Alan Oliver, an American researcher at the World Buddhist University in Bangkok, said that in general, the tsunami had not shaken Thai Buddhists' faith.

"In Buddhism, there is no 'God did this. Why did God do this?' They see it as a natural cause. Buddhists view that life is imperfect. When a disaster like this happens, they just accept it as a natural way of things happening."

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