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by : John Cadet

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.gifIt's all very sanuk, very enjoyable, the way things usually are in Thailand.

.gifEveryone who's anyone in the spirit world is here - a consort of Queen Chamadevi: a rooka thewada, a powerful spirit that lives in the gate of Lampang City: a two-year-old baby that looks after bar-girls: a seer from Tibet about a thousand years old who's flown in specially for the occasion…along with some twenty other ghosts, spirits and elementals. They're dancing gracefully to the music of the ranad ek, flutes, drums, ching, gong and the other instruments of the traditional Thai orchestra … prapapapapa … tringalingaling … chingachinga- ching … booonnnnnggggg!

.gifOf course, you can't actually see these spirits unless your third eye is open. First you hear the music rippling across the parched rice-fields as you approach. Then you catch a glimpse of the huge awning that's been put up between the hamlet's biggest shade-trees. Finally, coming closer, you see the villagers sitting on the chairs borrowed from the local temple, yellow orchids in their hair, watching the kon song (mediums), most of them women but with one or two men among them, wheeling delicately this way and that as (as you might say) the spirit and the music move them….tringalingaling… ratapatatat…bringalingaching… bbbooonnnnggg!

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.gifI'd already consulted some kon song in and around Chiang Mai, so I knew a little of their history. The supernatural is commonplace in Thailand. There are ghosts everywhere and it's a bold person who doesn't take precautions in respect of them. You wear Buddha amulets around your neck: a takrut (a small cylinder with a protective amulet inside) at your waist: you get a prahm (brahmin specialist) to tie sacred strings round your wrists: and having consulted a mor doo (astrologer) about auspicious times, you're ready to go - to school, abroad, into marriage, a business deal or an international alliance.

.gifAnd don't tell me education is eliminating belief in the supernatural. My landlady, who owns a school, has a little green man at the bottom of her compound. A number of the teachers have seen him. And a Prime Minister some years back now, a graduate of LSE, was better respected - and certainly more successful - as an astrologer.

.gifThe kon song, though, even in Thailand, are something special.

.gifThe first I consulted made a deep impression on me. In her day-to-day life she's an attractive young woman of Lamphun, a small town to the south of Chiang Mai, married and with a couple of children. But when she'd put on her ‘Burmese' robes, invoked the spirit of her jow por/familiar and been possessed by him - shaking and vomiting, passing a trembling hand across her face - she became an entirely different being: bold, deep-voiced, forthright and convincingly masculine. Although the background of the four foreigners consulting her must have been completely strange, she dealt with each of them with total assurance, showing an extraordinary acuteness where their different temperaments were concerned: bringing out and sympathising with the emotional difficulties one was having: effectively cutting down to size a somewhat arrogant member of the party: flirting amusingly with a third, who was a woman…

.gifWhen it came to my turn I was slightly reluctant to submit myself, the jow por having been so authoritative. I went forward, wai-ed with a certain degree of trepidation, wondering what my lot was going to be. But I needn't have worried. The jow por obviously thought I needed building up. ‘He' laughed when he'd looked at my face and hands. "This one isn't afraid of anything…he succeeds with everything he turns his hand to…he's had a thousand girls friends…and in the next few years…" etc. etc.

.gifNow I have to admit the jow por didn't get it all right. He was insistent I should take care in May, when I was going to dtok through one or another agency, i.e. have a fall of some description. And nothing of the sort happened. Besides, a thousand girl-friends is putting it a trifle high, even as a round figure…

.gifBut what did make an impression was the feeling of friendly power the medium emanated. It was something direct, physical, like a benevolent blow to the solar plexus - difficult to describe exactly, but you left feeling you'd had an encounter with a person of exceptional ability. The other mediums I'd met also had this power to a greater or lesser degree. And one, who came from the Northeast, had psycho-kinetic abilities that were literally out of this world - though that's another story.

.gifOf them all, though, it was Khun Inpan of Lamphun who made the deepest impression. And if I remember correctly, she charged ten baht a head for the two-hour consultation.

.gifBut there were no psycho-kinetic tricks and few consultations the afternoon we went to the village of Ba Chow, a few miles east of Chiang Mai city. A Thai friend invited us to the ceremony. It was her home village and she'd heard there was to be a dance of the kon song of the locality "to give the spirits an enjoyable New Year outing". It was the middle of March, hot, dry, the bare fields cracked and shimmering. There are a lot of festivities at this time as the harvest is in and much of the grain sold. The farmers are free and with any luck have a little money in their pockets. So it's the time to bai tio (go on a trip) hai sanuk (and have some fun).

.gifNot that there isn't a darker side to the world of the mediums. No Thai doubts they are two-handed manipulators of power, as able to use the left as well as the right when the need arises. Most kon song are quick to assure you they deal only with the white side of their business: curing, removing curses, providing advice and protection. And no doubt many are sincere in these professions. It's certainly true too, though, that some are adept in the left-handed accomplishments, and it must be a very tame medium who has never rapped out a curse, or done some pin-sticking - even whipped up a potion or two when she felt it justified.

.gifOn this particular day though they're all on their best behaviour. The dancing begins early in the morning and goes on till late at night. Each kon song puts on her 'Burmese' robes, pays respects at the hor phi (spirit house) and invokes her familiar. Possession sometimes comes about violently, the mediums falling to the ground, shaking, twitching for a moment. Then, under control again, they pass to the straw-matted area in front of the orchestra and begin dancing, some listlessly, with perfunctory arm movements, others energetically, gracefully, and with unflagging energy - the spectators, the villagers from miles around meanwhile content to watch for hours, occasionally buying a bright-coloured fruit-drink from the local vendor, or a dish of gelatinous ruam mit topped with shaved ice: laughing at the jokes the spirits tell, the tricks and games between them that go on as they dance…

.gifAnd the orchestra, which began with the sprightly funeral music the spirits are said to be fond of, passes almost imperceptibly into a selection from the top of the pops of some decades back - "Down at the Lightning Bar' one that's recognisable - then gliding back to the funeral music without noticeable change of tempo.

.gifAnd so it goes on, hour after hour, real up-country entertainment: leisurely, long-drawn-out, even slightly tedious, if it weren't for the fact that everything around is so beautiful - the swaying brakes of bamboo, the solid farm houses, the well-swept paths and the shifting patterns of light and shade on the hard-baked earth. Out beyond this oasis of relative coolness the bare fields jump and shimmer, a reminder of the hard work to be done in the months ahead, when the rains come.

.gifBut for the moment it's time for pleasure, for relaxation, and everyone, not least the spirits, is making the most of it.

.gifI left the village in the middle of the afternoon, the liquid rattle of the ranad ek, the shuddering boom of the gong following me across the fields, getting fainter as the bamboo groves intervened. I heard later that in the evening, when the spirits had drunk a great deal of rice wine, there was a certain amount of falling about and garrulity. And no doubt they all enjoyed themselves, from the consort of Queen Chamadevi through to the Tibetan seer. In the morning they'd be back to the humdrum business of cures, advice and maledictions, so who could begrudge them this day of relaxation?

.gifThe only people who aren't likely to be satisfied are the kon song themselves. They always complain that while they do all the work, it's the spirits that get the pleasure.

.gifBut as anyone will tell you, you can't satisfy everybody.

(Text & images © J.M. Cadet 2005)
The author lives in Chiang Mai and his works - The Ramakien: the Thai epic among them - are available at major book shops.

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