Sunday, November 26, 2006

An American journey through realm of spirit houses

Thai Takes

Inside the shrine, which resembled a Thai-style wooden house, were two 10cm-tall figurines of an old man and an old woman. Porcelain miniatures of elephants, horses and servants, and offerings of a can of Fanta Red, candies and sliced betel nuts were placed outside this shrine.

Next to it was a shrine that resembled a pint-sized Khmer temple. It housed pra chaimongkon, a 15cm-high golden angel figurine holding a moneybag and a sword.

On the compound of Evergreen View Tower Condominium in Bangna, a Bangkok suburb, Wanida Yahata, who was a few footsteps away from her workplace, stopped in front of the shrines. She pressed her palms together near her chest and bowed to them.

Wanida, 22, a receptionist at Evergreen View Tower, would wai (a respectful Thai gesture of thanks, apology or greeting) whenever she passed the spirit houses.

Why the wai?

“I ask the spirits for good things to happen to me,” she explained.

Except in the Muslim-majority south, spirit houses are ubiquitous in Thailand, and most houses and buildings have them.

“(An uninitiated foreigner) wonders why Thais have this little dollhouse in front of every building and why they pray to it,” noted American Marisa Cranfill, who is in the midst of pre-editing a book titled, Invoking the Land Gods; Understanding the Thai Spirit House.

They also find it very mysterious and that there's something powerful in there, she added.

Mysterious? Perhaps that was why the Beckhams in their June 2003 visit to Thailand bought several spirit houses and had them shipped to England.

Hopefully, the Beckhams knew that the main purpose of a spirit house is to provide a space for the land god to reside in and to take care of the land. “Or for the angel to come and protect the land,” explained Cranfill, 29.

The spirit house with the angelic figurine was called san pra poom. And Thais paid reverence to the golden angel.

“They see it as a benevolent compassionate force that will bestow its grace and goodness to them,” Cranfill said.

The spirit house with the old couple was called san jao thi phoon. It housed the land god.

“The Thais' relationship with the land god is very personal because it affects their daily life,” Cranfill explained. “You give the land god what it likes and it will give back good things. It is like a bargain.”

Ignoring or treating the spirit house disrespectfully might bring all sorts of trouble, she warned. “You may have a bad dream or sickness or something unlucky might happen, like a flood or fire.”

Cranfill was 16 years old when she became fascinated with spirit houses.

“I liked the way they looked,” said the American who has travelled constantly to Thailand since she was 12. Her mother owned a silk business in Bangkok.

Two years ago, her fascination turned into a journey to find out more about spirit houses.

As there was little anthropological information on spirit houses in English-language books, the Thai-speaking Cranfill travelled extensively throughout Thailand and Laos to learn about the subject from shamans.

She learnt to perform the rituals required when erecting a spirit house and discovered that the Thai reverence of the spirit house came from the harmonious blend of indigenous Thai, Brahmanistic Indian and Buddhist beliefs.

“This blend is what makes spirit houses so mysterious yet so fascinating,” said Cranfill.

This assimilation is successful in the spirit house tradition, as it harmoniously blends all three views or ultimate realities of three religions, yet and at the same time maintains spiritual value, meaning and satisfaction for the participant on each level.

“Even more interesting is the ability of the spirit house to endure and adapt in modern cities,” said the fashion designer who runs a clothing company called Marisa Baratelli and shuttles between Los Angeles and Bangkok.

When the real estate industry in Thailand is booming, the spirit house-making industry also thrives.

Cranfill's coffee-table book will have contemporary academic content and about 100 photographs taken by her 30-something Californian friend, Frank A. Fuller, a Thailand-based photographer.

For a year, the two journeyed throughout Thailand in search of spirit houses that were set in a background that was worthy of photography.

(Published in The Star on Nov 26, 2006. Photograph courtesy of Frank A. Fuller)

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Working his way to zero

Thai Takes

His heart literally about to explode like a bomb, Vikrom Kromadit grabbed two shotguns and embarked on a one-hour drive from Bangkok to his hometown Kanchanaburi to kill his father.

“It was like a war in my heart. My father had just shot my brother in the head and I wanted revenge,” said Vikrom, who is No. 29 on Forbes’ list of Thailand’s 40 richest, recalling his mad mood 18 years ago.

On that murderous night, the traffic out of Bangkok was at a crawl.

“During the slow drive, I was thinking that if I killed my father and then myself, what good would it bring? Who would take care of my family after that?” recollected the chairman of Amata Industrial Estates, the largest industrial-estate developer in Thailand.

“If traffic had been smooth that day, I wouldn’t be sitting here,” said the ever-smiling 53-year-old man.

Vikrom immortalised his homicidal intention in the opening chapter of his autobiography Pom Ja Pen Khon Dee (Be a Better Man: Dreaming of My Younger Days), which was launched last month.

“It is in the first chapter so that people will know about my bad character first. A son going to kill his father is a bad thing,” said Vikrom, who is the eldest of the 23 children of a sugarcane plantation owner.

“I want my readers to learn from my past, which has a lot of mistakes and bad things,” said the author, who is divorced and does not have any children.

One of the most important things readers would learn from the book is that even rich families have problems, he said.

“When you read about the bad things that happened in my family, would you want to repeat them?” he asked rhetorically.

Vikrom then revealed that when he was young, his parents constantly bickered because of his father’s many wives.

“One night my mother ordered me to get the girl who my father denied having an affair with. And my father told me not to go,” he said, recalling an incident that happened when he was 19.

In his hesitation to obey two contrasting orders, his hot-tempered father ordered his two bodyguards to restrain Vikrom. And he beat up his son.

“That was the first time I wanted to kill him,” Vikrom said.

During a one-hour interview at his Thai-styled penthouse in Bangkok, he was animated as he reeled off volatile anecdotes about his life.

Like the one where he scuffled with a Tibetan undertaker who went amok in Tibet last year.
The story ended with Vikrom, who was armed with a Swiss Army knife, disarming the Tibetan of his long undertaker knife.

“As I held him, I wanted to twist his head one round, two rounds,” he recalled excitedly.

Then there was the one about him ordering a gunman from his Kanchanaburi province to kill a “bad man”.

“In my 30 years in business, there were many bad people – lawyers, gangsters, businessmen – who I wanted to be killed,” he admitted. “But believe me, I did not do anything to them.”

Nonetheless, Vikrom was a picture of serenity in a July 2006 article by Forbes, which estimated his worth to be US$140mil (RM512mil).

“Inside a house floating on a lake in one of Thailand’s national parks, Vikrom Kromadit sits quietly with his eyes closed, surrounded by lotus flowers,” the Forbes reporter wrote.

The businessman who plans to donate US$110mil (RM401mil) in stock holdings to the Amata Foundation on his birthday next year spends 10% of his time on business.

“A lot of businessmen do everything by themselves as they don’t trust others. That’s the Chinese-style,” explained Vikrom, who is of Chinese descent. “My philosophy is if I don’t trust my people, then who am I going to trust?”

Vikrom lives like a monk (but in luxurious trappings) to purify his angry mood. He devotes himself to meditating, reading and writing.

So far, he has written three autobiographical self-help books. His next is on his business life and he has recorded his thoughts in books, “as in 100 or 1,000 years’ time, they will still be there”.

“As for me, I’m on the way to zero (death),” said the CEO of Amata, which means eternity.

(Published in The Star on Nov 19, 2006. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)

Sunday, November 12, 2006

On a mission to save souls – in pubs


Hands gripping a Bible, and with beads of sweat dripping from his clean-shaven head, the 22-year-old American shouted “Repent!”
Looking clearly unrepentant was an elderly tourist who was holding a bottle of Singha beer while chatting with a slinky Thai girl at Big Dogs pub.

Also looking unrepentant was a crowd of bemused and intoxicated tourists who had gathered around the American.

Unperturbed, Henry Thompson continued preaching. To him, the crowds were souls who required salvation.

It was 9.30pm on a Monday and Thompson was facing the entrance to what he perceived as Sodom and Gomorrah.

In fact, it was the Nana Plaza Entertainment Complex on Sukhumvit Soi 4 in Bangkok. The entrance led to the courtyard of an inverted U-shaped, three-storey, terraced building that hosted go-go bars. It was one of Bangkok’s main tourist attractions.

At Nana Plaza, according to the man whose name-card noted his job title as “Servant of the Most High”, every kind of sin (from prostitution to child trafficking and drug dealing to witchcraft) was committed.

And the preacher wanted the sinners at the plaza to repent.

“I want them to go to heaven when they die. I love them. I don’t hate them for what they are doing. I hate the sin. But I love their souls,” explained Thompson earnestly during a break from one of his 10-minute sermons.

Tony Webb took over to continue the 90-minute non-stop preaching session. Webb, an American, moralised in Thai.

“How are you doing? Are you okay?” asked Thompson while approaching a burly black man.

“Man, I hope you are okay,” replied Anthony Alexander, a 27-year-old from Florida who was at Nana Plaza to hang out and rent girls. He, however, understood why the preachers perceived Nana Plaza as an evil place.

“But all involved are adults,” he said while a 25-year-old Thai girl named Jiap waited for her regular.

Alexander said he found the preachers “cocky”. “Preaching won’t be effective here,” he said.

But don’t tell that to Thompson, who has a testimony to relate.

Six months ago, at the same place and same time, Thompson was preaching for 30 minutes when a man opened a bathroom window at the second floor and shouted, “Hey, come up here!”

Webb rushed to the man, who was a 50-something European.

Crying, the man told Webb that 30 minutes earlier he had intended to shoot himself with a Colt 45 as he was facing financial problems.

Before squeezing the trigger, the man said, he had prayed, asking God: “If you are real, show yourself to me.”

And at that very moment he heard Thompson. The man thanked them for saving his life.

Most of the time, though, preaching was a thankless job, Thompson admitted.

At Nana Plaza, Thompson has been yelled at, mocked, laughed, cursed, punched, threatened with a butcher’s knife, and kissed.

“Prostitutes would come to me, grab my arms, press their breasts on me and try to kiss me. But I’m not attracted to them,” he related.

Thompson has been evangelising in Thailand for two-and-a-half years but the authorities have not harassed him at all.

“Sometimes people do complain. But the police usually shake our hands and say very good, as they know what we are doing would eventually stop crime,” said the preacher who lives in Thailand with his 21-year-old American wife Amy and their baby.

But it was different in Minneapolis, United States. “Two weeks ago, two policewomen rudely told us to stop preaching,” said the American who runs

When Thompson and Webb refused, they ended up in jail.

“Praise the Lord,” he said, “as in jail we got to tell the prisoners to repent.”

Thompson occasionally evangelised in Penang, where he observed that “there were some transvestites and prostitutes” in Georgetown. “But it (flesh trade) was looked down upon, unlike in Bangkok,” he noted.

What’s next for him?

“Next is heaven. I’m going to continue this until I die,” he said.

(Published in The Star on Nov 12, 2006)

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Now, it’s no to the coup

Thai Takes

Wear black t-shirt
Turn on your main light vehicle
Place black bow on your vehicle
Wear black wristband

That was the message from an ominous 3.26-minute video clip posted on Using the Internet, an unknown group, dCode, urged Thais to defy martial law and stage an anti-coup d’etat rally on Nov 1 at Sanam Luang ground in Bangkok.

At about 11am, hours before the scheduled rally in his office at Bangkok’s prestigious Chulalongkorn University, Giles Ji Ungpakorn put on a black t-shirt. His choice of t-shirt colour, however, was unrelated to the protest that he described as “very strange”.

He was suspicious of the characters behind dCode.

“One of the organisers gave flowers to the military junta when the coup took place,” said the 53-year-old Marxist, “and now he is against the coup.”

“Nowadays, I tend to wear black as I’m in mourning for democracy,” explained the lecturer whose office has a flag of his favourite Malaysian political party, the yet-to-be-registered Parti Sosialis Malaysia, hung on the wall.

Three days after the Sept 19 coup, Giles wore a black t-shirt and held a “No to Thaksin. No to the coup” poster at Siam Paragon, an upscale mall in Bangkok. He was part of the first organisation, 19 September Network against Coup d’Etat, to publicly condemn the coup makers.

In an opinion piece in The Nation on Sept 26, Giles wrote: “The one thing that I have learnt over the years, with encouragement from my father and mother, was never to trust a military dictatorship. A coup is not ‘reform’. Dictatorship is not ‘democracy’. The military cannot be trusted. Democracy has taken a serious step backwards.”

The dissenting voice of the son of Puey Ungpakorn – the rector of Bangkok’s Thammasat University during the brutal massacre of student protestors on its campus on Oct 6, 1976 – was the few heard during the early days of the Council for National Security’s military rule.

Five weeks after the coup, however, the voice of dissent against CNS was getting louder and louder.

Some people are beginning to see that the military have lied consistently, observed Giles.

“The military said they would step back after two weeks and yet they are still in the saddle. The military said they would appoint a civilian government and yet they appointed an army man (General Surayud Chulanont) as prime minister,” he said.

More and more people are showing their dissatisfaction with the military, he added.

One dissatisfied voice was that of Thammasat University lecturer Somyos Chuathai, who is a legal expert.

On Nov 2, The Nation reported that Somyos dismissed as unbelievable the CNS leaders’ claim not to perpetuate their power.

“All coup-makers have said they would not stage a coup, and they did. They all said they would not become prime minister – and later they did,” he said in an interview with the Thai Journalists Association.

“After coup-makers tear up the constitution, they normally set up a nominee party to carry on their power. Now that the CNS has overthrown the Thaksin government, it may have to do the same thing,” Somyos said.

“After seizing power this time, this vicious circle is inevitable. I do not believe that after the election, the CNS will step down easily because it has made many enemies.”

Calls for the CNS to step down were heard during the Nov 1 protest, which was one of the largest since the military banned political assemblies. It drew about 200 protestors – dressed in black and wearing black plastic wristbands – who demanded the end of martial law and a general election within two months.

Giles expected the people to organise more protests and social forums to pressure for the immediate return of democracy to Thailand.

But what could people power do as the military had the guns?

“Well, they haven’t shot us yet. And Thai history has shown that when the military shot demonstrators on two occasions (1973 and 1992), they lost (power),” he said.

Prime Minister Surayud should know.

In 1992, he was a commander during the bloody Black May where the military fired at pro-democracy protestors who were demanding for coup-maker General Suchinda Krapyoon to step down as prime minister.

(Published in The Star on Nov 5, 2006)