Nongplong and Kokrak are villages in Isaan, Northeast Thailand.
Adjacent to them is Krokkeaw, another village which is slightly larger
and similarly has a population of a few hundred people. After one or
more villagers died in their sleep in Krokkeaw last month, word spread
that ghosts were responsible who favored victims born on a Tuesday
(pink) or a Wednesday (green). Thereafter, ghost-aversion scarecrows
were set up outside several houses, some with signs posted in Thai with
messages to the ghosts, to the effect of “No one inside was born on
Tuesday or Wednesday. No humans reside here, only dogs and a bear.”
The signs contain lies such as “no humans reside here” or there is “a
bear”—the nearest bear is in the Korat Zoo hundreds of kilometers away.
Apparently the ghost reads Thai but not their minds, but that does not
seem to hinder their practice.

The believers have one foot in pre-modern times and the other in the
media-saturated present, yet most striking is how the need to construct
the figures spreads by word of mouth and then the scarecrows start
popping up from house to house, asserting a form of group cohesion.
Within a couple of weeks, forty households had them, each one made of
different materials that were found lying around.

The makers don’t consider their scarecrows art, rather they are functional
attempts at dislodging scary characters from harming or killing them and
their loved ones. This belief system has stubbornly endured for hundreds
of years and is still palpably alive in the scarecrows. The community of
ghost-averting scarecrows simultaneously works both sides of the
mirror—the shared values and solidarity of the community and the
spectral ghost sphere, although we should keep in mind that not every
household indulges in the practice.

These serious scarecrows originated in Khmer custom, which is still
carried on pervasively in the Cambodian countryside. They are made
right after the rice harvest to ensure that no evil spirits will inflict
spiritual harm. At the end of the cool season they are burned.

The Thai version, practiced mostly by Thais of Khmer extraction living
near the Cambodian border, comes about spontaneously when death
intervenes in a seemingly unnatural way, and therefore it can be
considered a corruption of the Khmer’s seasonal praxis. Moreover,
present-day villagers in Nongplong and Krokkeaw are unaware of the
custom’s roots in Khmer antiquity.

I am half Thai and half Thai-Khmer, a native of Kokrak now living in
Nongplong. I photographed the scarecrows as part of my chronicling of
changing village life, which includes a series on betel nut-chewing
citizens, weddings, festivals, work patterns, and the mundane life of the
farming community.

For the anti-ghost figures I chose mostly a wide-angle lens to exaggerate
the qualities, making the ghost averters appear more “ghost-like.” This
parallels the Hindu and Buddhist practice of placing scary deities in front
of temples. They take the form of evil to repel evil, a cast of mind quite
alien to the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I was harassed by a group of tough local thugs in Krokkeaw who accused
me of mocking them by photographing the figures, and they forced me
to stop. Since they were insistent and aggressive, I went home. But I
returned the following day to photograph clandestinely.

My mother, who has lived her whole life in Kokrak, recalls that about
once a decade she has seen ghost-averting scarecrows like these, whenever
a danger has been perceived from the invisible sphere. To my knowledge,
it’s the first time they have ever been photographed. I wonder if it will
anger them or assuage their eerie vanity.

Srisuda Foythongsamrong         
February 2008                 
Nongplong, Thailand

---By July 2008 the ghost-avenging scarecrows had all disappeared.
Apparently they were effective in preventing deaths.
Photographs by Srisuda Foythongsamrong
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