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Khamis, 18 September 2014

Pelik tapi Benar

Bukan saja di Jepun di Krabi pun ada juga tempat memuja zakar.

Thailand has always been a predominately Buddhist country with a significant Muslim minority in the south and a sprinkling of Hindus, Christians and other religions throughout. But all these labels belie a deeply rooted, devout animism in its indigenous population.

As in many places in the world, the official religions of the last two millennia are thin veneers masking tens of thousands of years of humanity’s belief in the living spirit of all things animate (birds, fish, reptiles, mammals, insects) as well as inanimate (plants, rocks, rivers, seas, mountains and the very land we stand on). Animism is alive and well today, and in Krabi there is a very real story behind those strange, colourful penis-like objects that decorate a local beach cave.

“This has nothing to do with Thai people’s religion”, the sign stated with authority. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. This was the most sacred site on the entire Krabi coast, and it had everything to do with local beliefs. There are many variations of the legend of Phra Nang. Some say she was a real woman, the wife of a Sea Gypsy fisherman who went out to sea one day from the shelter of their cave home and never returned. This story tells of the woman living out her years on this site, forever looking out to sea in hope of seeing her husband.

 st as the ancient Greeks went to the oracle at Delphi. Even when she was no longer there in physical form, people could still sense her presence. If a person entered her cave with a good heart, it is said, food would drop down from the cave roof to feed them. If they entered with a bad heart, a great wind would usher from the cave and blow them tumbling to the other end of the beach.

Other legends refer to Phra Nang as the ghost of an Indian princess who lost her life in a shipwreck offshore. Her spirit is believed to have taken residence in the small cave grotto fronting the southern end of Phra Nang Beach. Over time the site became associated with fertility, virility and good luck. The cave was seen as a symbolic vagina and large wooden carved penises known as lingams were placed here as offerings to the female deity that resided there. It is said that you could carve one of these lingams anywhere on the coast of Krabi, release it on the high tide, and within a few tidal changes it would find its way to the cave.

Phra Nang has held her power over the Phra Nang peninsula for as long as anyone can remember. The beach that fronts her cave and shrine was always exclusively her own, and for countless centuries it was considered too sacred is to build on. Today it is described by travel magazines as the second most beautiful beach in the world, and everything has changed. Bungalows were built and later torn down to make way for a world-class resort. Budget tourists started using the cave for massage, for sex, to toke up and have wild booze parties. How was any of this possible, the locals wondered; had Phra Nang lost her powers?

A sudden change in land ownership attracted the Dusit Rayavadee, a new member of Thailand’s premier resort chain, the Dusit Group. The Phra Nang pensinsula was about to jump overnight from the budget backpack 150 baht a night crowd to a high-end market able and willing to pay more than 20,000 baht a night. No one was thinking of the old superstitions around the site in the heady rush to develop.

On the night before the grand opening, some of the construction site labourers decided to have a little Mekhong whisky party in the Phra Nang Cave to celebrate the project’s completion. They were Isaan workers from the remote reaches of northeast Thailand, so the Phra Nang deity was no concern of theirs. During the course of the party, a small cooking fire they’d made got out of control and burned up all the elaborately carved lingams at the shrine site.

That same night, a local woman became possessed by a spirit on the other side of the pensinsula. She began babbling in tongues. Uncle Chai, the owner of the land my bungalow was built on, was awakened during the night and taken by longtail boat across Ao Nam Mao Bay to exorcize the spirit.

“What happened last night?” I asked, when I saw the old man return at dawn, completely drained.

“The Phra Nang spirit take over a woman’s body,” came the reply. “She angry because someone destroy her shrine in the cave. She say the people who do this have the big house, but soon everything come down.”

Chai’s story didn’t mean much to me at the time, but word of Phra Nang’s sudden manifestation spread like wildfire to every local person living along the beach. Was she back? Did she still hold power?

At 10.30am, as the grand opening of the Dusit Rayavadee was getting underway on Phra Nang Beach, a strange and unprecedented event was taking place in Bangkok, 800 kilometres north of Phra Nang’s cave. Nearly 100 demonstrators had gathered in front of the Dusit Thani Hotel, and national television stations were there to record a protest against the Dusit Rayavadee for “trespassing on Krabi’s national park”. On Phra Nang Beach, meanwhile, the first guests were arriving by hydrofoil jet ferry from Phuket. A red carpet was rolled down the beach to the waterline, and champagne corks popped as white-gloved staff of the Dusit Rayavadee formally helped their first guest disembark.

I was not among the spectators taking in the gala that day, but was lying in a hammock on the beach just across Ao Nam Mao Bay at my bungalow, “Dawn of Happiness Beach Resort”. Suddenly I heard a huge explosion. I looked across to the peninsula to what appeared to be a volcanic eruption. Flames were soaring into the sky above the coconut palms, and several trees were on fire. The Dusit Rayavadee’s generator had blown up, and there was no backup system to power the air-conditioners. All of the grand opening guests had to be escorted back to the hydrofoil and returned to Phuket. There could not have been a less auspicious scenario for the Rayavadee, nor a greater affirmation of local folklore than this.

“Phra Nang has the power!” was all I heard that day from every local I spoke to. “Phra Nang has the power!”

The Dusit chain did everything possible to shore up its image and to impress upon locals that this was merely a badly timed glitch rather than a curse. A good number of staff, carefully selected from the local community and trained, were already quitting their jobs rather than face further wrath from Phra Nang’s angry spirit. The hotel itself had a new generator in place within days and, to appease local fears more than Phra Nang’s spirit, they ordered a large cement spirit house to be ceremoniously placed in the cave with the sacrificial offering of a goat.

That same night, a Thai woman who worked at one of the bungalows on the peninsula was possessed by a spirit and, once again, Uncle Chai was awakened from his sleep and called to exorcize it. I and all my staff were waiting when the old man returned by boat at first light to ask him what had happened this time.

“Phra Nang still angry,” he said with an amused smile. “She not want the spirit house. She want the lingams.”

Word of the possession by the spirit and her message had already reached top management at the Rayavadee, and even more employees wanted to leave. No one may ever know for sure if the hotel was beginning to believe in the legend of Phra Nang, or if they were merely acting to ease the fears of their staff, but that day was not a normal one in the affairs of southern Thailand’s premier resort. The staff of the largest hotel chain in the Kingdom could be found that day sitting in a cave carving giant wooden phalluses – Phra Nang’s beloved lingams.

Phra Nang does have the power.

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