Writing the recent article about Thailand’s coffin ceremony for the living reminded of another unusual story I saw on Thai television a few years ago. The Thai reporter was investigating the folklore in parts of north and north-eastern Thailand which talks of mysterious ‘widow ghosts’ or lai thai spirits that claim the lives of healthy young men. Over the years, some villages in rural Isaan have experienced the phenomenon of apparently healthy men dying in their sleep. Those that believe in the existence of lai thai spirits claim that the deaths are caused by an angry or jealous female ghost. It is said that when the malevolent female spirit enters the male victim he may start to choke or froth at the mouth. Paralysed by fear, the victim is unable to shout for help before he eventually dies. When a man dies in such circumstances, residents in the vicinity have been known to take measures to deter the ghost from claiming more victims. Some households place a straw doll outside with a wooden phallus attached so that any female ghost paying an unwanted visit will take the doll and not the male occupant of the house. In some situations, men have even resorted to dressing in women’s nightclothes or wearing lipstick when they sleep to fool the ghost.
It may seem a bizarre story to non-Thai people, but the belief in spirits and ghosts is very strong in Thailand. However, modern medical science may now have an explanation for the deaths that have traditionally been blamed in Thailand on the lai thai spirits. It is thought that SUNDS (Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome) occurs because of a cardiac weakness and there are certain ethnic groups in South-East Asia, including those of Hmong descent, who may be more susceptible to this. Cases of SUNDS have been reported throughout South-East Asia and medical experts believe the condition could be related to Brugada syndrome.