Content warning: Mention of violence.
It was just after two in the early morning hours of upcountry Esan Thailand. It was well known that Thais in this part of the country were early risers, especially those with the extra burden of being self-sustained farmers just to survive. Neung was no exception, but even he was usually asleep at these hours. A muffled and incessant pinging pierced the night air and had aroused him from a deep and peaceful slumber.
Like all good Thais he had already done his nightly rituals before bed including evening prayers, soaking the rice in water for tomorrows breakfast of Khao Tom, and closing all the windows lest any errant spirits or voodoo curses make their way to harm his small family. Luckily it was the full moon of Ok Phansa in late October so it wasn’t quite as hot as it had normally been; In these parts that simply meant you could use one less fan to try and sleep.
Neung’s family were sharecroppers on one of the medium-sized rice farms in their village, meaning they were simple people of modest means, but in no way could afford what westerners would consider luxuries. As such he slept on a relatively thin mat and wore a simple cloth covering in lieu of bed clothes. Luckily for him years of sleeping on hardwood floors and genuflecting on the tile floors of many a temple had made him impervious to the aches and pains that came along with the rituals. Besides after spendings days at a time hunched over in shin-deep water during the rice harvesting season, a nice hardwood teak floor did wonders for the back. But he’d be damned if he still didn’t cherish the sleep he was afforded.
The methodical clamoring now became impossible to ignore. He wiped the sleep from his eyes, quickly washing his face. A low-burning kerosene lamp was his only light source in the dead of night. He could hear the soft clanging of bodies jostling in the stilt clay and straw houses around him. Chickens stirred uneasily cooing while feral soi-dogs howled far off in the distance. Barren feet shuffled across floorboards, as the noise had undoubtedly woken the neighbors as well. It seems this was cause for further investigation.
As much as every ounce of Neung and his fellow villagers were against walking off into the dead of night, they were drawn to the sound and simply could no longer ignore it. It was also the full moon of harvest season, and as the heavenly orb hung low in the sky, it cast an auspicious feeling of doom over the hilly lowlands of Thailand’s mystical landscape. Their culture believed these particular days were ones in which the dead could reunite with the living, much like Celts and Pagans alike celebrated All Hallow’s Eve, Samhain, All Saint’s Day and Dia De Los Muertos. The locals already had a strong penchant for superstitions and ghost stories, and the unusual circumstances of the evening were exacerbating the gossip among the unofficially monikered Thai Wive’s Club.
The concept of “Kreng Jai” in Thailand meant that no one would be starting up noisy 110cc motorbikes out of respect for those who powered through the racket with much needed rest. No one here save the monks, even owned a vehicle, so if Neung’s rag-tag group of weary neighbors were going to seek out the source of the pinging, it would have to be on foot. Save a few dim flashlights and a handful of lamps, there was barely enough light being thrown to illuminate the path in front of them. Luckily for Neung he had been traipsing these footpaths and rice field embankments since as long as he could walk, so he could practically do it blindfolded. He posed as their fearless leader, but if he was to be honest with them, he was equally afraid of the walking dead as he was of a wayward cobra, both not uncommon in these parts.
As the group of about eight villagers walked through the maze of overgrown reeds and footpaths, they all agreed that the noise, whatever it was, seemed to be coming from the town's sole temple. This was a place that was central to the village. In fact, it was the sacred temple grounds and its elaborate architecture that delineated one village from the next. It served as a place of worship and celebration, but primarily as a safe haven to cremate and rest the remains of the dead. It was also the one part of town cut off from the rest of civilization, a term used loosely in this extremely rural, barely-structured part of the world. It was also a place monks spent hundreds of thousands of hours meditating, talking to dead ancestors and wayward spirits, and trying to achieve enlightenment, although that last one was extremely unlikely on the grand scale of cosmic time.
Every shadow along their cautious walk seemed to take shape of some demonic apparition or wandering spirit, before revealing itself in its true form, as a tall palm tree or grazing water buffalo. The noise wasn’t helping the already frayed nerves of the superstitious villagers. Thais had a long history of assigning ghostly forms to match whatever transgression the sinners had achieved while still on earth. There were tall ones, flying ones, luminescent ones. Ones with entrails hanging out and ones with tiny sewn mouths in search of food and water. There were sea spirits and sylvan ones. Ghosts without heads and ones with stretchable arms. Practically every incarnation of a demon or spirit mixed with any imaginable human malady or deformation had been assigned to a sin or evil thought.
Life in Thailand was like one big morality play. The culture had embraced most otherworldly sightings in hopes that young children and wavering adults would not fall prey to the ways of sin. The problem is it had been taken to the extreme. Nearly eighty percent believed to have a seen a ghost in some fashion or other, or experienced paranormal activity, with even more believing of their actual existence. It permeated pop culture from TV shows, to movies, books, songs, and daily life. Living with ghosts, mosts who were out to scare you into doing the right thing, was an acceptable and tangible part of everyday life here. What’s more, they believed in reincarnation. So you would have multiple lives, and hence opportunities, to pay for your sins as a haunted specter, until you got it right enough to be reborn as a human again; which was considered the pinnacle of earthy existence.
It was along this very road that the villagers had repeated their own oral traditions of ghostly folklore. Khun Lek once told how on one of the many nights of her great aunts wake, on her way home she had been followed by the sounds of a spirit chasing her while dragging its own coffin by the chains. Still others recounted how many had been disturbed from slumber, in the still of a night very much like this one, by the revelry of many full moon ravers on the beaches devastated by the great tsunami, only to ultimately find no one there. Another local folklore told of the ghostly figures demanding a midnight cinema screening in the middle of the jungle, which was promptly obliged by villagers, only to find no one there come morning.
But these things were the farthest from Neung and his neighbors minds. Right now they just wanted to know where the hell that noise was coming from. Whoever the perpetrator was had not been practicing “kreng jai” and had selfishly waken up anyone in a five kilometer radius. Selfishness was the biggest sin of all in this community-oriented southeast Asian culture. Neung couldn’t help but be reminded that by the time they figured this out and got back home, it would be time to wake up and prepare for the local influx of buyers at the farmers market at day break. In other words, no sleep tonight. Folks in his position of pressing two "satong" together, could not afford to lose a days work due to a nights loss of sleep, even if the Hindenburg itself had landed atop his hut.
The negative energy of the crowd was palpable, and seemed to be reaching a fevered pitch like a pitchfork-wielding mob, but as they crossed the temple gates under the wary eye of Naga, the protector snake, a sudden calm came over them. They were no longer enraged, but rather in terrible awe.
It suddenly became clear that the noise they had been hearing all along, was the slow rhythmic chime of the temple’s large brass bell. Something usually reserved for special occasions and more often than not performed by ordained monks of the cloth, rather than civilians. Either way, these things never occurred at the witching hours under the spell cast by a full harvest moon in the dead of night.
As Neung and his group rounded the corner, they expected to see some trance-induced monk, lost in transcendental meditation, signaling to sprits in a world none of them had the presence of mind to actually see. But as they did, what they saw had no place on the hallowed grounds of a temple.
High atop the raised platform wearing just a bloody nightdress and exposing her feminine form, something strictly forbidden in the temple, was a womanly figure. Her pallid face streamed torrents of tears down upon her bloodied bosom and midsection. Her bony fingers pursed the handle of the large mallet she had been using to rhythmically beat her cry for help on the large brass “rakhang” that nearly doubled her in weight class. Over and over and over again she mouthed the words “why” as the blue-black veins in her arms bulged beyond comprehension. Her face was sunken and hollowed.
Somewhere in the crowd a woman fainted just after whispering a single name… “Noi”. The villagers had also recognized the woman, Noi, as being the wife of Neung; His beloved. The only problem was Noi’s body had never been found after she was repeatedly assaulted, mutilated and ultimately murdered some half a decade before, some say in exchange for a blood-money pittance.