Thailand’s Magical Reality

‘It seems to me that the barrier between the immediate everyday reality and the world of ghosts, spirits, and visions—a parallel reality that people in the West usually only glimpse using psychedelics—is much thinner there. You frequently pass between one and the other without realizing. I don’t know whether this is due to the latitude, lassitude, spicy food, oriental lay lines or something else. I have no real idea, I just know that if you wander with an open mind, and receptive senses, you are regularly confronted by sights or visions as surreal, evocative, and gorgeous as any MDMA or DMT experience, without the need to take any drugs at all.’

Such was the late Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson’s opinion of Thailand. Pioneering graphic designer in the Hipgnosis firm, founding member of Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV and Coil, and director of more TV commercials and music videos that have shaped your view of reality than you can think of, Christopherson wrapped up a thirty-plus year career of threading the fine line between reality, art and the otherworldly by relocating to Thailand, where he would pass in 2010, only a few months after the above statement. It’s only fitting that a person so finely tuned to different planes of reality would end up in a country with such a rich and – despite the modern world inching over it day by day – vibrant magical life. Indeed, there’s more to Thailand than trashy tourist retreats and ladyboy stories. Like most of Southeast Asia, it has a rich and established spiritual worldview that has only recently come into contact with the modern world and has thus managed to thrive while Western spirituality has consistently degraded.

 

A man covered in traditional Sak Yant tattoos and various magical amulets.
A man covered in traditional Sak Yant tattoos and various magical amulets.

 

While Theravada Buddhism is statistically the most predominant belief system (supported by approximately 90% of the population), pre-Buddhist beliefs in magic and animism have prevailed, and eventually become intertwined with Theravada practices, with magic, and particularly black magic, being an everyday part of Thai life. For many people in very different walks of life, ghosts are considered a very real phenomenon; protective Sak Yant tattoos, which are applied in the midst of a carefully structured magical ritual, are commonplace; and the practice of casting spells has been officially outlawed. Black magic, ghosts, spells and curses are regularly referenced in popular culture. The Mau Pii, local shamen, are important and highly respected – if not straight up feared – figures in the community. It’s not uncommon, particularly in rural areas, to consider the blessing by the Mau Pii of a new home, business, or vehicle a necessity of utmost importance.

 

Amulets are a key component of Thai magical reality. Palad Khiks, also known as Thai penis amulets, are the most well known in America and Europe, mainly due to the novelty factor. Imported from India by way of Cambodia, and originally a representation of the god Shiva, Palad khiks are phallic amulets inscribed with spells, which serve to protect from harm, increase virility, boost business, etc… and take a number of forms and sizes, ranging from keychain-sized animal and humanoid figurines with disproportionately large penises to replicas of male organs which can be several feet in length. As odd and perhaps offensive as they may seem to foreigners, they are extremely popular and commonplace in Thai society, where their sale and manufacture is an important source of income for the buddhist monks who manufacture them. An amazing example of the importance of magic in Thai society and its reliance on amulets is the fact that army authorities officially distribute protective amulets to the troops in the long-standing border conflict with Cambodia.

 

Small Palad Kik amulets.
Small Palad Kik amulets.

 

And then there is the Kuman Thong. Kuman Thong (‘golden boy’) are extremely powerful amulets, said to protect and bring luck to the owner, provided said owner takes care of it properly, which involves presenting it with frequent offerings in the form of sweets, cigarettes, etc… The amulet represents a smiling chubby infant, encapsulated in a small container along with different oils and powders or, on occasion, blood and other bodily fluids. The legend behind it, however, is a grim one. Taken from XVIIIth century epic poem ‘Khun Chang Khun Phaen’ (one of the most important and well known works of Thai literature), it narrates how Kung Phaen, a warrior well versed in the occult, removed his stillborn son’s fetus from his wife, roasted it, consecrated it in a ritual carried out at a cemetery, and covered it in gold leaf and lacquer, in order to use it as an extremely powerful amulet. While this is pure literature, and despite it being illegal, the fact that merely three years ago a British citizen was arrested in Bangkok in possession of six roasted and lacquered fetuses provides evidence that the practice is still very much alive.

 

Two of the Kuman Thong seized by the authorities.
Two of the Kuman Thong seized by the authorities.

 

Thailand may be overrun with western tourists and the culture they drag in with them, but it has retained its connection to the spirit world that the west has forgotten and rejected. As Christopherson noted, what is seen as  drug-fueled hallucination and superstition in western countries is accepted as a traditional part of life in Thailand. There is no doubt that the west is closed off to many of life’s mysteries, and maybe the Thai are better able to part the veils between the multiple universes.

 

 

 

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The Author

Elías Martínez

Elías Martínez

Elías Martínez was born in 1983 and spent the better part of his early years living in a variety of timezones, having coffee with a guy that would eventually become his hometown's only axe murderer, and generally wasting time in a rather creative number of ways. He is a proud dad and professional accumulator. He also makes a mean margarita.

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Patrick L. BertleinThomas ProskowEric DavisonRose ThorneZach Palmer Recent comment authors
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Patrick L. Bertlein
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Patrick L. Bertlein

What commercials did he do?

Thomas Proskow
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Thailand is up and coming on my places to travel list.
Japan has also thin barriers between the spiritual and physical as well, which is a stark contrast to the rampant modern capitalism and urbanism there

Eric Davison
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Thailand changes lives. Koh Phangan is a must

Rose Thorne
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I want to go there just to have the monks give me such a blessing.

Zach Palmer
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Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson, who lived in Thailand at the end of his life said that the boundaries between worlds were especially thin over there, he put it down to the incredibly warm climate.

Thawatchai Champ Yoddee
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Adam Peacock
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Nb Jessica 🙂

Ovo Maltene
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Janet Kvlt Fabian Angmar

Adam Palermo
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There is no chance that every day reality can mimic DMT. Maybe deep concentration and meditative thought, but not regular occurrence.

Oliver X Polster
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Alexandra Lahr hast du sowas auch erlebt?

Matthew Arīmanius
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Cool article, although rather suspect and Orientalising at times. Thai society can be at times anything but magical, instead harsh and totalitarian for those living there. While this article does address the negative impacts of Western tourists’ attitudes, this article seems to be a symptom of that same mindset instead of challenging it in a convincing way, other than merely stating “its bad because they have magic and we have shitty Western things that don’t recharge my chakras” or something. It’s always tempting to make the assertion that the West is spiritually defunct while the East isn’t, but I think… Read more »

Elías MV
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Great comment. I guess I could have been a bit clearer on a couple of things , what I was really trying to convey was how magical traditions have survived as part of some active folk culture of sorts, not only within established religious hierarchies, not reduce the country to a sort of spiritual Disneyland.

Matthew Arīmanius
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Oh it’s by no means a bad article by any means, and I’m glad you chose to address me directly in a kind manner too. Just offering my two cents on how certain angles on this topic could have been approached in a bit more depth, instead of the (and I don’t mean offense) binary “East/West” narrative to the article. Thanks for replying in good faith, it’s that kind of cool attitude from the writers and the interesting subject matter they present that makes me come back to this site. Cheers! (Y)