In Asia: Of Ghosts and Wanderers

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Ghosts. They be out there. Or not.

Asians strongly believe in ghosts, in many regions. Their cultures are thousands of years old, so perhaps they’re onto something. Most of us dismiss these things, but I think it’s like most things in life – you see what you want to see.

Back when my mother died, I felt her presence so strongly for so long that it exacerbated me. I felt awkward even when changing my clothes or taking a bath, like I was being watched. I mentioned it in passing when I encountered a spiritualist shaman that had known my mother. He told me to talk out loud to her, say I’d be okay, and tell her she could leave me now.

I scoffed, but I did it. Poof. Effective. Gone. I’ve only had that feeling of her presence a handful of times in the 18 years since. In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t been so clear in my statement.

So, you can count me as one of those who believes there’s “something” out there. Ghosts? Nah. Energy? Yes. If that whole “energy cannot be created or destroyed” mantra in science is true, and humans are energy, then it goes somewhere, doesn’t it?

But I don’t think everyone is in tune to things. I was in a group of kids in college where a few were trying to learn to see auras, that sorta new-agey stuff. I can’t say I was successful, but I’ve since been profoundly good at judging people’s character and trustworthiness in life – so much so that I’ve hardly ever been betrayed or bamboozled.

Still, I’ve also never seen ghosts. I don’t believe in “Casper” or ghosts like that. I don’t believe in maintained “forms” of spirits, but maybe they’re a thing. I don’t discredit it, but my experience leaves me dubious.

Feel them, though? Ooh. Not often, but it’s happened. Or, rather, feel the energy leftover? Yep.

If I’ve learned anything in travelling for over 880 days, it’s that places are as much about the moments in time during which we see them as they are about where we are.

At Castle Scare-the-Crap-Outta-Ya

There’s the castle in Croatia that stands out as a vivid-as-hell memory for me. Boring town, dreary Sunday in rural Croatia. I had the twitch to get out and do something. But beyond being the administrative seat and home to a castle, the town of Pazin won’t have the tourists coming in droves any time soon.

So, with nothing else to do after watching a high school soccer game, I saw the castle and decided to visit. No one was there but counter staff, a 40-ish woman with blank eyes radiating “this job sucks” with the clarity of a winter’s full moon.

The castle has existed since the 10th century, at least, going on 1100 years of history. There were no English signs anywhere, so it was a walk-through thing with nada enlightenment. Old stuff, old stuff, stone, stone, metal, old stuff. Nod, nod, yawn, yawn.

But then I came upon the last room, a seemingly fortified central room with no windows, just a heavy door with wood 8” thick. The moment I crossed that threshold, my heart went through my gut, my hair stood on end, my body went cold, and I felt like vomiting. I turned around and booted it the hell out of that castle, profoundly creeped out.

Was it a torture room? Was it a saferoom that was penetrated in a horrific way? I don’t know, but if those walls could talk, at some point in those 1100 years, some bad shit went down in that room. Bad, bad, bad.

(I touched more on this in a story about Oaxaca, which has nothing to do with Croatia, but that’s how my connect-the-dots brain works.)

Travelling Through Time

A well-situated castle on a cliff in Pazin, Croatia.

Since then, I’ve paid more attention to my intuition. There was sadness of loss and loneliness that hung over Czesky Krumlov like the fog that appeared after dusk every night during my November, 2016, stay. When I learned that over 75% of the residents perished to the Black Plague in the 1600s, it made sense. (It turns out I have never shared a post on Czesky Krumlov… I should. I shall. I will. One day.)

This is one of the reasons many of us travel in Europe, because so many historic buildings remain – they were built to stand for centuries, and they have, and the result is that ever-present “if these walls could talk…” feeling that never sinks below the surface as we walk those cobblestones.

In Asia, I don’t get that same feeling. Not really. There’s something, but there’s not. It depends on the city, the neighbourhood. Here, not there. There, not here.

Cambodia: Of Ghosts and Genocide

But, here in Cambodia, I have had an occasional sense of being ill-at-ease. There’s nothing I can point to, but there’s a restlessness and an inability to feel settled that seems to haunt me late into the night. I don’t sleep here, and when I do, it’s often with strange dreams.

But if there’s a country that should feel uneasy, it’s this, a country that won’t be landmine-free until close to 2030, where more bombs were dropped by America in the last few years of the “American War” than by all parties in all of WWII, and it wasn’t even a legal war.

It’s the same thing with the country of Laos.

But Laos didn’t sink into a genocide afterwards, like Cambodia’s civil war in which 1.7 to 3 million people met their deaths through systematic starvation or flat-out murder. It ripped this country apart. Today, people live among their tormentors. After the Khmer Rouge was routed, things just devolved. Few were held accountable for war crimes, few prosecuted.

What sort of sense does that leave behind for those who are sensitive to those energies that linger? I don’t know, man, but I sure haven’t been sleeping here and I can’t figure out why. But ghosts, they’ll tell you, are a thing here.

The infamous temple from Tomb Raider doesn’t disappoint, but be prepared for crowds.

Ghosts in the Mango Tree: My Time in Thailand

I did, however, sleep well in Thailand, a land that embraces talk of spirits, ghosts, and legacy of place.

There, one afternoon, I wrote the following:

It’s the kind of cold day that makes the hair stand up on my neck. Unseasonal, surprising, not at all how it should feel here in the usual heat of Thailand.

With the oppressive grey clouds and the strange dearth of activity, it’s downright eerie out.

The owner of the AirBNB I’m in is a fascinating American who has called Thailand home for over 40 years. A veteran of the Vietnam War, something about Asia captivated him. In returning to America, all he wanted was to come back here. So, he did, and then he never left.

His dream had always been to live along the Mekong River in a traditional Thai home, so about 25 years ago, a friend told him of the house next door to me, a beautiful, airy, bright two-floor home right on the river. It’d just been built by a law enforcement fella who wanted to surprise his wife. But when he told her about the home, she refused to live in it.

Her list of complaints was long.

Too far from the city, she said. Friends would never visit. Too remote, being in what was a barely-established rural area at the time (and still is sparsely populated). She complained she’d be alone too often as her husband worked.

And what of the nights, she asked? The nights when the spirits of the dead would crawl from the Mekong River and prowl the land?

Spirits are no laughing matter in Southeast Asia. With thousands of years of history and wars, the locals believe in spirits. Most homes have a spirit house somewhere on the property, in which they leave offerings of snacks and drinks to keep the dead happy.

There are witch doctors who participate in cremations and other rituals, where one may believe dangerous ghosts linger. At times these witch doctors conduct rituals to capture the ghost within earthenware jars, which are then disposed of in deep bodies of water, like lakes and rivers.

Look up and down the Mekong here and you’ll see they’re dredging the river bottom for sand – which has two benefits: one, they can sell the sand, and two, the border between Laos and Thailand isn’t just the river, it’s the deepest part of the river, which means, thanks to currents and dredging, the border between these nations is ever-shifting.

But perhaps a byproduct of that dredging is the disturbance of spirits.

With or without that jar, this river has a history of bloodshed. My hosts tells me there were times in history when it wouldn’t have been uncommon to see a dozen or more bodies drifting downriver.

With this region and its dozens of centuries of history, that’s a lot of drifting corpses and forlorn spirits over the ages.

Perhaps he heard a ghost… At Babel Guesthouse, Siem Reap.

Ghosts Gone Bananas

Just yesterday, the owner of Babel Guesthouse in Siem Reap, Cambodia, told me that they’d had a banana tree in the courtyard but her previous manager insisted they cut it down. The ghosts, he claimed, were climbing the tree to get into room 107. It’s kind of like Snakes and Ladders, but with banana trees, mango trees, and ghosts, I guess. A ghost can only go up when there’s a tree involved, perhaps.

I laughed when she told me this, and shared it online. On Facebook, a Vietnamese friend told me that Southeast Asians commonly believe mango and banana trees have ghosts.

Perhaps that explains the odd night there on the Mekong in Thailand when I’d hear thumping on the roof. Next to me were three mango trees.

Coincidence? I think not. Hmm.

“We Lucky Ghosts”

There’s a line I read recently, where Paul Theroux says of long-term travellers, “And we lucky ghosts can travel wherever we want. The going is still good, because arrivals are departures.”

I have become more interested in ghosts since I’ve become a traveller. It’s hard to shake the feeling that one is not alone in some of these places. We’re preceded by history, by generations. We’re wandering through stories, surrounded by shadows of things that once were but which seem to have never really left.

And, me, I’m floating through it all. I’m a lucky ghost, wandering the world. Neither here, nor there, but with an eye on it all.

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    Hey Steff, just wanted to leave you a comment to say I’ve been following your journeys since you decided to pull up stakes and start this adventurous life, and I love reading about it. Let me know if you need another hat, or a pair of gloves, a scarf… I’d be happy to send them to wherever your bags are resting 🙂

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