A new terror is washing over southern Thailand in the wake of the tsunami: ghosts.
Locals say spirits are terrifying them; health experts say the phenomenon is an outpouring of delayed mass trauma.
Volunteer body searchers at the resorts of Phi Phi Island and Khao Lak have been reported as claiming they have heard laughing and singing on a devastated beach only to find darkness and empty sand.
Taxi drivers at Patong on Phuket island swear they picked up a foreign man and his Thai girlfriend going to the airport with all their baggage, only to then look in the rear-view mirror and find an empty seat.
Guards at a beachfront plaza in Patong said one of their men had quit after hearing a foreign woman cry “help me” all night long and similar stories abound of a foreign ghost walking along the shoreline at night calling for her child.
Most Thais are deeply superstitious; many believe ghosts reside in most large trees.
Most families make daily offering at traditional “spirit houses” outside their homes to calm paranormal entities.
Mental health experts warn tsunami survivors have picked up on this cultural factor as a way of expressing mass trauma after living through the deadly waves and witnessing horrific scenes.
“This is a type of mass hallucination that is a cue to the trauma being suffered by people who are missing so many dead people, and seeing so many dead people, and only talking about dead people,” Thai psychologist and media commentator Wallop Piyamanotham said.
He said mental health experts would pay particular attention to people who claimed to have seen ghosts first-hand.
Wallop is organising a team of Thai and international health workers to join other specialists in affected provinces.
Wallop said widespread trauma began to set in about four days after the waves hit.
“This is when people start seeing these farangs (foreigners) walking on the sand or in the ocean,” he said, adding the sightings started about the same time as people “began calling for help, crying, some scared”.
Many people said they could not escape the smell of death or the sights they had seen while assisting in the crisis, he said.
Wallop said the reason almost all ghost sightings appear to involve foreign tourists stems from a belief that spirits can only be put to rest by relatives at the scene, such as was done to many Thai victims.
“Thai people believe that when people die, a relative has to cremate them or bless them. If this is not done or the body is not found, people believe the person will appear over and over again to show where they are,” he said.
Some locals say counselling will not ease their fears.
“I believe in ghosts and I always will. (The tsunami) happened so quickly, the foreigners didn’t know what happened and they all think they are still on the beach. They all think they are still on holiday,” Patong bar manager Napaporn Phroyrungthong said.