The suburbs of Bangkok are like any other residential enclave. Detached homes on tree-lined streets display the stuff of typical family life: a kid's bike tipped on its side; a sturdy Volvo parked in the garage. Mananya Boonme's dazzling hot pink home—covered in ornaments, shrines, and statues of Hindu Gods—disrupts the scene of domesticity. On a table in the front yard, a basket holds several bald doll heads. Their gazes are blank.
Clearly the neighborhood eccentric, Boonme is also the woman behind Thailand's latest supernatural doll craze. Inside her home, dolls cover every available surface. "Some people make dolls just to sell them, but I make dolls because I love them," says Boonme, better known as Mama Ning, and inventor of the popular and controversial Look Thep dolls.
Translated as "child god," these life-like creations aren't your typical collector's item. Mama Ning and her clientele believe each one contains a real child's spirit that brings good fortune to its owner.
The dolls—which come complete with real human hair and carefully curled eyelashes, in addition to "souls"—first attracted media attention when their owners started carting them around in public. The hype reached a fever pitch in January, when Thai Smile Airways decided to sell plane tickets for Look Thep, which their owners could purchase if they wanted the dolls to occupy their own seats on flights. "Look Thep is a doll who is alive," read an internal memo to the airline's employees. "Owners can take them to travel."
"Thai people believe in supernatural stuff and spirit stuff," admits Fuengfah, a 30-year-old beauty therapist with bleached blond hair. She has stopped by Mama Ning's house with cartons of milk for Puchita, a brunette doll wearing a floral Hello Kitty dress and a flashy assortment of jewelry. Initially skeptical of Look Thep, Fuengfah agreed to pray to Puchita at Mama Ning's urging. A week later, Fuengfah's dream of opening her own salon came true. She's been a Look Thep convert ever since.
Now, she offers Puchita unlimited free beauty treatments and occasionally visits Mama Ning's house with offerings with offerings for the doll. "She is just like kuman," Fuengfah adds, her gaze fixed reverentially on Puchita. "A human spirit is in her body."
Before Buddhism was brought to Thailand from India, animism—and its belief that animals and objects (both dead and alive) possess spirits—held sway. The Thai occult tradition of kuman thong represents the integral role that supernatural folklore continues to play in modern life.
As legend has it, kuman thong originated in a piece of necromancy. Thai folklore tells the story of a high-ranking soldier named Khun Phaen, who made the first kuman thong: Khun Phaen's pregnant wife wanted him dead, so he killed her before she could kill him. After murdering his wife, Khun Phaen cut his unborn son's fetus from her body, wrapped the boy's body in pieces of sacred cloth, and slowly roasted it in a fire. In the process, the boy became a ghost, and his soul protected Khun Phaen on the battlefield.
Although the origin story is a work of fiction, "authentic" kuman thong deities are popular in Thai culture. Some are even said to contain the remains of fetuses—which may be stolen from hospitals and sold on the black market. In 2012, a British man of Taiwanese descent was arrested in Thailand with six roasted male fetuses stashed in his suitcase. He'd intended to smuggle them to Taiwan, where he planned to sell them to clients seeking wealth and good luck.
The Look Thep craze is a modern take on the kuman thong ritual, trading roasted fetuses for summoned souls. For Mama Ning, these dolls are simply an extension of Thailand's enduring belief in black magic. "If you think they are real, they are real. If you don't believe in it, they are just like normal dolls. It is all about putting faith in it," she explains, sitting cross-legged on the floor as she and her assistant fuss over several dolls. Her own devotion is apparent in the care that she lavishes upon them: spa treatments, showers to keep their rubber skin from getting sticky in the heat, and regular hair brushing. To her, these dolls are real children. She encourages her customers to treat them with the same care.
It was a personal problem that, four years ago, first led Mama Ning to seek out the dolls' supernatural abilities. Struggling with her teenage son's bad behavior, she created a doll called Nong Petch, which she intended to use as an alternative to the traditional routes of parental discipline. "I prayed, asking for the good spirit of my son to be instilled in Nong Petch," she explains, her eyes wide and unblinking. After that, the change she was searching for happened "right away." Not only did her son's behavior correct itself, but the doll—with whom she communicates through dream—promised to help her earn money.
If you think they are real, they are real. If you don't believe in it, they are just like normal dolls. It is all about putting faith in it .
Since then, Mama Ning estimates that she's made around 1,000 dolls and sold an "uncountable" number. She offers customers choice with hair and eye color, but handles the human spirit aspect herself, calling on a Hindu goddess to place the soul inside them. Prices run high, reaching up to $455.
Supernatural forces may be an accepted part of Thai culture, but Mama Ning still finds herself confronted with skeptics. In January, the Bangkok Post published a warning from mental health authorities advising people to follow established religious doctrine instead of praying to Look Thep. A week later, reports emerged of 20 dolls dumped on the outskirts of Bangkok. Some owners, it appeared, had grown self-conscious.
"This is all about faith," Mama Ning reiterates. Quick to emphasize that the dolls are a personal belief, she accepts that some people will remain unconvinced. But she's also proud of her creations, testifying that some nonbelievers quickly change their views after meeting a Look Thep. "Some people came here and were like, 'I don't like the dolls at all,' and then they touched the doll and were smitten," she says.
Nong Petch, the original creation that harbors her son's spirit, remains Mama Ning's coddled favorite despite the hundreds of other dolls that now inhabit her house. Today, he is dressed in a Spider Man outfit, a plaintive pout turning down his plump lips. Photos of him adorn the wall. "Nong Petch is a cutie—a lovely, obliging kid," says Mama Ning, gazing at the doll fondly.
Best of all? "He always listens to Mummy."