I'd been in Chiang Mai—a picturesque town in Northern Thailand—for around a month when I overheard a weird conversation at a bar. "Have you heard about the Buddhist monks cooking dead babies to make good luck charms?" a young, drunk British backpacker asked a trio of two girls and a guy. "Black magic," the Brit explained, "He roasts them until their faces go all like, um, crooked."
In bars full of Westerners, ignorant stories about Thai culture were common. Eavesdropping on that group, I knew monks weren't witchdoctors. Every monk I'd met was austere, strict, and vegetarian. The storyteller smelled like beer and bullshit, but this sort of thing sticks in your mind and the next day I googled "Chiang Mai black magic." I was then shocked to find that two Buddhist monks in rural Northern Thailand had been arrested a month earlier for roasting child corpses in occultist rituals—although it noted the monks hadn't killed the babies; they'd bought them from a local undertaker.
Thai police discovered 19 plastic bags containing human body parts hidden in a compartment in a Chiang Mai crematorium. The bags had stickers on them from a local hospital. Most of the body parts were from stillborn or miscarried babies.
One of the two monks arrested was Chalerm Duangpeng. He was marched out of his temple in handcuffs, dressed in his orange robes, after police found four corpses on the property.
Duangpeng is a former abbot of Wat Huay Dinjee, located in Chiang Mai's Doi Lo district, about 650 kilometers north of Bangkok. During a search the police had uncovered an infant's corpse—it was roasted in a fire, wrapped in gold leaf, and buried in a clear glass coffin under a shrine to Brahma, a Hindu god with three faces.
The stories were disturbing, but as I heard them repeated over the following days I started to wonder about the information about Buddhism and Thailand westerners consume. The idea of the black-magic-baby rituals was grotesque, but intriguing—it forced you to look past Thailand's tiger temples, elephant rides, and cheap drinks.
I decided to leave Chiang Mai city and travel to Huay Dinjee to get a clearer picture of the allegedly black magic–practicing Doi Lo villagers dominating local media. After a bumpy public bus ride I arrived in a seemingly empty town. As I stood there, dripping with sweat, a car stopped beside me and a middle-aged Thai woman offered me water.
When I told her I was looking for Huay Dinjee she said, "It is not very nice what they do there. We do not believe in this magic, it is not good. I take you to nice temple." I accepted her offer, hoping she'd introduce me to someone who could answer my questions.
After a ten-minute drive she dropped me at another temple, and two monks came out to greet me. When I asked them about the arrests they grimaced. "Proper Buddhists do not do this, you should not go there," said one of them. "This is against Buddhist teaching—it is very bad, very evil, stay away from there. If you want to learn about Buddhism, you do meditation."
Realizing they wouldn't indulging me anymore, I returned to the road and waved down another car. The driver agreed to drop me at Huay Dinjee.
There I found a disheveled temple surrounded by a dry bamboo forest, palm trees, and the occasional splash of purple tropical flowers. I walked around looking for someone to speak to, but only found the infamous Brahma shrine.
As I was about to leave, a young woman came over and indicated with her hands that the police came and handcuffed a monk recently. I asked her about the baby's body found at the temple and she brought her mother over to join our conversation. There, in the oppressive heat by the unassuming temple, she politely explained, "We do ceremonies with dead babies sometimes. It is good, it gives us good luck and life."
"A dead baby?" I asked.
"Yes, it is already dead. It come from mother belly," the young woman explained, gesturing to our stomachs. "It not evil, it good for us, we give it life, and it gives us life."
Before I could say anything, the woman took out her phone and showed me her own photograph of a fully formed, although very small fetus (you can see a small version of the image here, if you want). The corpse was wrapped in gold leaf that obscured its burnt skin, inside a glass casket with bright flowers all around it. There were ten or so villagers surrounding it, praying.
She explained the practice is know as the Golden Baby or Ghost Baby, a.k.a. Kuman Tong. Stillborn or miscarried infants are taken to a temple, wrapped in sacred cloth, and placed on a fire while believers gather around praying, chanting, and trying to communicate with the child's spirit.
People sometimes pay to get a blessed, mummified corpse for a shrine in their home. Or more commonly, they take pieces of the corpse to wear in amulets for good luck and protection. In either case, it's believed the Golden Baby must be given daily offerings, affection, and attention—as if it were a real child—or bad luck may follow.
Most Buddhists and Buddhist monks reject the practice, which has roots in pre-Buddhist Laotian culture. And while many Thai nationals believe in spirits, Kuman Thong has been almost completely rejected by mainstream society for the past 70 years. It's a strange hangover of a largely abandoned culture, still in limbo between modern development and ancient spiritualism.
Far away from the sticky bar where I'd first heard the rumors of a baby-killing cult, face-to-face with the photo, the practice seemed less lurid. Surrounded by flowers and gold, it looked like a celebration of a life that never was. Although unnerving, the woman assured me that wearing the amulet meant the child could live on through spiritual practice.
As she and her mother explained the practice—often with embarrassed giggles—a monk came out to listen. Unimpressed by their commentary, he threw us a look and our conversation halted.
A purple dusk and nearby storm began to close in. With the mountains darkening, the temperature dropping, Duangpeng still in prison, and the monk's glare becoming slightly ominous, it was time to leave.
On my journey home I thought about the women, and the way they'd explained their experience. I felt embarrassed by my cartoonish fascination with the grotesque. But still wished the bus would could get me home a little bit faster.
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