Thai Culture Guide >> Wat Mahabut Mae Nak
Wat Mahabut one of the 887 temples in Bangkok, is located in
Phra Khanong to the east of the city center. In 1762, five years before the fall
of Ayutthaya, a monk visited the villagers in Phra Khanong. As the village
didn't have a temple, the villagers invited the monk to stay. They built a
temple and named it after him. The monk's name was Phra Mahabut.
A ride on a long tailed canal boat from the pier under the Phra Khanong Bridge in Sukhumvit Road took me along the Phra Khanong Canal. We past tree lined banks with a mix of traditional houses, modern ones and the ever encroaching condominiums.
The area is quiet and laid back, with an idyllic rustic charm. You don't even feel like you're in Bangkok. Here people row boats to visit their neighbors. At Wat Mahabut, I got off at the temple pier.
Unlike the other temples in Bangkok, Wat Mahabut isn't renowned for its historical legacy or its ancient architecture. It's famous for a ghost, a female ghost, the legendary Mae Nak who has virtually become a household name in the community and beyond.
Even the other name for Wat Mahabut is Wat Mae Nak Phra Khanong, Temple of Mother Nak of Phra Khanong.
The legend of Mae Nak
When the legend started is uncertain. The period ranges from the mid 18th century Ayutthaya period to the 19th century Bangkok era. However, this has no bearing on the legend which goes like this.
Mae Nak, a native of Phra Khanong, marries the handsome Mak. When war breaks out, Mak is conscripted for military service and leaves his pregnant wife behind. In the war, Mak is severely wounded. Meanwhile, Mae Nak dies during childbirth with her unborn child and is buried by the neighbors. This is unusual as Buddhist custom calls for the cremation of their dead.
When Mak recovers from his injuries, he returns home to a poignant reunion with his loving wife and baby son, not realizing what has happened. Neighbors who try to warn him meet with a grisly end. Things remained this way until he discovers that he's actually living with the ghost of his wife!
He flees but she pursues him and the romance turns to horror. Mak seeks refuge in Wat Mahabut but Mae Nak follows him there. After several attempts by the terrified villagers, Mae Nak is finally exorcised to return to the other world and leaves Mak alone.
There are several various versions about how this was done. What is memorable is the tearful separation as the ghostly wife finally departs from her husband. The macabre tale ends in heart-rending sorrow.
Dramatizing Mae Nak
Several movies have been made of this legend since the 1950s to thrill the horror movie lovers. The latest remake is as recent as 2005. In the movie versions, the ghost is sometimes known as Nang Nak (Mrs Nak). There's also a TV drama series and even an opera on this legend.
The Mae Nak Shrine
Years ago when I first heard of this story, I thought it was just that, a story, the work of an imaginative writer with an added twist of Thai folklore. For sheer originality, the tragic tale of Nang Nak's unrequited love for a mortal surpasses the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Phantom of the Opera.
I didn't realize then that the belief is so fervent that there's actually a shrine for Mae Nak on the grounds of Wat Mahabut where she finally departed from this world. What's more the community has accepted her as their benefactor. How this fearsome ghost became benevolent is difficult to explain.
The Mae Nak shrine is in a small wooden building by the canal. Her portrait hangs on the wall behind the altar. A draped statue of her pasted with gold leaves is on the altar that's filled with garlands and lit candles. Visitors pray at her shrine for her blessings of good fortune and safety.
Colorful lengths of cloth are coiled round the huge tree in the courtyard where a row of fortune tellers sit. The presence of lottery vendors gives an indication of what many are seeking.
The Phra Khanong community's heritage
The legend of Mae Nak has become a proud heritage of the Phra Khanong community. In 1997 a change in the municipal boundaries placed Wat Mahabut in the neighboring Suan Luang district. This has caused much unhappiness in Phra Khanong.
A municipal councilor is lobbying the Bangkok city authorities to realign the boundaries to bring the temple and the legend back to where they belong, in Phra Khanong.
Folklore and legends all over the world are based on what the people choose to believe. Wat Mahabut is irrevocably linked to the legend of Mae Nak and nothing can change that.
To visit this unusual temple, please see the map to Wat Mahabut.
About the Author
Wat Mahabut is one of the old treasures discovered in Tour Bangkok Legacies a historical travel site on people, places and events that left their mark in the landscape of Bangkok. The author Eric Lim, a free-lance writer, lives in Bangkok Thailand..