Ken May

Ayutthaya island

Tales of ghosts and spirits in deepest Thailand

Ghosts! That's the problem. Ayutthaya Island has too many ghosts. And they are not even the kind of phantoms that attract tourists. If Ayutthaya Island had Hungry Giants or even a few Krasue than tourists would surely come. Hungry Ghosts have long thin bodies with bloated bellies, and a hole for a mouth that is so tiny that they can only ingest food through a plastic straw (which is why street vendors always give extras to you). Krasue can snap their heads from their bodies at night and - with lungs, heart, and intestines still dangling - float around eating excrement when they are not busy spitting into people's water glasses. If Ayutthaya only had ghost like these than tourists would flock here by the thousands. But, it is too difficult to keep interesting phantoms here. You can not chain a Hungry Ghost to a tree since it is a disembodied mass, and Krasue can evade capture by popping their heads off like a cork in a wine bottle. They keep escaping. What can we do? All the really cool phantoms live in Issan.

In Ayutthaya there are banana tree ghosts, but they don't know any original tricks other than how to spoil fruit (not exactly postcard material). Oh yeah, Ayutthaya is also residency to a thousand wailing apparitions that were slaughtered by the Burmese in 1767. We can't forget about them. Damn Burmese! The tortured souls from the fall of Ayutthaya have never left. They are as commonplace on Ayutthaya Island as bad-tempered stray dogs and plastic bags twisting in the wind. All the locals know somebody who has seen one of these ghosts. There is even a ghost at my university, where I teach English and Tourism Studies. She is a silent ghoul with long hair that walks around doing nothing, sort of like a student from a Thai technical school. Some of the ruins have their own personal ghosts. Youth visit them at night daring to be haunted. Ruins can be quite spooky in the moonlight.

Not too long ago, only 5-6 decades, Ayutthaya Island was overgrown with trees and weeds like Angkor Wat. Many of the chedis and temples were hidden by debris. Uncle Mian, who was placed in charge of the Ayutthaya restoration project by Thailand's Fine Arts Department, remembers chopping his way toward a wild Wat Sisanpetch with a machete*. He was racing to protect Thailand's valuable artifacts before looting treasure hunters destroyed the ruins in quest of gold. Uncle Mian described Ayutthaya Island as full of snakes and ghosts, which is one good reason why it took so long for Thais to repopulate the place after its destruction in 1767. A few families gradually filtered back to the Northeast side of the island, and many of these were the ones who welcomed the first backpackers. Most ghosts have now drifted to the western side of Ayutthaya Island. I guess that is where Thai spirits like to go, to the west. Thai residents still prefer to live on the eastern side of the island, away from wailing ghosts. This is nearer to where most the tourist hotels are located. Ghosts or cash: that is an easy decision. I have yet to see a ghost in Ayutthaya myself. But, I am learning to speak Thai, so maybe that will help. The main problem today is this: wailing ghosts don't attract western travelers, who are celebrating on vacation. Nobody likes whining and misery. We can always get that at home.

Another problem is that Don Muang airport will move further south in 2006. Right now, it is actually quicker to come to Ayutthaya from the airport than to take the shuttle bus to Khao San Road. However, the new Suvarnabhumi airport will shift the travel patterns of tourists. It will be located much closer to popular islands such as Ko Chang, Ko Samet, and Ko Samui. When this happens tourists might not visit landlocked Ayutthaya Island (which is encircled by a confluence of three rivers: Chao Phraya, Lopburi, and Pa Sak). Tourists might bypass central Thailand altogether and fly directly to Chiang Mai instead. Thai Air, Bangkok Air, and Nok Air cover this distance quicker. And domestic flights are getting cheap. If Ayutthaya wants to continue to attract tourists it much find new niches to lure visitors into staying a few days - rather than quick walk around excursions through Bangkok-owned agencies. Everybody loves an unspoiled niche to explore. I know I am always trying to pry my way into one. Future graduates from our university's tourist department must create original tours of their own. Like Uncle Mian, they must hack their way toward new trails. Students need to establish local contacts while there is still a chance. They have to learn more about tourist behavior - the industry's trends and patterns - and perhaps even become travelers themselves. If they hesitate they will lose. And the wailing ghosts will lecture locals endlessly about lost opportunities. My plan is to appease these ghosts by keeping spirits houses full with offerings of sweet drinks and rice. Then I will bring new skills to my students that will motivate their sense of creativity.

My premise is that students will contribute to community development by acquiring the skills to be self-sufficient tour guides. However, to make this successful, first requires the ability to know what Ayutthaya has to offer, and to essentially learn how to think like a tourist. Students must understand the awesome process of travel, as well as tap into their own curiosity. If they can master that, they will be able to bring tourist here with new ideas. So as a teacher I will point them in the right direction and let them take it from there. I'll introduce them to a network of local hotel owners, tour guides, boat operators, and tuk-tuk drivers. They will be invite directly into our classroom. They will work together to start an actual tour. Students will design business plans, create travel brochures, develop sales pitches, and even practice taking small groups of foreigners on original excursions. This tourism project will incorporate the resources that are already here - the local community - to create some type of momentum. Some of these ideas will work and some will fail. And to be honest, that is the ultimate objective. If a tour strategy fails we can discuss the reasons why, and decide how to remove the obstacles. At least, it will keep ghosts away for the time being.

Possible new eco-tours from Ayutthaya:
1) Boat tours designed by passengers (random stops and DIY activity)
2) Boat tours down small canals (quiet wildlife excursions).
3) Boat tours to Lopburi (the monkey city).
4) The floating village (houseboats in Sena).
5) Go to Buddhist Hell (with a trip to surrealistic Wat Muang).
6) Jungle food restaurants (snake blood, cobra meat, and extreme cuisine).
7) Distance bus trips to Kao Yai National Park.
8) Distance bus trips to Kanchana Buri.
9) Distance bus trips to Chiang Mai.
10) Whatever tour the students invent?

Luck and karma will only take students so far; then hard work, marketable skills, and raw knowledge must take over from there. Therefore, I advocate the "3E" approach to teaching: Energy, Experience, and Education. This classroom project is an experiment in a new methodology that also stimulates English skills with speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

Energy - I expect students to work hard. The need physical activity with hands-on learning that applies to daily life. Learning is a gradual process, and for this reason I am not a fan of the big final exam or grand multiple-choice tests. Nor do I want cut-and-paste essays straight off the Internet, downloaded academic papers, or copied homework assignments. I prefer for students to get involved in the process of creating something unique. They will write in journals all semester, conduct sociological surveys, read articles about local tourism issues, hand in weekly reports, and develop tangible material such as brochures for actual tours. All this student energy must contribute to community development in some way.

Experience - In order to find employment after graduation students need to gain job experience and establish local contacts. This class will use the resources that are already in place. The idea is to send students directly to the tourism centers of Ayutthaya. They will learn the local infrastructure: ruins, temples, tour sites, nightclubs, hotels, transportation, and information desks. My class will set up booths where they can speak with tourists and answer real questions. I won't allow my students to peel onions in back of a restaurant or change dirty bed sheets as free labor. They have to work up front with tourists. And this activity must benefit the local hotels or travel agencies as well. I'll personally work with hotel managers, travel agencies, nightclub owners, and the TAT office. One goal is for students to listen to a variety of English accents while creating a future work reference. It is English language practice. If students are real good, they might even get hired for work. The local business should mutually benefit by this educational process.

Education - Students will increase knowledge about trends and patterns of tourism. They will learn about tourist behavior, study demographics, and learn details about the local ruins, temples, and Ayutthaya history. They will acquaint themselves with English vocabulary to describe old architectural styles and the Thai culture. Students will be given tips on their presentation of English grammar and pronunciation. In short, they will learn to speak about what Ayutthaya Island has to offer.

This 3E methodology sounds like a lot of extra work for me as a teacher. I'll need to be more organized in advance than usual. I'll have to coordinate the multi-tasking of several classes. We will have to tightly network. However, this could also be a lot of fun. How else could I get paid to travel and to explore upcoming tourist destinations? If this strategy really clicks, by the second half of this semester our entire class could be held on a boat. It will be a classroom on the water. Ayutthaya Island could be my blackboard, and the splendid Chao Phraya River could be my chalk. There is a chance that a few of my students could really surprise me. What a blessing it can be when your own students teach you something positive. Anyway, maybe these tourism classes will be really successful, or maybe the tours will all fall apart with complication. But, in the meantime, what an exciting learning process!

• Special thanks to Desmond Lobo for his computer assistance.
• * Sukphisit, Sunthon. The Vanishing Face of Thailand. Bangkok: Postbooks, 1997.


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