Sea Gypsy Ghost Stories
When staying on Lipe island in Thailand’s southern Andaman Sea, be careful not to step in the ghost poop, because the dive shop groupies aren’t the only scary residents of the island.
Prior to the recent tourism and resort boom, the Chao-le people lived alone on Lipe, with only their ghosts and gremlins. Chao-le in the Thai language translates to ‘People of the Sea’. The Lipe tribe, ethnically separate from Thai’s (and sometimes referred to as ‘Sea Gypsies’ by visiting foreigners), are direct ancestors of a once nomadic sea-faring group of people.
The Chao-le word for ghost is “Ha-too.” Ask local villagers whether Ha-too reside on Lope and the inevitable response is “Many, many.” One old fisherman eyed me eerily, whispering “Sometimes too many.”
Chao-le take their ghosts seriously. Chao-le kids are sometimes seen tracking ghost prints left in the sand by wandering spirits. And, long-time local Rasta-man, Monkey Joe, from nearby Malaysia, was roused from sleep one early morning by his excited Chao-le friends insisting he see the Ha-too droppings left outside during the night. Foreigners visiting Thailand might dismiss such beliefs as superstitious folklore. The crazy thing about Lipe is that the tourists are seeing and hearing things, too.
“On Lipe everything is all mixed-up”, says local cultural heritage specialist, Bart Vranken, a Belgian who has lived and worked with the Chao-le for years. Bart explained that the Chao-le on Lipe are an animist culture, retaining a strong respect for ancestors past, and a deep connection with the spirits of the immediate “living” world; including coconut trees, constrictor snakes, whale sharks, and the surrounding sea. However, these spirits demand attention and must be tended to regularly. If neglected, things start to get weird.
Bart and I toured island “power-spots” – areas harboring increased concentrations of supernatural energies. Our first stop was the infamous bad-seed coconut tree along the main path bisecting the island. Walking past the tree alone one day, a phantom force pushed him to the ground. Consulting his Chao-le friends, they laughed knowingly, directing him to visit the six other islanders accosted by this mischievous tree spirit.
One of the six – a middle-aged Chao-le woman, recounted to Bart being lifted off her scooter while riding past the tree and gently set down on her feet, the bike crashing into the jungle. Others felt inexplicably immobilized, gripped firmly by unseen hands. Eventually the tree was cut down and used in the construction of the Banana Tree Restaurant. But, the stump remains…
Strange things began happening in the Banana Tree. Two young farang girls witnessed a group of older Chao-le somberly walk off the path through the restaurant and into the kitchen, where they suddenly vanished. Recently, a group of Thai tourists observed a group of unspeaking, old-fashioned “pirate” spectrals dining at a table in the restaurant. Many Chao-le refuse to walk this path after dark.
Tony, an Italian living on the island, heard the sound of coconuts falling late one night. Realizing there are no coconut trees around his house, he went outside to investigate, where he heard a heavy animal bounding in giant hops through the jungle. In the morning, he was surprised to find no tracks. While he says the animal must have been a panther, his Chao-le friend chuckles, saying it sounded more like “King Kong”. She knows it was the surrounding jungle spirits, who Tony had forgotten to appease with formal offerings of cold soft-drinks (preferably strawberry-flavored) and steamed cupcakes.
Tin, a towering Chao-le Lipe native, recounts seeing an unfamiliar man chopping down a Takian tree when he was a small boy. Tin called, but the man did not respond. When Tin later returned, the man was gone, but the tree still stood – bearing no axe marks. Tin says this tree is now “very, very big.”
As a teenager, Tin was camping with his family on nearby “uninhabited” Rawi Island, where they were accosted by invisible hands throwing sand on their dinner. The attack was so severe they abandoned their meal and quickly evacuated to nearby Adang Island.
Krom, who also grew up on the island, explained that these sand-throwers are gremlin-like creatures called “Waytan”, known by Chao-le to inhabit the trees and beaches of Rawi. Krom is a direct descendent of “To’-Kiri”, one of the founding fathers of the village on Lipe. A wooden icon of To’-Kiri stands in the ancestral shrine located in the Chao-le cemetery on the north-east point of the island – the most sacred of power-spots. Relatives routinely gather in the cemetery to share snacks and whiskey with the resting souls.
Resort bungalows now back up directly to the cemetery – perhaps a little too close for spirit comfort. Krom tells the well-known story of a foreigner staying in one of these bungalows, who found a large spider with the head of a strange-looking human. The shaken tourist sketched the anomaly and brought it to the “Pu-Yai” (leader for the Thai people on the island), who dismissed the foreigner as crazy. However, two monks soon arrived from Satun, claiming to have experienced meditative visions of spirit trouble on the island. The monks stayed in the bungalow, practicing healing rituals, eventually banishing the bad spirit to Rawi Island. The bungalow was destroyed.
Yes, things on Lipe are all mixed-up. If you dare go – don’t forget to pack extra strawberry soda, and watch out for the Ha-too poop in the morning.