Pii Phi, Episode 1
Peace Corps Thailand draws service-minded individuals from around the U.S. Beyond the desire to work in development, volunteers come to Thailand for a variety of reasons: work experience, cultural exploration, and self-discovery. But I didn’t come to Thailand to find myself. I came to Thailand to find ghosts. I’m not overly inclined to share my name, but I will say that I’m a little older that most of my cohort, so you can call me Pii Phi. I’m here to tell you stories. This is the first.
“You’re renting a house? Alone? Who will sleep with you?”
“No, no, it’s just me, ka!” I explained.
“Won’t you feel lonely?”
“If I get lonely, I’ll come hang out here!”
“…Aren’t you afraid of ghosts?”
I sat in front of the farming supply shop, owned and operated by the bubbly Mother T and the stern but good-natured village leader, Paw S. It was a common pastime in the village of [REDACTED]. I’d only been here for a month, but had spent the majority of my evenings sipping Leo in their company, and the company of anybody who happened to stop by for lao kaao and fish food. Sometimes they’d talk to me. I’d smile at them, my hands pressed together in an awkward wai, and await the same series of questions.
“Pak yuu nai? Where is she staying?” They’d ask T. On finding out I’d soon be renting my own house, they’d turn to me:
“Ja rusuk ngao mai? Won’t you feel lonely? Glua pii, mai? Aren’t you afraid of ghosts?”
Assuring them I’m not afraid had gotten tedious. I tried to come up with a new answer each time. This time I landed on
“If the house has ghosts, I won’t be lonely.”
My Thai wasn’t perfect (still isn’t), so I admit I felt a small swell of pride when their heads rolled back with laughter.
“Listen,” said one of the Aunties, grabbing my arm with one hand and somehow managing to refill my glass with the other. “When I was in Malaysia, people asked me if I was afraid of ghosts. Malaysian ghosts are scarier than Thai ghosts. But ‘No!’ I said. I said ‘No! Malaysian ghosts don’t recognize Auntie E–I’m Thai!’”
The table roared again, and she removed her hand from my arm to wipe the tears from her eyes. “Maybe Thai ghosts won’t recognize farang. You’ll be okay.”
I giggled awkwardly, finished my drink (“Cheers! Mot geeo!) and pedaled back to my host mother’s inviting, glass-fronted home. As I lay on top of the covers, listening to the breeze outside the window screens, I thought about what Auntie had said, and I thought about the ghosts back home. The ones that had recognized me. I promised to tell you stories about my experiences with ghosts in Thailand, but I hope you’ll give me permission to preface this series with an experience from back home. The experience that made me want to know more about the beings residing in the small section of the inter-dimensional Venn diagram, and why they are drawn to me.
I’d finished up my one-year contract with my old job, and was Northbound through California, sleeping in my car on public lands and stopping in wherever my National Parks pass would get me in for free. I’d just come down from Lassen Volcanic. It was early Autumn of 2018, right at the tail end the Redding fire, and the smoke still obscured the entire park. I had summited the tallest peak in the park just to catch a glimpse of Mount Shasta over the blanket of floating particles of what used to be the forest. I felt sad.
As I headed onto a small road toward a campsite, I glimpsed a sign indicating that there was a 30 dollar fee per car. “Yeah, forget that,” I said, taking a hard right onto a small forest service path through the trees. I pulled over and tried and failed to check Free Campsites site on my phone, the signal too weak to load the page. I resolved to find a quiet place in these woods, luckily untouched by the fire, to park my hatchback and settle in for the night.
Gangly weeds scraped my undercarriage as my little car trudged over an overgrown path clearly meant for larger vehicles, if any had, in fact, traversed it in the recent past. They must have at some point, because from the large piles of logs and brush, I could see that the Forest Service had been clearing undergrowth, probably to help prevent future fires in the area. I assumed the path would loop back to the main road, but it had been stretching on for quite some time now. I decided that if I could maneuver my little car behind one of these brush piles, I could stay here and remain unseen–my preference, just in case I wasn’t supposed to be here.
…I’m not supposed to be here. My conscience whispered, as I sat on my cooler, stirring absent-mindedly at the condensed soup bubbling on my camp stove. You’re not allowed to be here. You need to leave. I felt uneasy, but it was a perfectly rational fear of being discovered and chastised by an annoyed ranger. Well. What’s the worst that can happen? I guess they’d make me leave. If they try to fine me, I’m sure I can ask for one more chance. I ate, rinsed my utensils, washed my face, and crawled onto the foam pad wedged on top of the folded-down seats.
I snuggled under my comforter, and my feelings of malaise subsided as I heard the gentle, familiar “tap, tap, tap, tap” on the windshield of my car. I love the sound of rain–especially in the safe, cozy fortress that was my tiny Nissan. The tap, tap, tapping on my windows and my windshield grew more frequent, and the thousands of small sounds obscured the world and lulled me to sleep.
The light pierced my windows the next morning. I started and sat up. It was only 6:45 a.m., but felt much later. I wasn’t hungry. I peed outside, started my car, and got out of the woods immediately, again worried that I would be discovered and reprimanded. My jawline softened as I pulled out onto the main road and headed toward the charred city of Redding.
Just as I reached the outskirts, my gas light came on, and I pulled into a small station. I’d skipped breakfast, and there wasn’t anybody waiting for a pump, so as my tank was filling, I headed inside for a gas station coffee–barely an upgrade from my typical instant packets, but necessary nonetheless.
Despite the early hour, the cute, red-headed cashier beamed at me, asking where I was coming from. Her bright smile woke me up, and so I told her what I’d been doing on the road, and where I planned to go. She looked at me, simultaneously concerned and impressed. “Where’d you stay last night?” I told her, “Just outside Lassen Volcanic. I was nervous at first, but the rain was lovely.”
Her smile fell slightly, and she looked confused. “That’s funny. I live there and I didn’t hear it. It hasn’t rained in weeks, which sucks because we honestly really need it.”
The uncomfortable feeling crept back over me. I thanked her and ran outside. My car was completely dry, as it had been all morning. There was no fog on the windshield or mirrors. The grass was dry when I relieved myself that morning. And the thought occurred to me that I had heard the pitter-patter of thousands of “raindrops” on my windows, and my windshield. Why hadn’t I heard it on my roof?
Ghosts have always been naturally curious about me, but that was the first time I’d felt I wasn’t welcome. But it didn’t scare me off of them; it just increased my desire to know more. I wondered if here, in Thailand, in the land of smiles, would they be like the ones back home? Would they manifest from fears that I had not yet experienced? Would they ask me have you eaten yet, or would they be too hungry to think about me? I hadn’t done my research; I wanted to see for myself.
“Thai ghosts won’t recognize you!” You know what? I figured, That’s fine with me. We wouldn’t have to be close companions, as long as they endured my curiosity. I was looking forward to meeting them.
Be sure to check back soon for future episodes in the Spirit House series.