Sacred corpses, Demon guardians, eight-legged snack food and writhing magic serpents. Who needs Halloween--the following are 9 spooky things from Southeast Asia to help get your 'freak' on.
Southeast Asia has a number of festivals honoring the dead, including China’s ‘Hungry Ghost Festival’ (August 31 in 2012) and Cambodia’s ‘Pchum Ben’ (September 14-16 in 2012). Halloween, though it has been discovered by a few affluent locals, still hasn’t quite caught on in the region. Rest assured however, that if you are looking for something creepy to get you in the mood, there’s plenty of the bizarre, frightening and gross to be had in every country.
A fruit bad who has bitten off more than he can fly away with.
Bats: flying frugivores of terror
There are about 1,240 known bat species worldwide, most of which occur in the tropics. They account for about 20 percent of the world’s mammal species, but within southeast Asia they comprise an astounding 40 percent (although rats win by sheer volume). They range in size from Thailand’s Kitti's Hog-nosed Bat at 29-34mm long and weighing 2-2.6g (arguably the world’s smallest mammal) to the Giant Golden-crowned Flying Fox of the Philippines, with a wingspan of 1.5m and weighing 1.2kg. Smaller bats tend to eat insects while larger often live on a diet of fruit.
The one that got away. A Cambodian girl plays with a tarantula intended for the frying pan.
Bugs: bite or be bitten
There’s no escaping bugs in Southeast Asia, and quite a few—mosquitos, cockroaches, ants and termites to name a few—are a near constant menace in most areas. Some are dangerous, such as the quick and aggressive giant Vietnamese centipede, but others a fundamental to the local economy, such as the common silk worm. In many countries, bugs are also a healthy snack. The menu includes crickets and grasshoppers, bees, ants, beetles, scorpions, grubs and spiders.
The ‘haunted’ cave temple of Phnom Chhnork was built in the 7th Century, and is believed to be one of the oldest in Cambodia.
Caverns: temples, rebels and rock climbers
Southeast Asia has spectacular karsts throughout the region and many have been sites of ancient human habitation and burial. Some have been used for the profane, such as the ancient Funan temple in the Cave of Phnom Chhnork outside Kampot, Cambodia. Others were secret military bases, such as the caves of the communist Panthet Lao at Vieng Xai. The cliffs and caves of Railey Beach in central Thailand offer thrills for rock climbers. Others scare us in a different way, as in Ha Long Bay, where the Vietnamese show skill in identifying an enormous phallus in every other formation.
Bat ears, an enormous serrated tongue, and a third eye in his belly button make this temple deity a unique choice for worship.
Demonic Temple Statues: things people worship
Buddhism with an ample dose of Hinduism dominates many of the countries in Southeast Asia. Demonic statues and images comprise a pantheon of temple guardians, themselves meant to ward off evil spirits. These include goulish characters such as the Yaksha demon warriors at Wat Phra Kaeo in Bangkok, the many-headed Naga serpents of Angkor in Cambodia and other Hindu and Buddhist temples around the region, and the Foo dogs of Chinese Buddhist temples.
Dog meat on display in the market.
Meat Markets: carnage with fuzzy pets
Asia’s open-air meat markets are a gory spectacle that frankly, can’t be missed. In Chengdu, China, piles of bunny heads sit beside red and purple heaps of steaming entrails. In Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, pans of skinless frogs kick their legs in anticipation of the grill. In Thailand, dogs are rounded up and shipped (illegally) to the market chopping blocks in Laos and northern Vietnam. There’s plenty to turn a stomach as well as make great souvenir photos to gross-out your friends and family back home.
This statue of a fearsome Makara once adorned an ancient Cham temple.
Dragons: fierce and friendly
Chinese dragons have infiltrated many of the cultures in the region. Scaly and more serpentine than their European cousins, they are not considered evil, but rather a source of good luck, longevity and symbol of power. Dragons were usually associated with emperors, in both China and Vietnam, as well as the number 9, which also symbolizes longevity. However, in the Cham culture of Vietnam (and some other Hindu cultures), the dragon (known as a Makara) is a ferocious guardian and destroyer.
The final resting place of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Incorrupt Corpses: eternal sideshow
In Myanmar and Thailand, the corpses of Buddhist monks are occasionally put on display for worship. One of the more well-known is the ‘mummified monk’ of Wat Khunaram in Koh Samui. The most infamous celebrity cadaver however, is that of Ho Chi Minh, on display in his mausoleum in Hanoi. Allegedly Uncle Ho wanted a simple burial. However, the communist party was desperate to preserve their symbol, even in death, and called on experts in embalming from Moscow to assist. Normally open to tourists, Ho comes off the shelf once a year for ‘touch-ups.’
Dinh Thai Thim, the Sorcerers’ Temple, in La Gi, Vietnam.
Sorcerers: Harry Potter and the Nasty Tropical Illness
Shamans and sorcerers are not uncommon in southeast Asia; particularly in hill tribe minorities of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as the jungles of Indonesia. Their ‘powers’ range from dispensing herbal remedies to warding off evil spirits. In the town of La Gi, Vietnam, a festival on the 15th and 16th days of the 10th lunar month (usually October) is devoted to a historical husband and wife fugitive sorcerer duo who are credited with saving the town from a plague.
A medium in Quang Ngai performs a spirit dance, possessed by ‘The Goddess.’
Mediums: spirited performers
In many regional cultures, particularly those influenced by China, a medium or oracle invites spirits to enter his (or more often, her) body in order to gain wisdom or special abilities. Devotees sit around the medium, singing, praying and making offerings, as the medium works themselves into a frenzy. Once possessed, they leap to attention and may begin a spirit dance. The spirits are quite often ghosts of ancestors, though may be other types of beings as well. The medium then dispenses important messages to participants, as well as small presents of money and food, blessed with good luck.
All media copyright Adam Bray 2011. All rights reserved.