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Ghost surfers


A second surge of tsunami terror is hitting southern Thailand, but this time it is a wave of foreign ghosts terrifying locals in what health experts described as an outpouring of delayed mass trauma.

Tales of ghost sightings in the six worst hit southern provinces have become endemic, with many locals saying they are too terrified to venture near the beach or into the ocean.

Spooked volunteer body searchers on the resort areas of Phi Phi island and Khao Lak are reported to have looked for tourists heard laughing and singing on the beach, only to find darkness and empty sand.

Taxi drivers in Patong swear they have picked up a foreign man and his Thai girlfriend going to the airport with all their baggage, only to then look in the rear-view mirror and find an empty seat.

Guards at a beachfront plaza in Patong told AFP one of their men had quit after hearing a foreign woman cry "help me" all night long, and similar stories abound of a foreign ghost walking along the shoreline at night calling for her child.

The majority of Thais are deeply superstitious, believing ghosts reside in most large trees and keeping a spirit house in every home where daily offerings of food and drink are given to calm nearby paranormal entities.

Mental health experts warn tsunami survivors have picked up on this cultural factor as a way of expressing mass trauma after living through the deadly waves and witnessing horrific scenes in their aftermath.

"This is a type of mass hallucination that is a cue to the trauma being suffered by people who are missing so many dead people, and seeing so many dead people, and only talking about dead people," Thai psychologist and media commentator Wallop Piyamanotham said.

He said people who claimed to have seen ghosts first-hand were people that mental health specialists would be paying particular attention to.

Mr Wallop is currently organising a team of Thai and international health workers to join other specialists in affected provinces who are assisting people suffering psychological trauma as a result of the crisis.

Amateurs and professionals alike have been pivotal in the recovery of thousands of corpses from beaches and coastal towns ravaged by tsunamis on December 26, and in the subsequent processing of handling bloated and rapidly decomposing bodies at huge makeshift morgues.

Their round-the-clock work could be taking a devastating toll, with at least seven workers having already been hospitalised suffering extreme trauma.

Volunteers helping at Thai temples, transformed into scenes of grisly death as forensic experts struggle with the task of identification, are especially vulnerable, psychologists and doctors said.

Mr Wallop said widespread trauma began to set in about four days after the waves hit.

"This is when people start seeing these farangs (foreigners) walking on the sand or in the ocean," he said, adding the sightings started about the same time as people "began calling for help, crying, some scared".

Many people said they could not escape the smell of death or the sights they had seen while assisting in the crisis, he said.

Mr Wallop said the reason almost all ghost sightings appear to involve foreign tourists stems from a belief that spirits can only be put to rest by relatives at the scene, such as was done to many Thai victims.

"Thai people believe that when people die, a relative has to cremate them or bless them. If this is not done or the body is not found, people believe the person will appear over and over again to show where they are," he said.

Mr Wallop said in time people who need counselling would be reached and assisted and the sightings would settle down, but many locals claimed they would not be swayed by such talk.

"After visiting Wat Baan Muang (a temple where hundreds of bodies are still stored) I'm very scared. I can't sleep at night and when the wind comes I'm sure it is the spirits coming," said Patong bar manager Napaporn Phroyrungthong.

"I believe in ghosts and I always will. [The tsunami] happened so quickly, the foreigners didn't know what happened and they all think they are still on the beach. They all think they are still on holiday," she said.


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