Out of the woods: Thai her­mits har­ness web

Crop of mys­tics use tech to cul­ti­vate fol­low­ings

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

From com­muning with for­est spir­its to whip­ping up love po­tions, Thai­land's caved­welling her­mits once con­ducted their su­per­nat­u­ral en­deav­ors with just an­cient magic and rit­ual as their guide. But to­day's sor­cer­ers are more con­nected than ever: armed with smart phones, Face­book pro­files and busi­ness-savvy, a new crop of mys­tics are har­ness­ing tech to cul­ti­vate fol­low­ings across Asia. "Woah," Toon says omi­nously as he peers down at an as­tro­log­i­cal chart on his smart­phone, the tips of his scrag­gly grey beard dan­gling just above the screen.

"You will have some kind of ac­ci­dent by the end of the month," he tells an AFP reporter, of­fer­ing to con­duct a cer­e­mony to coun­ter­act the bad karma. Sur­rounded by a cor­nu­copia of glit­ter­ing Bud­dha stat­ues, eerie dolls and other spir­i­tual trin­kets, the 57-year-old uses sa­cred pow­ders and oint­ments to con­duct his 'good luck' rit­ual. Sev­eral other her­mits-known in Thai as "reusee"-are gath­ered in the teak-wood room in his spa­cious home in north­east­ern Thai­land.

But hun­dreds of other dis­ci­ples abroad are also hang­ing onto his ev­ery word, with a Tai­wanese client broad­cast­ing the cer­e­mony on Face­book Live and trans­lat­ing for view­ers back home. "His cus­tomers and stu­dents want to see. They miss him," the Tai­wanese woman, Ann Liu, ex­plains as Toon wraps pro­tec­tive string around her hus­band, a reg­u­lar client. "He has over 200 stu­dents there."

The jet-set

A for­mer bank em­ployee, Toon is at the fore­front of a grow­ing num­ber of 'new age her­mits' to crop up in Thai­land's spir­i­tual un­der­world-a densely pop­u­lated scene of shamans, ex­or­cists and as­trologers. While the king­dom is over­whelm­ingly Bud­dhist, there is still wide­spread be­lief in an­i­mistic spir­its and ghosts. Toon was called to the spir­i­tual prac­tice 16 years ago, swap­ping his sec­u­lar garb for white robes, grow­ing out his beard and dec­o­rat­ing his arms in hand-etched tat­toos.

Us­ing Face­book and LINE to ad­ver­tise his ser­vices, he has tapped a deep well of over­seas intrigue-es­pe­cially among eth­nic Chi­nese-for rit­u­als and charms aimed at boost­ing busi­ness prospects and mend­ing re­la­tion­ship woes. He now has hun­dreds of fol­low­ers in places such as Hong Kong, Tai­wan, China, Malaysia and Sin­ga­pore, and trav­els far and wide to of­fer spir­i­tual so­lace. But his jet-set­ting is on his clients' tab, in a lux­ury life­style that could not be fur­ther from the soli­tary, for­est-dwelling ex­is­tence of his pre­de­ces­sors.

Thai­land's tra­di­tional her­mits were as­cetics who dis­avowed worldly ex­cesses and spent most of their time alone in the jun­gle, en­gaged in deep me­di­a­tion. "Now her­mits have to live in towns so they can help peo­ple eas­ily," Toon ex­plained to AFP out­side his lux­u­ri­ous home-a dec­o­rated com­pound that merges a tra­di­tional Thai sala with a mod­ern house, re­plete with a shiny black SUV in the drive­way. "Also, I have a wife and I'm wor­ried she couldn't live in the for­est," he added.

Su­per­nat­u­ral boom

An­thro­pol­o­gists say Toon and his 21st cen­tury peers, whose num­bers are es­ti­mated to be around 200 in Thai­land, are only the lat­est play­ers to profit from a "su­per­nat­u­ral boom" in Asia. Free-mar­ket forces and tech­nol­ogy have abet­ted, rather than di­luted, superstitions that can dic­tate ev­ery­thing from daily rou­tines and busi­ness moves to high-level po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions. Thai­land is renowned for its co­terie of oc­cult fig­ures and spir­i­tual fads. Un­like other govern­ments in neigh­bor­ing coun­tries like China and Viet­nam that have sup­pressed folk re­li­gions, Thai au­thor­i­ties have given fringe prac­tices a free reign to flour­ish.

From life-like 'an­gel dolls' to lim­ited edi­tion pro­tec­tive amulets, su­per­sti­tious crazes rou­tinely sweep the king­dom, fu­elled by celebrity en­dorse­ments and me­dia cov­er­age. Many of the must-have charms are aimed at pro­mot­ing wealth and other mod­ern as­pi­ra­tions. "The reusees (her­mits) fit into the re­cently emerg­ing pop­u­lar­ity of this kind of prac­tice," said Thai an­thro­pol­o­gist Vi­sisya Pinthongvi­jayakul. "A lot of cus­tomers, es­pe­cially busi­ness own­ers, now come to Thai­land to seek aus­pi­cious power from al­ter­na­tive peo­ple other than monks," he added.

It is un­doubt­edly a lu­cra­tive busi­ness for peo­ple like Toon, whose clients pay hun­dreds of dol­lars for the cer­e­monies. Thanks to the power of the web, he now has more for­eign cus­tomers than Thais. But he claims his prac­tice hasn't changed at all. "All of my fol­low­ers are hu­man... and so their thoughts are the same: they want love, they want good luck, and they want to be rich." — AFP

THAI­LAND: This pho­to­graph shows 'her­mit' Toon, left, in­scrib­ing a pro­tec­tive charm with holy oil on the fore­head of a Tai­wanese client dur­ing a rit­ual in the north­ern Thai prov­ince of Khon Kaen.

THAI­LAND: This pho­to­graph shows a video on the mo­bile phone of Tai­wanese client Ann Lui of Thai 'her­mit' Toon per­form­ing a rit­ual in the north­ern Thai prov­ince of Khon Kaen. —AFP photos

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