19 JAN 2005

Asia Pacific News
Time is GMT + 8 hours
Posted: 18 January 2005 1614 hrs

PATONG : Some 100 Buddhist monks led a mass cleansing
ritual Tuesday at popular Patong beach on the resort
island of Phuket to dispel fears among residents and
Asian tourists that restless spirits of tsunami
victims are haunting the area.

Reports of ghost sightings have terrorised locals

Many now carry Buddha amulets and avoid venturing out
to the beach at night after the December 26 earthquake
and giant waves killed more than 5,300 people in
Thailand, roughly half of them Western tourists.

Hoteliers and tourism officials, hoping for a speedy
recovery in business, fear such ghostly tales will
scare away superstitious visitors from China, Hong
Kong and other parts of Asia where belief in the
spiritual realm is deep.

In windblown saffron robes, 99 barefoot monks holding
silver urns walked along a three-kilometer street
hugging the shoreline of Patong, collecting an array
of food and money offerings from more than 1,000
residents giving merit to help the spirits.

According to Buddhist belief, once people die they can
no longer make merit and the task is left to the

Only with sufficient merit can the dead break out of
the cycle of Karma and reincarnation and reach

Thai women and men clasped their hands in respect
before scooping steamed white rice or dropping money
and packets of cooked dishes, canned food, drinks and
other household items -- including toilet paper, soap
and detergent -- into the monks' bowls.

A number of them knelt in silent prayer along the
street, where many shops and restaurants were ravaged
by the tsunamis.

Some foreigners living in Patong also handed out bags
of food to seek blessings for their businesses here.

"Buddhists believe that when people die unexpectedly,
their spirits are not at rest. They think they are
still alive so they hang around here looking for their
way home," said resident Yongsak Natpracha.

Drivers of three-wheel taxis known as tuk-tuks
reportedly saw spirits of the dead flagging them down
on the street, while others claimed they saw people
swimming in the sea and singing on the beach at night,
he said.

"That's why we give food offerings as merit to help
their souls rest in peace, so that they won't go
wandering around scaring people."

The four-hour ceremony closed with a mass prayer
session at a large square on the beachfront where the
chief monk, holding a microphone, led the group in
chanting prayers of blessings under cloudy skies.

Phuket Tourism Association president Pattanapong
Aikwanich said a series of such rituals have been held
throughout Phuket to quell fears among locals and
assure tourists especially from Asia that the island
has been cleansed.

This is particularly crucial as the industry is hoping
for a return of tourists from China, Hong Kong and
Singapore during next month's Chinese Lunar New Year
holidays, he told AFP.

A similar ceremony was held Tuesday in a slum outside
the resort town of Khao Lak in neighboring Phang Nga
province, where 100 people gathered for prayers
dedicated to Myanmar migrants who died in the tsunami.

Two weeks earlier, some 20,000 people joined more than
1,000 monks in a huge ceremony in Phuket town centre,
while similar prayers have also been held by Christian
and Muslim religious leaders, said Pattanapong.

"Many Asians believe in the supernatural, so we have
to hold prayers and take steps to assure them that the
spirits of the tsunami victims are resting in peace,
that they don't have to be afraid of ghosts," he said.

Pattanapong said hotel occupancy and room rates on the
island have fallen since the calamity. Phuket's
tourism revenue this year is expected to fall by at
least 30 percent from around 75 billion baht (1.9
billion dollars) last year, he said.

The industry has mounted an aggressive campaign
abroad, offering cheap air fares and hotel rooms and
attractive tour packages to woo tourists.

It is confident of a recovery by the next peak season
in November, he added. - AFP