Waiting for the Saes

by Dustin Covert

A leap into the unknown Thailand


We were waiting for the Saes, a pair of old giant ghosts that haunt the mountainous Northern provinces of Thailand, so the animists of the region say. The head monk's prayer rang steadily as we sat in silence. The sun illuminated the dust filled air. Hundreds had gathered in the soft shade of the Mae Hia forest that morning, and my legs throbbed from kneeling in the earth. Splayed out on a concrete slab the carcass of a carefully selected buffalo seeped fresh blood into the sunshine, emitting a poignant stench that mixed with the anticipation and hung like a spirit over the crowd. Mae Hia villagers believe that long ago the hungry Saes consumed so many of their people that the town was nearly empty. Then, a Buddha happened through the village. Disturbed by the eerie silence he confronted the Saes. As long as he lived the Saes could eat the villagers' most prized buffalo once a year instead, the Buddha proposed. The Saes agreed. This is what I'd heard, and what I had to see. The time had come, the head monk proclaimed, the Saes were approaching the area! A band of folk instruments erupted into a frenzy while the crowd pressed against the fence surrounding the buffalo's body. The people of Mae Hia, however, know that the ghosts will never actually appear. Instead, a shaman, the dong hohfor, offers his body to the Saes as a vessel. Clad in bright blue and white he emerged from the crowd clutching a bamboo flask and took a hefty swig. The dong hohfor let out a piercing cry and collapsed onto the beast's back. The Saes had entered his body! He plunged his fist into the buffalo's belly, extruded a hunk of flesh and sunk his teeth into the raw meat. He snatched a flask of buffalo blood and poured the crimson liquid over his face. Energized by the meal, the shaman began a trancelike procession through the crowd, blessing each with his bloody hands. He returned to the carcass, ripped off a fresh piece of meat, climbed a tree and exploded into a shrieking fit that echoed through the forest. The Saes had been satisfied. As the ritual came to a close I learned that the shaman's name was Terdsak, and this was his second year as dong hohfor. His flask was filled with Thai whiskey, he smoked a large cigar of various substances before the event, and emergency personnel were on standby every year. I fled by motorcycle, overwhelmed by the gory scene, but mostly thankful that the people of Mae Hia were safe from giant cannibal ghosts for another year.