Tue, Jul 18, 2017 - Page 6 News List

Thai mystics harnessing Web to go global

AFP, KHON KAEN, Thailand

Toon, left, unravels protective string before praying for his Taiwanese client at his home in Khon Kaen Province, Thailand, on May 20.

Photo: AFP

From communing with forest spirits to whipping up love potions, Thailand’s cave-dwelling hermits once conducted their supernatural endeavors with just ancient magic and ritual as their guide.

However, today’s sorcerers are more connected than ever: Armed with smartphones, Facebook profiles and business savvy, a new crop of mystics are harnessing tech to cultivate followings across Asia.

“Woah,” Toon said ominously peering down at an astrological chart on his smartphone, the tips of his scraggly gray beard dangling just above the screen.

“You will have some kind of accident by the end of the month,” he tells a 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.

However, 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,” Ann Liu said as Toon wraps protective string around her husband, a regular client. “He has over 200 students there.”

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 Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, Malaysia and Singapore, and travels far and wide to offer spiritual solace.

However, 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 said 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.

Anthropologists say Toon and his 21st century peers, whose numbers are estimated at 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.

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