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An Appointment with a Spirit Doctor

A couple of years ago I was spending my time alternatively between Chiangmai and my home in England which wasn’t very satisfactory for me or my Thai girlfriend. Just as I was about to come and live in Thailand I found out that I needed surgery to both hips which was going to delay my moving by some time. I came to Thailand for a holiday just before I was due to be admitted to hospital to tell everyone in person. The response was not what I expected and instead of sadness I was told simply that it was no problem and that I could go and see someone nearby who would sort me out without the need to go into hospital. I knew the person in question who could only be described as a spirit doctor so was sceptical but up for trying anything.

Photos of spirit doctors applying their craft on the author.

On 22nd November 2004 we left Chiangmai by tuk-tuk and headed north to a small village just beyond Mae Tang where the old woman ‘spirit doctor’ lived. It was obviously her surgery morning as several other people were waiting around her house. With a group of about ten people we entered a small wooden stilt house adjacent to the old lady’s home and, removing shoes, we all sat around the edge of the small room.

The old lady kneels on a raised platform that acts as a shrine and starts to sway backwards and forwards. She has 2 helpers who change her clothes and she suddenly collapses and appears to have entered into a trance, her voice and manner hanging perceptibly.

A middle-aged lady is the first ‘patient’ of the morning and from the apparent stiffness in the area must have a neck problem of some sort. The old lady opens a casket and takes out some leaves and ointment and uses the leaves to apply the ointment all around the patient’s neck. This she does for about 5 minutes before ceasing and indicating the patient should leave. Then a younger girl is next in line and with no evident problem from where I am sat. But, to my embarrassment " and probably hers " she is asked to remove her shirt. The old lady begins by scraping the top of the girl’s head with what looks like the back of a comb and it is obvious that the girl is in a lot of pain. The old lady moves on to the neck, shoulders, back and arms and the poor girl looks very red and sore and still in pain. Both of the ‘patients’ so far have changed clothes before coming in front of the ‘doctor’ and then my girlfriend picks up a wrap and starts for the door.

She says something to me but I don’t catch it and she heads off. She comes back a couple of minutes later wearing a sarong and seems surprised to see me still there. She takes my hand and picks up a wrap from the floor and it becomes obvious that she was expecting me to have changed as well. I take off everything except my underwear needing to preserve a little modesty if at all possible. I tie a small wrap around my waist and return with her to the old lady and together we kneel in front of her. We each have a large bucket of water in front of us and there are small flowers floating within them. The ‘doctor’ appears to be carrying out an examination by studying the position of the flowers. She then takes a small ladle and offers it to my girlfriend to drink from her bucket and then does the same to me. I’m up for anything and go along with things; just another stitch on life’s rich tapestry and all that.

My girlfriend then chats to the lady and it is obvious that they are discussing my hip and the problems I am experiencing. The ‘doctor’ leans forward and places her hand on my hip, massages lightly and nods as if to acknowledge that she understands the problem. My girlfriend leads me outside and we sit on the bottom step as the ‘doctor’ descends behind us. My girlfriend just has time to say “it will be cold” before a ladle of cold water is poured over my head " I wasn’t expecting that one. Even more of a shock follows shortly afterwards when the whole bucket of cold water is emptied over me. I can understand the need for the change of clothes now but I wish I had removed my underwear as well. I am then led back to the lady’s home to dry off and dress again " without any underwear by now of course.

Dressed, we return to the old lady and kneel before her. She holds my head and rambles a blessing of some kind and then rubs my forehead with some oil before applying gold leaf. She follows this up to both cheeks, both shoulders, chest, back of neck and palms of hands and it feels very strange but quite soothing and relaxing. Once I have acquired a piece of string on each wrist it is my turn to be ‘healed’. The ‘doctor’ gestures for me to remove my trousers but remembering that I am naked beneath them, and am in a room with about ten strangers, I attempt to preserve what little modesty I have left by simply lowering them a little over my hip. She massages a little whilst talking to my girlfriend and then finds the spot she thinks is the problem. She then dips the comb " it is not a comb but I can’t think how else to describe it " into some water and uses it to rub the hip very gently.

She then takes out what appears to be some surgical lint and I am preparing myself to bring proceedings to an end as soon as I think things no longer look safe or if she attempts an incision. She wraps the lint around an incense stick and one of her helpers ties it on. I have a feeling that she is going to light it but am relieved when this doesn’t happen. Instead a bottle of something appears and removing the top she offers me a sniff of what can only be rice whisky " an anaesthetic perhaps ? Unfortunately I do not get to drink any but she dips the lint in the whisky and rubs it against my hip.

After a few minutes she stops, smiles and speaks to my girlfriend who translates as “no more doctor needed”. I guess her diagnosis is that everything is now OK. We all return to be sat around the walls of the room leaving the old lady alone on the platform and after a few minutes she starts shaking, cries out and falls forward and when she kneels up she has become herself again and I guess her spirit doctor has moved on. Her two helpers remove her headscarf and silk blouse and she is back in her original clothes as well but looks hot and tired. She sits by us chatting but it all passes me by. She seems to think that one more such session later in the week will have me running around like a horse although how she believes rubbing rice whisky on my hip will achieve this I don’t know but I appear to be the only sceptic. We thank the old lady, say our goodbyes and return to Chiang Mai by tuk-tuk. Our driver is a laugh a minute although with my wet hair and bits of gold leaf still stuck to me I must have looked a bit of a state so who can blame him.

Needless to say, a week later I returned to England still requiring surgery which has now been successfully completed. Perhaps my mindset isn’t up to benefiting from such an experience medically but it is still something that I look back on fondly.

Unfortunately the lady in question died in August 2007 and I would like to dedicate this short piece to her memory.

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