Situated in the nondescript outer western suburbs of Bangkok, Sawang Arom temple is already well known for its collection of kuman – plastic child-dolls in historic costumes, usually clutching a bag of gold, and believed to be inhabited by the ghost of an unborn foetus.
People visit the temple throughout the day to pray to the kuman for good fortune, lighting incense sticks and kneeling before the garishly-coloured figures. Some buy lottery tickets, and run their hands along the trunk of a fallen ironwood tree, festooned with coloured scarves and smoothed by years of handling. They believe they can see the winning number in the faded grain of the wood.
Thais, like many people in South East Asia, are superstitious. But the monks at the temple have found their doll collection growing recently, as people have quietly left behind child-sized figures, known as luk thep, or ‘child angels’. The monks have moved them to a small room in a tower, where, like the kuman, they are served the red fizzy drinks they are believed to prefer.
“Each person has their own beliefs”, one of the monks, Phra Prasit Warayan told me, “but the belief in the power of luk thep is very strong. When things go well for the owner, they worship them, but when things turn bad, they abandon them. Because they are afraid of what might happen, they leave them here, because they know we accept them, and the abbot is always careful to put them in an appropriate place.”
The dolls look incongruous in the temple, in their formal children’s clothing and with their wide-eyed, Western features. But how did the luk thep craze start? And is it just a continuation of the kuman belief, that inanimate objects can be inhabited by a ghost, or spirit?
A chubby, blond doll’s head sits on a shrine, next to offerings of food and water. Various other limbs lay drying outside after being given a special cream massage. In one room, two young women sat surrounded by different parts of doll’s anatomies, carefully applying nail varnish, nose studs and weaving real human hair into soft, plastic scalps. The dolls are often given yantra – Buddhist tattoos – and are filled with rice, a symbol of prosperity.
In the next room Mananya Boonmi lovingly brushes the hair of her favourite doll, Pet. She has collected these dolls for fourteen years, but she did not always see them as she does now, as living beings, who will reward their owners with good fortune – as long as they are looked after as if they are a human child. She believes she was one of the earliest believers in luk thep.