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In Thailand, the Ghost Business Thrives

In Thailand, the Ghost Business Thrives

BANGKOK — Shortly after midnight, the phone rang in the cramped radio station where Kapol Thongplub hosts a nightly call-in show dedicated to the supernatural.

The caller had recently encountered a ghost in a Bangkok hotel room.

“I saw someone standing in my room, a woman,” she said.

“Did you see her face?” Mr. Kapol asked over the air.

“I heard some sort of Indian noises, some sort of Indian praying,” the woman said. “I felt heavy pressure on my body.”

Mr. Kapol has been listening to ghost stories like this for more than two decades as host of “The Shock,” which from midnight to 3 a.m. broadcasts tales of apparitions recounted by his listeners — taxi drivers, security guards, students and anyone else who is up at that hour.

In the process, Mr. Kapol, better known by his nickname, Pong, has become the leading ghost expert in a country that takes ghosts quite seriously and is apparently full of them.

There are more than 100 types of ghosts in Thailand, he says, including the Pi Pob, which enters human bodies and possesses them; the Preta, a tall, thin ghost that seeks vengeance among the living; Phi Lung Kluang, a variety from southern Thailand that takes a human form with a hole in its back, exposing its skeleton; and widow ghosts, prevalent in northeastern Thailand, which seek to steal men away from their families.

The belief in the supernatural, ghosts and otherwise, infuses daily life in Thailand. Ministers inaugurate their offices at auspicious times, and powerful generals have been known to consult seers before a big decision, such as launching a coup — a relatively regular occurrence in Thailand.

Fortune tellers are consulted by everyone from business executives forging multimillion-dollar deals to students facing uncertain careers and couples wanting to conceive.

Thailand’s political elites appear to be among the most superstitious. When the image of a former prime minister, Samak Sundhornvej, suddenly appeared on a large screen in Parliament shortly after his death in 2009, the speaker of Parliament opened an investigation and found no terrestrial explanation for it.

“I believe it is true,” he told the news media. “The spirit of Mr. Samak came back to say goodbye.”

Bangkok has a ghost-themed shopping mall, magazines filled with ghost stories, prime-time ghost television shows and many more programs that feature fortune tellers supplying everything from career advice to lucky lottery numbers.

But Mr. Kapol confines himself to ghosts, a thematic purity admired by his many fans.

“We love Pi Pong,” said Sirichai Suebua, a 37-year-old actor in Thai traditional opera who tunes into the ghost show during the long drives home from his performances. (Pi is the Thai word for older brother, but spoken in a different tone — there are five tones in the language — it can also mean ghost.)

“I only saw a ghost once,” Mr. Sirichai said. “But I can confirm to you that ghosts are real.”

Jessada Denduangboripant, a science professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok who campaigns against what he describes as a reliance on pseudoscience, said he saw little evidence that the love of the supernatural was waning.

“We’ve been told since childhood there are ghosts everywhere,” Mr. Jessada said. “You can have an iPhone and technology all around you. But you still stick to superstition.”

For Mr. Kapol, ghosts have also become a lucrative business.

In addition to his radio show, which has been running for more than two decades under various names, Mr. Kapol owns a ghoulish restaurant, The Shock, where food is served in miniature wooden coffins, and two ghost-themed cafes, also called The Shock. He has directed two horror films and is a regular commenter on television when a ghost expert is needed.

He is also, somewhat improbably, a leading television commenter on European professional soccer leagues.

During his radio broadcasts, he sends his staff to investigate haunted houses and has them call in live reports of what they find. He segues between callers with camp recordings of the sort that might be played in amusement park haunted houses.

“Don’t dare look in the mirror!” an announcer intones with a ghoulish voice during one such segue. “You might find that you are staring at someone else.”

Mr. Kapol has heard countless ghost stories during his career, and his assistants who screen the calls to the radio station have heard even more.

But in an interview, Mr. Kapol had a sheepish confession: In more than two decades looking for ghosts, he hasn’t actually seen one.

“You get goose bumps, and you have a feeling that something is there,” he said. “But I can’t see them. I don’t have that sixth sense. I feel them, but I can’t see them.”

He said his life had been devoid of ambition before he was rescued by a gift for ghostly gab.

He described himself as a slacker who in his student days favored girls and booze over math and English. He cut class and failed out of college, a crushing letdown for his parents, a clerk and a hairdresser, who had scrounged and saved to send their son to private schools.

“I was such a bad son. My mother was constantly crying,” Mr. Kapol said. “They wanted me to be a civil servant.”

Now, at 48, he has 20 employees and a mini ghost empire. He has bought his parents a house and a car. He paid for his father’s expensive kidney operation.

All is forgiven, for which he thanks the spirits.

“Ghosts gave me my job and my career,” he said, sitting on a stool at his restaurant. “I’m afraid of them, but I love them.”

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