Fortune telling has been practiced for hundreds of years. Since the beginning of time, humans have yearned to know their destiny. While the activity may have died out in many countries, anyone who’s spent an extended period of time in Thailand will know that it still exists as a part of everyday life. Seers can be found all over the cities — from hotel lobbies to temples. As I browsed the markets of Chiang Mai several fortune tellers or mor doo tried to tempt me to take a glimpse at the cosmic plan, my Western instincts instantly scoffing and dismissing them. Coming from a non-believing background, I began to wonder why I was now surrounded by so many people who do. In a country where even the Prime Minister sometimes consults a fortune teller before making decisions, it’s clear that the supernatural is a prominent part of Thai culture.
Although it may be easy to jump to the conclusion that most fortune tellers are just con artists preying on tourists and gullible locals for an easy baht, fortune telling and particularly astrology have been practiced in Thailand for centuries. Wat Pho in Bangkok, considered by some to be Thailand’s first university, has long taught astrology. Thai kings through the ages have had resident astrologers as guides and the average Thai person has been to a fortune teller at least once.
Fortune tellers employ a variety of skills to forecast an individual’s future, including astrology, palmistry, card reading and examining the patterns of a person’s face or feet. Many claim to use spirit mediums that inhabit the body, and Thais from all walks of life sit there with open minds soaking in the advice like a sponge.
The rise of science and technology, for the most part, seems to have had no effect on these beliefs, and certainly hasn’t eradicated Thailand’s preoccupation with the supernatural. It appears to be ingrained into the Thai psyche; its validity unquestioned. Monks and fortune tellers are even utilising new technologies in the quest for the most accurate answers.
Dr. Paritat Silpakit, Director of Suan Prung Psychiatric Hospital was able to shed some light on the psychology of fortune telling as I tried hard to make sense of it all. “I think that people seek out and believe in the words of a fortune teller because it helps them cope with their problems. They need something to think about or hang on to so the fortune teller provides some advice or some information and hope. The purpose of fortune telling is to act as a counsellor. Thai people have no confidence — they need help to make decisions alone.” Dr Paritat argues that fortune tellers are seen and act as therapists and often provide a source of reassurance when it comes to making important decisions that would otherwise be absent. People seek out these services to bring them peace of mind. They want to know that important events are being held on auspicious dates, and receive guidance on important aspects of life such as love, health and business. Fortune tellers are a means of gaining the confidence to move forward.”
I discovered Dennis Gillman, an American palm reader, and long term expat here in Thailand, who had just recently published his book, ‘Travels with a Palm Reader’. “Thais don’t have psychologists, counsellors, social workers to talk about their problems to. A palm reader will listen to what is happening to you and give you reassurance and hope for a very small price. It’s a very important function.” Gillman has spent much of his life reading palms, and eventually progressed to reading the back of the hand as well. He claims an ability to decipher people’s character and predict the future, although he prefers to avoid the latter as he believes that “events in our life are not predictable.”
This surprised me. I had always assumed that the sole purpose of a fortune teller was to make predictions about the future, about people’s upcoming fortune. It turns out that there is a lot more to it than telling someone they’re going to get married or to buy a new house in three years’ time.
Ofer Cohen, a well-known astrologist from Israel who also lives in Thailand, explained to me that no one is ‘psychic’, and astrology mostly comes down to knowledge. He proposes that even though people may possess a ‘mystic ability’, most psychics are fake and the ability to really tell someone’s future comes with years of experience. He says that a lot of it focuses on knowing the cycle of human beings and how the planets affect that cycle. “Everyone thinks they can control the future but actually everything just happens to them. People are victims of result.”
I asked him what exactly astrology is, and he defined it as being the “the study of interpreting the movement of the planets around the earth and the impact of that on human beings.” Cohen claims that he possesses a knowledge of why people act a certain way based on how the planets are affecting them. “If the moon can affect the tides and raise the ocean, it can certainly have an impact on people’s emotions. Human beings are just flesh and blood, so they are easily affected. The bigger the planet, the greater the impact.”
If astrology and the ability to predict fortunes actually comes down to knowledge over spiritual belief, it doesn’t seem so unreasonable that people would believe in it.
Cohen went on to tell me that he believes that fortune telling and spiritualism are actually integral parts of human nature. “Eastern people are more in touch with the second dimension,” he tells me, while I nod along hoping he will elaborate on what that actually means. “In the East, people are more connected to this other dimension. As much as people become more modern, money minded, into materialism, they move further away from their nature. Part of a human being is to be a part of nature. Asia is more in touch with nature than America. Modern life brings people to destruction, for example, global warming.” He suggests that the second dimension is our natural awareness, something which can often be mistaken as spirituality.
On the face of it, he tells, me, it seems to come down to cultural differences more than anything else. The Western world is ruled by materialism and money, enlightenment and beliefs often based in empirical evidence alone. Thailand, and a lot of Asian countries, have through culture and social development been able to keep in touch with its roots, the natural origin of people and their ancient traditions. In the past, both the west and the east had rich and vibrant spiritual traditions, but the west moved away from that. Thailand managed to remain enriched and involved by it, so much so that even in the modern era, it still stands proud and is regarded as a legitimate source of answers and decision making by a majority of people.
The integration of more ancient astrological traditions with modern day Buddhism is also a curious topic to explore, leaving Thailand with an interesting form of animistic Buddhism that exists unlike anywhere else. Cohen explained that although Buddhism doesn’t specifically refute fortune telling, astrology and the belief in spirits, it does teach people not to become slaves to these forces. In fact, Buddhism almost plays the part of a conscious parent, letting their child experience and explore new things, but calmly guiding them away from addictions and obsessions. Mutual beliefs such as reincarnation helps bridge the gap. Cohen had mentioned reincarnation, explaining that when a person dies, he doesn’t actually die, he “moves to the second dimension” — the dimension which makes fortune telling possible. Perhaps this second dimension opens people up to all sorts of new worlds and practices. Whether you believe that fortune telling is harmless, or that its distracting Buddhism from its primary purpose, it’s clear that Buddhists and fortune tellers share common beliefs, and there is an overlap between the two which is glorified here in Thailand, further normalising the practices.
I felt that I was finally grasping a better understanding on the Thai obsession with fortune telling, but I was still left asking one question: is it real? Is there any proof that a fortune teller can accurately decipher someone’s character and predict future events? Despite my attempt, nobody could prove it — just like any belief I suppose. I was left wondering and pondering, until that is I actually read Dennis’s book. In the third chapter, a section dedicated to his time in Chiang Mai, Gillman talks about his experience in a run-down guesthouse many years ago. This just so happened to be the guesthouse where Welsh backpacker Kirsty Jones, who was raped and murdered in 2000, was staying at when she was killed. In his book he describes how he read the palms of several of the people staying there, and how they possessed ‘killer hands’ only two weeks before the brutal murder. The suspects included those whose palms he had read just days before, those with the ‘killer hands’. Whether you chose to believe his claims or not, his analysis of the character of those people he met was eerily accurate, which may explain why so many people are so easily convinced by the judgement of a palm reader. Even the most stubborn of sceptics may think twice. Interestingly — or spookily — enough when I submitted this article to my editor this morning, she looked startled, and told me that today was the 16th anniversary of Kirsty Jones’ death.
It would seem that the Thai belief in the supernatural is very much alive and originates from a combination of factors. Historically, the tradition was popular worldwide during a time where science and logic were still yet to be realised, a time where spirits and religion was everything. These beliefs are yet to die out across Asia, and Thailand is no exception. Nowadays the fortune teller has adopted the role of therapist, councillor and shoulder to cry on, a place for people to reassert their decisions and build confidence in making the right decision. Maybe my own western attitude towards fortune telling is fuelled by a lack of understanding and fear of the unknown. Maybe we really are less in tune with the second dimension. Whatever the reason and whatever your beliefs, it is Impossible to deny that the supernatural is very real and very much alive in Thailand.