Five Scariest Ghosts from Laos Folklore

The Phi Ped or Hungry Ghosts. Photo: PPTVHD 36

by Bryan Thao Worra

Laos is often considered a must-visit destination of Southeast Asia these days for its unique and enchanting charms. While visitors enjoy the many smiles and natural wonders, during the Fall our thoughts often turn to thoughts of the supernatural thanks to local festivals and Halloween traditions that have become popular since the 20th century.

In Southeast Asia, the catchall term for ghosts and spirits tends to be the word “phi” but anyone who has spent enough time here will tell you that covers a very wide range of entities. There are of course dozens, if not thousands of phi traditionally said to abound in Laos. Some are terrifying, others are guardians, some are strange, and others still resemble family friends and acquaintances. In Laos, phi can be found just about anywhere, from remote mountains to cities, and places such as a certain cave of Xieng Khouang or the Li Phi Falls near Champasack. They’re said to show up often where you’d least expect them.

Researchers of the paranormal are only just now starting to fully catalog the variety of creepy creatures that can be found in Laos, and it’s tough to decide on the scariest of them all. In this article, however, we’ll look at five leading candidates so you can decide for yourself!

  1. Seua Saming: Weretigers
    In the Year of the Tiger, we’d be irresponsible if we didn’t mention the fearsome Seua Saming, or weretigers said to haunt the wilderness of Laos and Southeast Asia. While ordinary tigers serve important ecological and environmental functions in the jungles, the many different ethnic groups in the highlands of Laos each have their own reports of weretigers whose transformations are not dictated by the phases of the moon.Lao spirits are known to be shapeshifters, but weretigers are particularly known to hunt humans by changing shape or temporarily possessing others. They are supposedly able to change into both living and inanimate objects such as jewelry by the side of the road, but among their most well-known disguises are those of Buddhist monks, beautiful bathing women, and babies abandoned in the woods, presumably in an effort to prey upon the trusting, the kind or the lust-filled. There are folktales that suggest some weretigers associate with short, squat grandmother witches.

    Photo: Wikipedia
  2. Phi Kong Koi and Grandmother Ghosts
    The horror movie villain Freddy Krueger was said to be inspired in the 1980s by reports of the phi am abruptly killing otherwise healthy sleeping men from Laos, particularly Hmong, by sitting on their chests at night, a phenomenon referred to as Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome, currently considered to be the same as Brugada Syndrome according to Western medicine.

    But an equally terrifying entity in Laos is said to be the Phi Kong Koi, one of the many types of evil grandmother ghosts that have been described over the centuries. There are many conflicting descriptions, but Phi Kong Koi is often said to be ugly and short, with skin black or grey as night, red eyes, one leg, and a foot that faces backward to fool anyone stupid enough to try and track it. They are identified by repeatedly telling pending victims they are hungry, shouting “koi koi koi” as they approach. They are distinct from the phi pob, which possesses people while often eating them from the inside out.

Photo: Laos in The House
  1. Phi Kaseu: Floating head ghosts
    Throughout Asia, there are legends of ghosts who appear as floating heads, often with their viscera and entrails attached to them. In Malaysia, for example, they are known as Penanggalan, and there are traditional tales of these ghosts in Japan, China, Cambodia, Thailand, and other nations. The majority of them are said to be women, and in Laos, these are known as the Phi Kaseu. They are said to have a particular hunger for pregnant women and gullible young boys, often floating behind a wall so that only their heads are visible, trying to lure their victims closer. In many rural villages where they’ve been a problem, thorny vines are hung around the windows, because the Phi Kaseu hate getting their guts stuck on the thorns. When there is nothing else available, Phi Kaseu have also been said to feast on excrement on dirty laundry hung out to dry, and it is best not to disturb them.

    Photo: Laos in The House
  2. Phi Ma Bong: Ghost horse

The majority of Lao ghosts are generally in the shape of humans, but one of the stranger and more terrifying ghosts of Laos and Northeastern Thailand is the Phi Ma Bong, often described as a nocturnal ghost mostly shaped like a horse, but sometimes with a young woman’s face. The Phi Ma Bong absolutely does not like humans, and trampling them to death is one of their favorite activities, after they’re done chasing you up the road and wherever you try to hide from them. But they also love raw, rotting meat and raw eggs. Some stories have suggested they don’t like weretigers, but that is unlikely to be helpful to any humans who run into this creature at all.

Photo: thes26800 from Pixabay
  1. The Phi Ped or Phed: Hungry ghosts

Also known as Preta, the Phi Ped or hungry ghosts of Lao tradition are known through Buddhist legends as the fate for many who cannot overcome their greed and hunger in their lifetimes. Such people are said to spend their afterlife perpetually hungry, often with swollen, hollow bellies and mouths smaller than a single grain of rice. Some accounts say they are tall, horrifying ghosts who can never work off the karmic debts they incurred while living. It is believed to be one of the most tragic fates to befall a person.

Illustration of the Phi Ped

Many other strange and mysterious spirits are said to roam Laos. One phi is said to terrify people in the highlands by appearing as a monkey walking on a banana leaf, and as they get near pigs explode and chickens turn inside out. Others come by just to lick the salt off of your big toe. Why? Nobody knows, nor do they really want to ask. Others have even more unusual habits and tastes. Some are believed to be the ghosts of foreign soldiers, missionaries, and travelers who met unfortunate ends over the centuries here.

Bryan Thao Worra is an award-winning Lao American poet and member of the Horror Writers Association. He served six years as the president of the international Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association. His work appears internationally and he will be presenting on Science Fiction and the imagination in Southeast Asia at the Singapore Writers Festival this November.