First published in Mashable April 19, 2016
Mananya Boonmi scrolls through the thousands of photos on her phone with the mile-wide smile of a proud mother. Every now and again she stops scrolling to show off a photo with one of her “children.”
“This was when he was 4,” she says as she hands over a picture of her holding Nong Pet (Diamond). “I’ve put a new body on him since then.” Motionless in her lap, Nong Pet sits bejeweled in a fine white dress, Boonmi happily caressing his arms.
Nong Pet is 5 years old, 2 feet tall and a ‘Luk Thep’ — literally, Child Angel — doll. He’s also just one doll of thousands in the latest Thai craze that recently enraptured, and then exasperated, large swathes of Thai people.
Believed to bring about good luck if pampered by their doting owners, the popularity in Luk Thep dolls seemingly reached its zenith in January. Stories abounded of airlines offering seats, and restaurants offering menus, specifically for the dolls. The oddity of seeing men and women carrying lifelike dolls soon caught the eye of the wider Thai community.
The ensuing media frenzy attracted a backlash of ridicule and warnings from people and government alike. In response, much of the Luk Thep community retreated away from the unforgiving public eye and closed ranks around others like themselves, many of whom are linked in some way to Mananya Boonmi.
The peak of the luk thep craze blanketed local newspapers in January 2016.
Boonmi, whom everyone simply calls Mama Ning, considers herself one of the earliest adopters of Luk Thep dolls.
She bought her first, Nong Ploy, 14 years ago at a nearby market for just 350 baht ($10). She explained that around five years ago while selling souvenirs and trinkets, she “sensed” Nong Ploy offering to help. Shocked by the experience, she stopped treating Ploy like a simple doll and instead like a real child, holding conversations, sharing food and buying new clothing. Shortly thereafter, her business boomed.
Since then, Mama Ning has grown and developed to the point where she has now created scores if not hundreds of her own Luk Thep, which she passes on to others in search of happiness, good fortune or stability.
Today they can fetch anywhere from 1,500 baht ($42) to tens of thousands of baht. “Look at those eyes, they cost 1,500 baht alone.” She says as she gestures to the hypnotic, preternatural features of one of her dolls. “From America.”
While Mama Ning’s setup sounds like a simple private business, money is the last thing on her mind when it comes to her Luk Thep.
“If I wanted, I could sell [them] on Facebook without any questions or any problems and become very rich.” Instead, she explains, she insists on meeting up with prospective “parents” to judge which Luk Thep is most suited to them and whether they are even worthy.
Around her house, dozens of Luk Thep dolls sit pristinely dressed along her sofas. While they are the most obviously striking adornments in her house, Mama Ning’s bright pink home exhibits much of what makes Thailand’s religious situation hard to pin down.
Ostensibly a majority Buddhist country, many of the rituals practiced, and trinkets owned, by Thailand’s Buddhist community have roots in Taoism, Hinduism and Animism. No hard and fast lines can be drawn between them, and superstitions and spirits are a major part of everyday life.
Above her front door dangles the 8-sided ‘Bagua’ mirror of Taoist cosmology. In one corner of her garden sit two lavish spirit houses common around homes and businesses alike in Thailand but with roots in Animism and Hinduism. Amulets, another religious fusion and also hugely popular in Thailand, adorn both herself and a number of her prized Luk Thep dolls.
A few days later we are invited to observe her annual ‘Wai Khru’ ceremony, a well-established tradition in Thailand whereby students can pay respect and show gratitude to their teachers. Wai Khru is typically a staple in the martial or performing arts, but on this day, the teacher is Mama Ning and the subject matter is Luk Thep.
Starting in the early morning, an outwardly Hindu affair stretches on under a blazing sun. In the morning, amber-robed Buddhist Monks pass into the building and briefly hold prayers for Mama Ning, her home and her students.
Once downstairs, Mama Ning is transformed, wearing a glorious salwar kameez and apparently possessed by Parvati — the Hindu goddess of fertility, love and devotion. About 40 students have arrived, all with at least one Luk Thep in hand.
Pita, a 41 year-old relative newcomer to Luk Thep, watches the service from the shade of an awning along with her Luk Thep, Natalie. For Pita, the idea of owning a Luk Thep was never in doubt.
“I’ve wanted one for a long time and finally adopted Natalie in December,” she said.
Reasons for why people come to invest in a Luk Thep range from the economic to the social. Some, like Pita, say it helps to fill some void — she has a son but “has always wanted a daughter.”
Others, like 33 year-old Gade, say “some people think I’ve lost a child and my Luk Thep is a replacement, but it is simply not true.” Moreover, she adds with a tone of unequivocal sincerity, it was “not for good luck or anything like that, just to increase my family’s happiness.”
Gade holds Yuri, her family’s luk thep, while her father Karun holds her hand.
As proof, she points to her father, Karun, who sits quietly beside his daughter and speaks softly every now and again to his “granddaughter” Yuri.
“I used to drink and argue with my wife a lot,” Karun says. “But Yuri makes me feel happy. Since she has [entered my life], I’ve found she helps me deal with any issues I have.”
He remarks on Yuri’s love of the outdoors, which also forces him to leave the house more. “She loves to go to the temple and that’s great for me, for karma, and for merit.”
Gade nods respectfully as her father speaks.
“Some people think, ‘oh you should look after your real family before a Luk Thep,’ but I think you will find that those with Luk Thep treat their families far better.”