When the coronavirus pandemic closed borders, Thailand’s massive tourism industry—more than 20 percent of its GDP, by some calculations—ground to a halt. Within months, word spread that the spirit of an 18th-century statue in southern Thailand, known as the Egg Boy, had provided someone with winning lottery numbers. Then an influential figure publicly attributed her wealth and success to Egg Boy. Soon Wat Chedi, the provincial temple housing the statue, was inundated with Thais seeking hope and good fortune.
For many Thais, spirits are part of everyday life, and are even seen as a gateway to prosperity or a source of protection.
“If you look at Thai popular religious ideas, [ghosts and spirits] live alongside you, they interact with you on a daily basis,” said Prakirati Satasut, a faculty lecturer of anthropology at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. “For example, when you go to a market, you see a territorial spirit shrine, or in a shop, a lucky lady shrine. You can use these objects to harvest wealth or obtain your goals in this world, which means there’s got to be some sort of a communication, some relationship.”
As the coronavirus pandemic brings unprecedented social and financial pressures, this spiritual relationship has become a source of support for many Thais. Enter Egg Boy, who was once all but unknown outside his province—and who now welcomes thousands of devotees a day.
Egg Boy fever
About 250 years ago, a boy was accompanying a traveling Buddhist monk when the pair overnighted at Wat Chedi, in the southern Thai province of Nakhon Si Thammarat. Sensing that the temple would one day become an important place, the monk instructed the boy, who was called Ai Khai—a southern dialect term that literally means “egg boy” but that might be more accurately translated as “scamp” or “rascal”—to stay and serve the locals. Ai Khai vowed to do so.
In addition to helping out the resident monks and maintaining the temple, he engaged in the type of mischief familiar to a boy in Thailand during the late 18th century: terrorizing the village with a slingshot, setting off firecrackers, chasing roosters, and playing soldier. A few years later, he heard that the monk was on his way back to their village, and rather than join him and return home—which would have violated his oath to serve the temple—Egg Boy drowned himself in a pond.
But Egg Boy never really left Wat Chedi. Distraught by the tragedy and touched by the boy’s service, the temple commissioned a statue of Egg Boy, which has served as an anchor for his spirit. In the centuries since, Egg Boy has been spotted many times—once even causing mischief for soldiers camping at the temple during the Communist era, said Supachai Jomrit, a member of Wat Chedi’s managing committee. Egg Boy’s spirit was also said to help people recover lost items and grant prosperity.
In 2020, it didn’t take long for Egg Boy fever to sweep the country. (Even Thais use the English-language word to describe the phenomenon.)
“After quarantine was lifted, during a long holiday in September, around 70,000 to 80,000 people visited [Wat Chedi],” said Supachai. These are jaw-dropping numbers for what was formerly an obscure, provincial Thai place of worship. Even today, Wat Chedi is home to only 10 full-time monks.
“I’m so proud that our temple is famous, that people come here from all over,” said 21-year-old Por, a monk who grew up in the adjacent village. “I’m not annoyed by the crowds.”
Yet it’s hard to imagine that Por and his fellow monks aren’t at the very least overwhelmed by the estimated 8,000 visitors the temple is thought to receive on an average weekday. The parking lot that can now accommodate as many as 6,000 cars, and the ceaseless expansion of the temple grounds leaves much of Wat Chedi feeling like a vast construction site.
Despite the boomtown feel, this isn’t the first time that Nakhon Si Thammarat has found itself in Thailand’s spiritual spotlight. Hinduism is thought to have reached the area as early as the 5th century. By the middle of the 13th century, Nakhon Si Thammarat was an important center for the spread of Theravada Buddhism to the rest of Thailand. In 2007, another temple in the province was the epicenter of a craze revolving around amulets known as Jatukham Ramathep.
Like that amulet frenzy, which came after the Asian financial crisis, Egg Boy fever hit during a time of particular economic instability in Thailand. Then as now, the attention has been a boon to Nakhon Si Thammarat.
“Ai Khai has been like a magnet, pulling people here, people who are stressed or suffering from the current economic situation,” said Pitsinee Tatniyom, director of the province’s branch of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Pitsinee added that since the end of Thailand’s quarantine, daily flights to Nakhon Si Thammarat have doubled, hotel occupancy rates are up 25 percent, and tourism revenue has increased by 26 percent—a stark contrast with the overwhelmingly red figures seen elsewhere in the country.
Follow the chickens
Even before one arrives at the temple proper, the buzz surrounding Wat Chedi is apparent. The four miles of rural road that lead to the temple are lined with shops selling brightly colored cement statues: cartoon-like soldiers, groovy flowers, and Google Maps-inspired pins.
According to Thai belief, if one requests something from a spirit or temple and that wish is granted, one must return to the temple and offer a gift. At Wat Chedi, in an effort to appeal to children, these gifts take the form of firecrackers, toys, and sweets.
But mostly chicken statues—lots of chicken statues.
“In the past, people would bring real chickens [to the temple],” said Thararat Thongbai, the owner of a home-based cement statue factory. “This wasn’t convenient for the monks, so people started bringing chicken statues instead.”
Thararat and her family make chickens, as tall as 12 feet and covered with tiny mirrors, that can cost as much as 120,000 Baht (around $4,000). Due to the pandemic, the vast majority of her business is conducted online. For an extra fee, Thararat herself will deliver the items to Wat Chedi on a merit-maker’s behalf.
“There’s even a chicken graveyard,” Thararat told me. “It’s where the temple takes the chickens after they’ve been donated. It’s the largest in the world!”
Indeed, a short walk from Wat Chedi, a perimeter of giant roosters conceals a football field-size area carpeted with hundreds of thousands of tiny, neatly arranged chicken statues, the bizarre uniformity interrupted by massive piles of broken chicken parts. When I visited, the vast majority of the statues were still vibrant and new. But I couldn’t help but wonder what the chicken graveyard might look like in a couple decades, as the paint peeled and the statues crumbled.
Where spirituality meets commerce
To those who didn’t grow up with Thai-style Theravada Buddhism—a belief that intertwines elements of Hinduism, Chinese religions, and spirit worship—the atmosphere at even a simple Thai temple can seem almost festival-like. At Wat Chedi, this feeling is on overdrive.
In one corner of the temple complex, visitors rub baby powder on a massive hardwood log in the hopes that the winning lottery numbers will appear. Next door, a band, hired by someone as a gesture of thanks, blasts Thai country music. Every two hours, boxes of firecrackers are loaded into the bed of a truck, backed up to a virtual mountain of ash and charred paper, and unceremoniously dumped out and ignited, resulting in a volcano-like ejection of smoke and noise.
Much of the hubbub at Wat Chedi has a distinctly commercial feel. The temple compound includes a strip of vendors selling lottery tickets, a clutch of ATMs, and an expansive food court. At the entrance to Wat Chedi, there’s a booth where visitors line up to “rent” official Egg Boy amulets (although they’re indeed making a purchase, Thais use this term to skirt the problematic connotation of possessing a sacred object).
“People who come here have all kinds of different desires,” said Supachai. “I once interviewed 100 visitors; of these, 60 wanted lottery numbers, 20 wanted help with work, and the other 20 wanted a mix of other things.”
I walked around the temple grounds to learn firsthand what people were asking of Egg Boy.
“We came here before, three or four years ago, and got the winning lottery numbers,” said a woman called Nun, who had driven from a town three hours away with her husband and child. “This time, we’re here to ask for a car.”
“My relatives came here before and won some money in the lottery,” said a woman who went by Diw. “I don’t really believe in this stuff, but I thought I’d give it a try.”
Boom, who had flown in from Bangkok for the day, was on his second visit to Wat Chedi. He and his friends showed me their amulets and bracelets.
“I’m part of Generation Y,” he said. “We’re interested in amulets, but for us it’s not just about belief; there’s elements of fashion and status. It’s also an investment.”
Later, I went to see Egg Boy myself. I scaled a marble staircase to a hall that, compared to everything that was going on just outside, was downright quiet and empty. A scant dozen people kneeled before the statue believed to house Egg Boy’s spirit. Smoke-stained, with intermittent patches of gold leaf and a contorted posture, the life-size boy was dressed in an ’80s sitcom-like take on child’s fashion: a white T-shirt with the temple’s name, cuffed blue jeans, a bright red Ferrari baseball cap, and sunglasses.
After the chicken graveyard, the mountain of firecrackers, the marching bands and the food court, the massive crowds and the relentless announcements, it seemed this tiny, obscured spiritual nexus had been almost entirely forgotten in the rush.