Meeting the lost sorcerers of Thailand

Photography and words by: Francis Wilmer - Posted on: September 14, 2016 | Featured

Dwelling in the forest and dabbling in magic, the hermit sages known as ruesee have long inhabited the fringes of Thai Buddhism. Now, this disappearing breed of mystics are turning to modern marketing in their race for survival

Ruesee Ketmunee in the forests of Thailand’s northern Uttaradit province
Ruesee Ketmunee in the forests of Thailand’s northern Uttaradit province

Dawn in Uttaradit

The sun has yet to peek above the treetops in northern Thailand’s Uttaradit province. Rain is hammering down onto the canopy, causing thick water drops to coalesce on leaves and fall heavily onto the earth.

As dawn approaches, a rhythmic, elongated Pali chant can be heard through the trees. An orange candle illuminates a heavily bearded man, draped in tiger skin, who is sitting cross-legged on the ground in a morning ritual to bless the rainforest ahead of the coming day.

He goes by the name Ruesee Ketmunee and is one of a disappearing breed of mystics. The word ruesee has many interpretations, but it can be best translated as ‘sorcerer’. The direct translation, ‘forest monk’, fails to take into account the fact that many ruesee practice magic. And they are a far cry from the region’s long tradition of forest-dwelling monks, falling somewhere between sage, monk and wizard.

Ketmunee splits his time between his rented house outside a rural village and the nearby forest. This part-time return to the modern world came in 2013, after he had lived in caves for five years.

A cultural descendant of the rishi hermit sages of India, the priorities of each individual ruesee differs: some act as healers, and others perform magic for hire, such as curse removals or exorcisms. Some also claim the ability to bring wealth and good fortune through the amulets and potions that they create and bless.

A more traditional purpose is to live an austere, simple life so as to gain a deeper understanding of the universe, in imitation of the Buddha. It is estimated that fewer than 100 remain in Thailand, and many ruesee, who are outcasts from mainstream Theravada Buddhism, find it difficult to gain widespread acceptance.

Far from the Uttaradit jungle, in a suburban housing estate outside of Chiang Mai, a gaggle of disciples dressed mostly in white mingle in the front yard of a modern townhouse. Forming a loose line, one by one they enter the living room where Ruesee Phuttavet, dressed in black and wearing dark sunglasses, sits atop a small stool. This is a waikrue, or ‘master worship’, ceremony commonly found in schools and temples across the country. Today, it comes with a ruesee twist.

“Ruesee are meant to help people, heal people, help bring them closer to the Buddha,” Phuttavet says. “As long as I am capable, I will help with whatever they ask.”

Day to day, Phuttavet assists people with problems ranging from spiritual to financial and romantic, offering both guidance and practical solutions, as well as healing physical ailments. Often, this help comes in amulet form: one amulet to help with family life, another to bring great wealth. He also offers a variety of potions, which he mixes himself. Love potions garner the most attention and come with a warning to use responsibly.

Before the waikrue ceremony begins Phuttavet holds up a ceremonial dagger and proceeds to gently push it into the roof of his mouth. A stack of white linen sheets is laid in front of him and he spits blood onto each of them. Once finished he lifts his head and opens his jaw to show that, miraculously, he hasn’t suffered any wounds. The sheets will later be distributed amongst his devotees as good luck charms.

Ruesee Phuttavet performs a blessing as part of a waikrue ceremony
Ruesee Phuttavet performs a blessing as part of a waikrue ceremony

As each disciple finally enters the room, they fall to their knees at Phuttavet’s feet. A large golden mask, moulded into the face of a ruesee god, is lifted over their heads as Phuttavet mumbles a blessing.

While some politely proffer their thanks and move on, others erupt into an uncontrollable frenzy, howling and thrashing about on the floor as assistants attempt to pin them down. “The mask unlocks the spirits inside of them. Particularly if they have spirit tattoos – if they have a tattoo of a tiger, they will act like a tiger,” Phuttavet says. “This gives them strength and courage.” Typically, the fits last no more than ten to 20 seconds before worshippers pull themselves up off the floor and sheepishly move on.

Hailing from a family of ruesee and magic men, Phuttavet describes the “clear path” that was laid out for him. “My father was a magic teacher and my grandfather was a ruesee, so I was always going to go into this line of work.”

Social media medium

Phuttavet is very much a ruesee of the modern age. He is internationally travelled, speaks serviceable English, owns three properties and holds a master’s degree in Thai language from Chiang Mai University. His Facebook page boasts more than 4,000 followers, and a fan page has also sprung up, managed by his disciples. He posts Instagram-style shots that document his spirituality. Through Facebook and his online shop, he sells charms, amulets and potions for the devotee in need.

Back at the small jungle camp in Uttaradit, Ketmunee reminisces about a tougher upbringing, with fewer opportunities, in Thailand’s impoverished Isaan province. “My father was a poor farmer. I worked in a rubber factory when I was 14 after spending time as a novice monk. But I always knew I wanted to do something more spiritual.”

Ketmunee displays his worldly possessions on a straw mat: two grey cloths cut and worn in the same style as monk robes, a linen bag, leopard-print hat, sleeping mat with blanket, a book of holy texts and his bead necklace. “I lived with just this for all those years in the caves,” he says, patting the bag. “You can find whatever you need in nature, and if I get sick I can just heal myself.”

While ruesee often have a small following of disciples, they are considered to be a niche part of Buddhism. Their use of magic and ties to some darker elements of Hinduism leaves mainstream Theravada adherents uneasy. 

Ruesee Ketmunee
Ruesee Ketmunee

“Belief in ruesee is separate to organised religion,” says Somkiat Lophetcharat, a Thai religious scholar. “It’s a strand of belief not incorporated into any mainstream religious practice.”

Somchot Ong-Sakul, associate humanities professor at Chiang Mai University, points out that ruesee played a significant role in ancient Thai kingdoms, such as Lanna 1,000 years ago, and were instrumental in founding the cities of Chiang Mai and Lamphun.

“However, the ruling classes were uneasy about the degree of power the ruesee held. They wanted to keep their status as rulers, and the privileges given to ruesee were gradually phased out,” Somchot says. “Thai people today are wary of the ruesee because of preconceptions that ruesee aren’t Buddhist. They aren’t associated with righteousness like Buddhism is.”

Rumours abound

Rumours of black magic, curses and even murder swirl. Most Thais have never seen a ruesee in the flesh, except on television where they are typically portrayed in period dramas as eccentric sorcerers with sinister powers.

The second floor of Phuttavet’s townhouse does little to dissuade this stereotype, with its statues of gods holding giant phalluses, Hindu sculptures showing couples embracing in Kama Sutra sex positions and bottles of love potions stacked in the corner.

“We’re not monks. That’s what is so useful about ruesee. We can help with things that monks will not want to talk about,” Phuttavet says, referring to matters of love and lust.

Turning to the subject of murders rumoured to have been orchestrated by ruesee, his grin disappears. “There are some cases of this, but the vast majority of us are good, just like everyday people. Sometimes, though, people come to ask of me spells I will not do – I have morals just like normal people,” he says.

In Uttaradit, Ketmunee chuckles when asked about the portrayal of ruesee in the media. “I don’t really watch television, but we are nothing like how they portray us. I just like to be alone, to focus on my meditation, to bless the world around me,” he says.

Yet he still feels the need to modernise. With the help of a loyal disciple, he started a Facebook page in 2013 that now has more than 1,000 followers. He also posts heavily edited photos of himself, along with mystical amulets and status updates quoting Buddhist texts.

This ancient profession is now taking advantage of social media marketing as ruesee look to shape their personal style of magic into a brand. The largest financial income for many ruesee comes via the international touring circuit. Popular destinations include Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, countries where a belief in mystics is commonplace and those with an air of the exotic find themselves in high demand. Phuttavet and Ketmunee both travel overseas to hold blessing ceremonies and healing seminars.

Ketmunee is targeting the lucrative, growing Chinese market and regularly posts images on Facebook accompanied by text in Mandarin – online marketing graft that seems to be paying off. A follower recently travelled from China just to receive a blessing. As with monks, ruesee claim to accept money purely on a donation basis, but you can’t put a price on spiritual enlightenment. This business plan appears to be capturing a niche but rich market. The disciples at Phuttavet’s waikrue ceremony, for example, all appear to be wealthy and successful.

Ronnavit Varin, a Thai-American follower, says he has travelled from California for the waikrue ceremony. “I come every year; it’s extremely important to me,” he says. “I used to be in the army, and before I was deployed to Afghanistan I put on an amulet [blessed by Phuttavet]. I had a few close calls there, bombs exploding right next to me. I’m certain the amulet saved my life.”