Angel dolls taking off on a whim and a prayer

A row of young women cradle their silent infants, waiting respectfully outside the quarters of Buddhist monk Phra Winai Thidtapanyo at a temple just outside Bangkok. They are all there to get their little tots blessed by the 64-year-old.

One by one, they are ushered into the cool, dark room, where the "babies" are undressed - and revealed as realistic-looking plastic dolls.

Phra Winai lifts each doll carefully and uses a gold marker to dot its eyeballs and upper left corner of the chest - where its heart would be. He scrawls a blessing on the forehead and another on the back.

Then, he returns the doll to the thrilled parents, who embark on a new life with their plastic child.

Thailand has been gripped by intense debate about the "luk thep" or "child angel" phenomenon over the past week.

The practice of adopting realistic-looking dolls for good luck and raising them like real children has been slowly growing over the past year, especially after certain celebrities began sharing photographs of their own luk thep on social media.

But such offbeat behaviour hit the headlines only after Thai Smile Airways, the low-cost subsidiary of Thai Airways, said in an internal memo that it will serve luk thep meals on board if their owners have bought a ticket for them. Also, these dolls have to be secured with seatbelts for take-off and landing.

What seemed like a novel way to raise revenue amid the economic gloom triggered a swift official backlash. The Thai aviation authority issued a notice last Wednesday that luk thep cannot be considered humans and ought to be stowed in overhead compartments. Like all baggage, they also need to go through security screening.

"Any passenger who refuses to abide (by these rules) would be barred from boarding," it said.

And Public Health Minister Piyasakol Sakolsatayadorn urged owners of "child angels" to see psychiatrists if they think the dolls talk to them, The Nation reported.

National police chief Chakthip Chaijinda warned last Monday that allowing these dolls on board would open the way for criminals to smuggle contraband. As if on cue, police at Chiang Mai airport intercepted a luk thep that evening which contained 200 methamphetamine mixture pills. The next day, Bangkok seized more than 100 of these dolls and accused three vendors of evading import taxes.

When The Sunday Times visited Pantip Plaza Ngamwongwan, an offshoot of the popular electronics haunt in Bangkok, doll shops clustered in a section of its sixth floor were shuttered. The vendors, said their neighbours, were lying low until the publicity died down.

It appears to be a profitable business. The dolls can cost more than 10,000 baht (S$400) each, with some vendors throwing in the blessing service. Online vendors hawk sofas, strollers, clothes and other paraphernalia for such dolls.

Near the plaza, at Bua Kwan temple where Phra Winai is based, 22-year-old online retailer Warathapon Jaroensuk proudly shows off the luk thep she calls Ying Ruay or "Get Richer". It sports a mop of brown hair, a stylish blue shirt over long johns and a faux gold chain.

"He's male," she tells me, as she tries to pull down the long johns to confirm the gender. The doll nearly falls off her arm. "Stay calm, my child!" she says as she steadies her grip.

Around her, fellow luk thep owners - some of them men - balance their dolls on their laps, or upright on seats. One has a packet of fried noodles ready for her inanimate child. Many are clearly upset about the unrelenting publicity, especially at being labelled mentally ill or accused of encouraging aberrant Buddhist practices.

Ms Khajitrat Laowongpanich, 38, tears up as she counters the critics: "We love the dolls like they are our children. These are our personal beliefs and we don't harm anybody."

Social commentators have drawn parallels between the luk thep and guman thong, which are amulets made of the roasted bodies of stillborn foetuses and believed to grant fortune to their owners.

Those who "adopt" guman thong give them food and toys like they would a child.

The owners and makers of luk thep deny there is anything that grisly in their dolls. But their dolls communicate with them, they say, sometimes through their dreams.

In the West, haunted dolls are the stuff of nightmares and sometimes tourist trails, with Chucky the evil doll being one of the most recognisable Hollywood horror icons.

The criticism from fellow Thais has been surprisingly intense in a country known for its relaxed co-existence of animism and orthodox Buddhism. New motorists get monks to bless their cars, while a fatal stampede once took place over "magical" Jatukam amulets.

Chiang Mai University anthropologist Pinkaew Laungaramsri attributes this negativity partly to the very public nature of this phenomenon. "No one takes guman thong to a buffet, combs his hair, bathes or puts him in a taxi and tells the driver to drive carefully so as to not make him dizzy," she says.

One may also see the luk thep phenomenon as a product of the marketing and consumption of a distortion of reality - which already exists in contemporary society, she said.

Phra Winai is impassive when asked about the fierce debates that have erupted. "These (disagreements) are just affairs of the secular world," he says. He blesses the dolls to bring peace to their troubled owners or encourage them to do good deeds, he adds.

The day after speaking to The Sunday Times, however, he was told by the abbot to stop blessing the dolls.

It is too early to say if the love for luk thep will be a lifelong affair.

Asked if she would keep Ying Ruay forever, Ms Warathapon says: "If I get bored, perhaps I will give him away."

'Breathing' dolls with own birth certificates

It is not that uncommon to find adults treating their dolls like they would children.

In the United States, Britain and several other Western countries, "reborn" dolls have spawned an entire industry over the past decade.

These dolls are crafted to resemble real babies, with mottled skin, soft hair and even battery-powered mechanisms that emit the sound of heartbeats. Depending on the sophistication of each artist - and the buyer's budget - the doll's chest can rise and fall as if it is "breathing", while its body can emit warmth.

Veins and birthmarks are painstakingly added, while hair is planted strand by strand.

Reborn dolls weigh as much as a typical baby and often have their own "birth certificates". Each can cost several thousand dollars. A Singapore-based reborn doll artist, Ms Linda Ho, was featured in The New Paper last year.

While the dolls are collectors' items in themselves, grieving parents have been known to use them to cope with loss.

Such dolls are also bought by so-called "empty nesters" - older couples with grown-up children who have left home.

The dolls are so realistic that police in Australia and the US have reportedly smashed car windows to rescue what they thought were babies suffocating in the vehicles, only to find that they were dolls.

This article was first published on Jan 31, 2016.
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