Meet the maa khii and nat kadaw of Thailand and Burma
Mariette Pathy Allen's 2017 photobook release, "Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand," provides moving images of spirit workers in the region who we might describe as cross-dressers, trans women, and/or gender fluid.
While the articles written about the book through spring 2018 vary in their sensitivity and choice of language, Allen's images are wonderful. Allen's website includes a gallery with 24 photographs which overlap only partially with the Smithsonian set.
The Smithsonian article points to the language preferred by the subjects -- details notably absent from most of the other articles we found.
In Thailand, spirit mediums are known as maa khii; in Burma (Allen refers to the country renamed Myanmar by the ruling military junta in 1989 by its former name to reflect the preference among the people she photographed), they’re called nat kadaw.
The same article features 20 images from the photobook (be sure to click on the photo gallery, near the top -- some but not all overlap with Allen's personal gallery) and explores Allen's experience traveling to Thailand and Burma as a Westerner navigating a different cultural and spiritual landscape.
Despite her experience as a photographer and her humility with regard to the topic, at one point, Allen admitted to herself, "This is a disaster." (According to the Smithsonian article)
In her interview with the Daily Beast, Allen goes on to say:
I learned that as a westerner, I will never understand anything regarding spirits and spirit mediums, but that I could appreciate the individuals and observe the rituals. I can't explain or judge. All I know is that once, when a spirit spoke to me through one of the mediums, it seemed to know a great deal about me.
During a fourth trip to the region, Allen final made the connections she needed for a successful photo project.
The Smithsonian article goes on to report:
Spirit mediums in Transcendents are shown with friends, surrounded by family members and in situations where they are vacillating comfortably from performing ancient rituals to engaging in the 21st-century world, using cell phones and participating in ice bucket challenges...
Worshipers pay spirit mediums for counseling, performing traditional spiritual stories and healing. The financial freedom of being a successful spirit medium is significant—the income allows them take care of their families and extended families, and even helps them gain respect and acceptance from relatives who have been intolerant of their gender nonconformity in the past.
In a CNN interview, Allen speaks to the relationship between stigma and respect given to
"Spirit mediums are appreciated and even venerated," she said in a phone interview. "Trans and homosexual people are, generally speaking, really looked down upon -- especially in Burma (Myanmar). But if they happen to be spirit mediums, the whole thing is reversed. Nobody minds in the slightest what their sexual or gender orientation is."
While emphasizing Western voices (which are sometimes dismissive of Eastern and indigenous spiritual practices or remarkably clinical about issues gender identity), the CNN interview includes some comments from one of the subjects (even though likely misgendering them):
Wearing clothes traditionally associated with women can help mediums communicate with the spirit world, according to Anukul Siripan, a 45-year-old transgender psychic from the Thai province of Lampang.
"Yes, it helps to connect with the spirits," said Siripan, in a phone interview. "Being trans, (we) usually care more about appearance and beauty compared to straight men or women. We believe that good spirits love cleanliness and beauty."
Hailing from a family of psychics, Siripan has been a medium for almost 30 years. As well as conducting religious ceremonies, [Siripan] works as a college lecturer in social and cultural studies.
"The rituals are about inviting the good spirits -- it could be ancestors or angels to protect us," [Siripan] said. "People want the spirits to bring them good luck and to protect them on important occasions."
Siripan said that the transgender mediums are "very popular" in the north of Thailand, and that they can be found in areas across the country.
While the cross-religious, cross-cultural and cross-gender reporting can be problematic, we recommend wading through the sometimes problematic language to catch a vivid glimpse of the lives of our maa khii and nat kadaw siblings.
Editors Note: Thailand and Burma are mostly Buddhist countries, but these spirit workers represent a more indigenous practice that co-exists in these areas. Not all maa khii and nat kadaw are cross-dressers, transgender, or gender fluid as all kinds of women have long played these roles.