In Bangkok, a plastic-baby boom is under way. Thai adults have lately been towing around lifelike dolls known as luk thep (commonly translated as “child angels”), which are believed to be inhabited by spirits that bring good fortune. There are few places the dolls don’t go: They are carried through street markets, they receive blowouts at salons, they take up seats on airplanes, they are even served restaurant meals.
At first glance, the dolls—which seem to be most popular among middle-class, middle-age women—might appear to reflect Thailand’s low fertility rate (which has plummeted in recent decades from six children per woman to 1.5 today, a rate below that of most neighboring countries). Yet close observers say the luk thep craze is more strongly connected to Thailand’s complex religiosity. Although nearly 95 percent of Thais practice Buddhism, many also make offerings to Hindu gods, and the country has a long tradition of object worship, thought to have roots in animism.
Mae Ning, a doll-seller and self-professed master of Hindu ritual, is widely credited as the first person to transform plastic dolls into sacred luk thep. Last year, Thai celebrities started posting photos of the dolls on social media and crediting them with bringing good fortune. One radio DJ said that his lifeless look-alike, a doll named Wansai, had helped him recoup a lost job and later land a film gig. Ever since, assorted Buddhist monks, fortune-tellers, and other enterprising individuals have been conducting rituals that promise to imbue dolls with spirits. People have in turn been shelling out hundreds of dollars for the dolls—a down payment, perhaps, on future prosperity. “They are my children,” one businesswoman told the Bangkok Post, referring to her doll collection. “My children are part of my success.”
Some onlookers have compared the trend to a gruesome Thai practice from centuries past: kuman thong, dolls that were made from the remains of a stillborn baby and were believed to retain the infant’s spirit. However, experts on Thai religion told me that luk thep dolls have more in common with jatukam ramathep, a type of gold amulet believed to grant wealth, which became tremendously popular a decade ago. Justin McDaniel, who has written extensively on Thai amulets, says Thailand has a long tradition of seeking good fortune and physical protection through talismans.
Press accounts of the luk thep fad posit that the dolls are also a manifestation of growing public unease over the past couple of years, as Thailand has experienced a political coup and a declining economy. And yet the dolls themselves are prompting certain anxieties. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, for one, has urged luk thep purchasers not to squander money on the dolls that they might need for practical things. The Supreme Sangha Council, the assembly of Buddhist monks that oversees Thai Buddhism, hasn’t weighed in yet, but at least one senior monk has condemned the craze as anti-Buddhist.
Meanwhile, a hotel in Phayao has gone so far as to ban luk thep entirely, warning that plastic guests might leave the more traditional flesh-and-blood ones feeling “paranoid.”