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Plane Crash? Murders? Time to Play Thai Lottery

BANGKOK — At a bend in a busy Bangkok road stands the Tree of 100 Corpses, a shrine to pedestrians who have died in traffic accidents nearby.

People come from all over Thailand to commune with spirits they believe reside in the tree, which is wrapped in golden cloth and surrounded by hundreds of figurines. They also come to find winning lottery numbers.

“I made a wish to the tree and asked that the number pop up in my dream,” said Kriengsak Konart, a motorcycle taxi driver who works in the area. The number 45 came to him in his sleep, he said, and he played a variation of it.

The search for lottery numbers in Thailand can be confusing to outsiders. Many Thais believe that calamity can beget good fortune, and that tragedy may give rise to powerful ghosts who offer guidance on winning numbers. Newspapers report the license plate numbers of cars involved in gruesome accidents. Lottery aficionados note the highway route numbers where accidents took place, tally the casualties and play the numbers. Nothing is seen as too horrible to be a source of good luck, not plane crashes or massacres.

“This is all about superstition,” said Worawit Srianunraksa, the front-page editor of The Daily News here, which, like other Thai newspapers, runs articles packed with numbers that may be useful to lottery players. “People, especially in rural areas, still believe in ghosts and spirits, things that you cannot explain. And they are able to find numbers in any news event.”

Thailand’s favorite topic of conversation is probably food, but a close second is the underground lottery. The game, illegal but tolerated, is played by nearly one-third of a population that marries deeply held superstitions with a proclivity for fun. The search for numbers to play is something close to a national obsession, culminating twice a month in the drawing of plastic balls to decide the winners.

Inspiration does not always come from tragedy. Regular lottery players say that numbers occur to them in dreams or cosmically appear in the bark of trees. They may be gleaned from oddities spotted by villagers and reported in the national news media — a six-legged turtle or a lizard born with an extra appendage, to name two that were reported last month. People play the numbers of the hotel rooms where movie stars stay, the prime minister’s birthday or any numbers related to the royal family.

But many Thais believe that the best numbers come from powerful ghosts, those who have endured terrible pain or suffering.

One of the country’s most famous ghosts is Mae Nak, who is honored at a shrine in southeastern Bangkok next to a Buddhist temple. According to Thai legend, Mae Nak died in childbirth while her husband, a soldier, was away on a military campaign. When he returned, his wife was a ghost soaring through the house.

Paan Padthong, 72, one of many fortune tellers who work near the Mae Nak shrine, said that men and women visited for a variety of reasons. Young men ask the ghost for assistance to avoid being drafted into the military. Women ask for help in conceiving a child. Students seek a cosmic boost on exams.

Mr. Paan said he felt Mae Nak’s presence floating above the shrine. “As we are talking, she hears us,” he said.

Those who go to the shrine for lottery numbers reach into a clay jar and pull out numbered balls. Or they scratch the bark of a tree inside the shrine, looking for digits.

Mr. Paan said they were trying too hard. “If you are someone who possesses good luck, all you have to do is step into the shrine and you will start to see numbers,” he said. “The numbers will just appear.”

The unlucky, on the other hand, need to realize their limitations, he said. “You can scratch the tree all day long, and you’ll never see any numbers.”

In a modern and cosmopolitan city like Bangkok, there are people, of course, who reject superstition. But it speaks to the Thai ethos of live and let live that the nonbelievers do not criticize those who seek supernatural help for their lottery habit. The attitude is captured in a Thai maxim: “If you don’t believe it, don’t insult it.”

At least three magazines in Thailand are devoted to numerology, and several Web sites offer guidance, like a list of 10 places to go in Bangkok for lottery inspiration. (The Tree of 100 Corpses was No. 5.)

The lottery is such an important part of Thai life that the country’s leading university, Chulalongkorn, has a researcher devoted to studying it. A survey published in 2011 by the researcher, Noppanant Wannathepsakul, found that 20 million people played the underground lottery in Thailand, out of a population of 65 million.

Brought to Thailand two centuries ago by Chinese immigrants, the lottery is woven into Thai social life, Mr. Noppanant said. Lottery agents are usually friends who collect bets and do not ask for money until after the drawing.

“It’s a system based on trust,” Mr. Noppanant said. “No one would play numbers with people that they don’t know.”

The search for numbers can be all-consuming. Wimonmas Supavirasbancha, who sells snacks from a food cart in Suphanburi, a city about 60 miles from Bangkok, said she could not concentrate on her work when the lottery drawing neared. Numbers come to her during waking hours and in her dreams.

“The best numbers usually come the night before the lottery drawing,” she said. “Sometimes I dream of a jet or catching fish. Everything in dreams can be interpreted into numbers.” (The word jet and the number 7 in Thai sound similar, and Ms. Wimonmas associates the words for fish and the number 8 because they begin with the same letter.) She said she won regularly, but the payouts are small, because she plays only small amounts.

Like many countries, Thailand has an official state-sponsored lottery, but the underground lottery is much more popular, partly because the chances of winning are better, at 1 in 100. The main official prize is much larger, but the odds are 1 in 1 million.

The unofficial lottery is part of the vast Thai underground economy, beyond the reach of the tax authorities and not counted in official economic statistics. It is also a rich source of petty corruption: Mr. Noppanant estimates that the police get 11 billion baht, or $362 million, in bribes and protection money from the underground lottery every year.

For a symbol of the collusion, it is hard to beat a shrine in the Chinatown neighborhood of Bangkok, where Yee Hoh Kong, one of the 19th-century pioneers of the lottery in Thailand, once lived.

The shrine, one of the most popular places to seek guidance for numbers, is on the fourth floor of a police station.

Lore has it that Mr. Yee loved coffee, cigars and betel nuts, so people leave those things as offerings. (Mr. Yee is also said to have enjoyed opium, but that has since been outlawed in Thailand.)

“Not many people come here to report a crime,” said Thassana Pleuangcharoen, a police officer who greets visitors. “Most come for the shrine.”

Thais, who often mix superstition with a proclivity for fun, play the underground lottery with numbers gleaned from calamity, believing that disaster can beget good fortune. ]]>