Delve into these 13 creatures and urban legends from Southeast Asia you’ve probably never heard of this spooky season

by June Ngooi

When it comes to urban legends and folklore, you must have heard of the usuals like some dude howling at the full moon before turning into a wolf. There is a reason why those stories aren’t too horror-filled as much as being rebranded into teen hunks (sorry, team Jacob). 

As we near the height of the spooky season, local stories just do not scratch that itch for me anymore. What better way to keep it going than delving into some of the most well-known urban legends and terrifying creatures around our region of Southeast Asia?

Look no further than right behind you because the scariest monsters are always the closest. 

Disclaimer: Some readers may find the following images disturbing, so scroll through at your own discretion.

1. Mae Nak, Thailand

One of the most famous legends in Thailand, the Mae Nak is much more a tragic love story than a terrifying one. 

It is said that Nak was a beautiful woman who was happily married to her husband, Tid Mak. On top of a happy marriage, the fates blessed them with a child on the way. Whilst Nak was heavily pregnant, Mak was called to serve the King in battle. Nak had complications during labour and unfortunately passed away during childbirth along with her child.    

urban legends southeast asia
Photo: Unsplash

But as they say, love knows no boundaries.

Because of her deep love for her husband, Nak stayed as a ghost and Mak returned home to a very much alive Nak and child. Nak killed anyone who tried to warn Mak that he was living with a ghost. Mak eventually found out when Nak dropped a piece of lime off the porch and saw Nak’s arm reach inhuman proportions while picking it up.

Photo: Flickr

Eventually, Nak’s ghost was locked up in an earthenware jar and exorcised. This legend was so famous that it sparked variations of films about it in Thailand, one of the most recent famous ones being Pee Mak.

I suppose even the veil of life and death sheds no sympathy for a love on opposite sides of it. 

2. Nang Tani, Thailand

urban legends southeast asia
Photo: Thailand Insider

Otherwise known as “Lady of Tani”, the Nang Tani is a young woman whose famous haunt are the wild banana trees otherwise known as the Kluai Tani. She typically appears in a green traditional Thai costume and apparently loves the moon, because she only comes out on full moon nights. 

Photo: Thai fashion/facebook

The more wholesome part of this story is that the Nang Tani provides good offerings to Buddhists and are generally benevolent. However, they only show their fangs to men who have mistreated women. 

Sounds like even ghosts have their own type of activists, I guess.

3. Kuntilanak, Indonesia 

Speaking of banana trees, here’s another type of ghost that vies for the crown — it is the most famous entity to be associated with banana trees, after all.

urban legends southeast asia
Photo: Kuntilanak illustration via Dedikedu

The term kuntilanak in Indonesia (or pontianak as known by its Malay name) is a well-known name to us Singaporeans, and also Malaysians. One of the “It girls” (well, “It ghosts” in this context) in the Malay archipelago, the pontianak is depicted to have the façade of a beautiful woman with long black hair, pale skin, and white dress to lure in her mostly male prey. Once successful, her more monstrous form will appear. 

Screencap from Tiktok via jatimnetwork

It is also said that the presence is accompanied by a floral fragrance, especially at night. So the next time you find yourself walking alone at night, make sure it actually is someone’s perfume and not the pontianak.  

4. Pocong, Indonesia

urban legends southeast asia
Screencap from Dreadout

Another pretty famous one in this part of the world, the pocong is known to be wrapped in kain kafan, traditional Muslim burial cloth, and is said to prey on people with meek spirit. 

Photo: 123rf

The terrifying aspect of the pocong – on top of it being the ghoul version of a modern day bully – is that it haunts its victims by hopping (or floating) to them. 

There have also been some instances where people have spotted pocongs on trees, so apart from long distance hopping, they seem to also favour “height-based activities”. 

5. Manananggal, Philippines

The Philippines have always been one of the most famous regions in Southeast Asia for its many tropical island beaches. But it also has its fair share of supernatural and sightings going on. 

urban legends southeast asia
Photo: IMDb

The manananngal comes from the Tagalog word tanggal, which literally means “to remove” or “to separate ”. As the name suggests, the manananggal is a female spirit that is able to remove her lower torso and gains the ability to fly with her upper torso, her guts and intestines trailing behind her. This is also known as ahp in Cambodia, kasu in Laos, leyak in Indonesia, and penanggal in Malaysia. 

Photo: videntefernandez/tumblr

With her ability of flight, she goes off to search for pregnant women to feed off their unborn foetuses alive. Other times, she seduces men with her beauty before eating them alive, usually slicing their bodies and feasting on their insides and other innards.

Perhaps the manananggal is a fan of kway chap too.

6. TikTik/WakWak

Unlike the manananggal, the tiktik or wakwak cannot split their torsos in two, but they do share the same dietary preference. 

urban legends southeast asia
Photo: sophotos/pinterest

The tiktik/wakwak is a bird-like creature that is only active at night on the hunt for food. Besides the typical delicacy of foetuses, it is also said that they hunt on full-grown adults due to their powerful legs. 

Photo: ricardo pustiano via Steemit

The tiktik or wakwak are named as such because the sounds they make when they are near their victims resembles a “tik tik!” or a “wak wak!”. 

Hey, at least they announce their arrival as opposed to those at Halloween Horror Nights who jump at you out of nowhere. 

7. Toyol, Malaysia

Since foetuses seem to be the prey of many of these creatures, it might surprise you that they are also a creature of folklore in Malaysia

urban legends southeast asia
Photo: Supernaturalconfessions

Known notoriously as toyol, they are dead babies who are invoked or “resurrected” by shamans (or bomohs). It is believed that toyols will bid their summoner’s wishes and help them in stealing from their neighbours and other crimes that they can get away from due to their small size. 

Photo: Supernaturalconfessions

Like a child, the toyol must be kept happy and must regularly be fed sweets and biscuits. In some variations, the summoner must also satiate the toyol’s appetite of blood and let it feed off his blood. 

It is typically recognised by its red eyes and black figure, typically kept in a jar by summoners. I suppose not all babies are cute. 

8. Hantu Tetek, Malaysia

Whilst being bird-like is not one of the hantu tetek’s main traits, her opulent chest is. 

urban legends southeast asia
Photo: irfnmrn/x

Commonly well-known in the heartlands of Malaysia, Indonesia, and even Singapore, the hantu tetek literally means “long-breasted” in the Dusun language. Her appearance is said to resemble a woman with huge breasts (in other variations, an old woman with saggy, long breasts) who preys on young men and small children.

Photo: uglyluhan/x

It has been said that she can be identified by her shrill whistling as she suffocates her victims with her enormous assets.

Some might argue that might not sound too bad but I don’t know, is that really the way to go?

9. Janet’s Ghost, Malaysia

In Sarawak’s capital city of Kuching, lies the heart of a legend that has been told for years and one of the most well-known amongst locals. 

The legend goes like this: Janet is said to be a Chinese nurse who used to work in Sarawak General Hospital. One day when she was on her way home from work, she vanished and was presumably kidnapped. 

urban legends southeast asia
Photo: Borneo/facebook

Her kidnapping was believed to be linked to the many disappearances happening at the time to be ritual killings to appease the spirits that were hindering the Satok Bridge construction. Eventually, her headless body was found by a tree.

Consumed by the grief of losing their daughter and missing her terribly, Janet’s parents buried her in red clothes. In Chinese culture, burying someone in red makes them come back as a ghost. 

Photo: Wicknes007/x

Janet has been said to be sighted around many parts of Kampung Kudei carrying a red umbrella. She has also been said to be sighted on ferry rides across the Sarawak River and the fare paid will turn into Chinese hell notes or dried leaves, making ferry operators stop working after 10pm. 

As tragic as Janet’s tale is, it just reminds me that there isn’t any shortage of haunted places around the world.

10. Legend of Hứa Tiểu Lan, Vietnam

This legend might be familiar to some as it is one of the most well-known legends in Saigon now Ho Chi Minh City — in Vietnam.

There was once a wealthy Chinese businessman who was known as Uncle Hứa and particularly successful in the property industry. According to legends, apart from his three sons who helped with the family business, there was also his daughter Hứa Tiểu Lan who was renowned for her beauty.

urban legends southeast asia
Photo: illustration via lichngaytot

However, she unfortunately started displaying symptoms of leprosy, which was viewed as a curse and not a disease in the past, and out of shame Uncle Hoa locked his only daughter in one of the family mansion’s many rooms, holding a fake funeral to explain the sudden disappearance of his daughter. 

No one was allowed to enter her room, except for the maids who served her food once a day and even then, they were not allowed to look at her. This continued until Lan passed away and her coffin was moved to the room where Uncle Hoa still made the servants provide food to the room for his dead daughter until one day, a maid went up to collect the food but was terribly shocked to find it half-eaten and Lan’s disfigured ghost standing by the coffin. 

Photo: Peng Lu/facebook

Clearly shaken by the ghostly reappearance of his daughter, Uncle Hoa ordered a proper burial of Lan. But for years to come, Lan’s ghost is still said to be sighted at this ancient villa that has now been repurposed into the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts.

If you have a paranormal investigative bone in your body, perhaps you can catch a glimpse of Lan the next time you make a trip up there. 

11. Suea Saming, Laos 

Known as weretigers, the suea saming are known to be weretigers who hunt humans. Laos spirits are famously well-known to have shapeshifting properties, and weretigers are part of that list. 

urban legends southeast asia
Photo: illustration via magiathai

Apart from shifting into tigers to capture their prey, the suea saming are also able to shift into living and inanimate objects such as jewellery on the road, Buddhist monks, and even beautiful women, presumably to prey on the greedy, the kind, and the lust-filled. 

It seems like no one is exempt from their list of victims so it would be best to stay sharp. 

12. Ponna Nya, Myanmar

Translated into “White Lady” (is anyone seeing a running theme here, or is it just me?), the ponna nya is one of the most famous ghosts in Myanmar. She is said to haunt the banks of the River Irrawaddy after drowning herself in the river from an awful betrayal from her lover.

Photo: Myanmar Ghost Story/facebook

Almost the Southeast Asian version of the siren, the ponna nya is said to lure fishermen at night into the water to suffer the same fate as her with her melodious singing.

That sure brings the meaning of FOMO to a whole new level.  

13. Myinbyin, Myanmar

One of the more well-known legends in Burma, the myinbyin is a female vengeful ghost said to have died during childbirth and haunts the ruins of an ancient city in Myanmar.

Pregnant women who enter the ruins will be lured into the ancient city by the myinbyin and find themselves trapped there, never to find an exit ever again. 

urban legends southeast asia
Photo: Myanmar Ghost Story/facebook

The myinbyin is one of the most feared supernatural entities in Myanmar and pregnant women do not dare to enter the ruins of this place for fear of encountering this ghost.

And there you have it, a short tour around Southeast Asia of some of its 13 urban legends and creatures. The next time you find yourself visiting these places, keeping these extra history tidbits in mind will definitely make for a more interesting trip! 

Which of these do you think is your favourite?

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