BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The Thais' controversial obsession with the life-like "luuk thep", or child angel, has inspired an airline to recognise the dolls as human passengers and restaurants to serve them real food.
But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the current craze for the dolls is that it is fraught with superstition, recalling the kuman thong baby amulets that have lingered since the Ayutthaya Period from 1351 to 1767 - despite being made from dead babies' body parts.
At least kuman thong are normally kept discreetly in the home, as a household divinity. In sharp contrast, the child angels are being cuddled in public, pampered in restaurants and beauty parlours and given regular passenger seats on commercial flights.
The doll assembled in a factory and the amulet fashioned from flesh share several similarities. Both are treated as actual children. The owners believe they will bring them luck and wealth. Monks are asked to bless them.
But no one goes shopping with a kuman thong, or dresses it in purpose-made clothing, or orders a separate meal for it at restaurants. The child angel is not so much a lucky charm as a member of the family.
The statue of a beckoning spirit, known as Nang Kwak in Thai folklore, is commonly seen in shops, luring customers and thus prosperity. A decade ago there was the frenzy over Jatukham Ramathep amulets believed to guard against danger. No such precursor foretold the arrival of "luuk thep", which became a social-media firestorm last year courtesy of their celebrity owners.
Thanatchapan "DJ Pukko" Booranachewawilai of radio station 94 EFM at A-Time Media says he had set out to buy a kuman thong, but went home with a child angel instead.
"But a fortune-teller introduced me to the 'luuk thep' and I thought it was adorable," says Pukko, invariably accompanied these days by a doll named Nong Wansai.
When he first took it home, he says, the magic was instantaneous.
"I'd bought the doll new clothes and right away there was a message on my phone reinstating a job that had been cancelled. Then I prayed to Nong Wansai to get me a bigger job, and a friend called to say a director wanted me to star in his movie!
"I wasn't sure about this one, so I told Nong Wansai that if I got a call about the job right away, I'd buy her a one-baht (S$0.04) gold necklace. And, unbelievably, I got the call!"
Siraporn Soonthornnet, 30, the mother of a teenage girl, has also been "parenting" a pair of "luuk thep" for the past four months - Ramruay and Poonsap - but she insists she does not follow trends.
"The way I connected to them was miraculous. I loved them at first sight and immediately wanted to adopt them," she says.
"I raise them as though they're my own children and I'm not shy about taking them everywhere. Anyone who'd feel ashamed about doing that just shouldn't adopt one."
Siraporn paid 3,600 baht for each of the dolls, both already bearing the marks of a monk's blessing. She has not noticed anything supernatural, but does feel a close bond to them.
"My husband doesn't mind and my daughter plays with them like they're her little sisters. I feed them real food and sweets and milk. At night I clean them with a cloth then dress them in pyjamas and then pray with them before tucking them into bed.
"Most often I take them to the temple to make merit. I don't think this is blind faith. If you look after them with love and goodwill, the child angels will bring you good fortune. Sometimes I ask them to help me with my online sales and promise them a reward."
Child-angel retailing really took off for shop owner Det-a-duh Nachariyanukul six years ago. The buyers are usually middle-aged women or "lonely people" in need of companionship, he says.
The price ranges from 100 baht to 10,000 baht, depending on the quality of the material. He has sold limited-edition dolls for 10,000 baht that are now worth more than 100,000 baht.
Det-a-duh tells customers that they do not need to feed the doll or take it with them when they go out.
"It needs only good merit to keep it powerful," he says.
Some owners obviously do want to take their dolls out - and in high style. Thai Smile Airways made global headlines last month when it agreed to sell regular passenger seats for child angels, complete with meals, the first airline to recognise the fad.
The move prompted urgent discussions among authorities concerned about air-related security. National police chief General Chakthip Chaijinda demanded strict guidelines to stop criminals from smuggling drugs and other contraband on board stashed inside the dolls.
Thai Smile has told its cabin crews to treat the dolls like human passengers, from full service to reminders about fastening seatbelts. Customers can of course request an aisle seat or one by the window so the child angel to gaze out towards the heaven.
Seating arrangements are important as well since passengers sitting nearby might regard the dolls - superstitiously - as potentially evil, as in the cinema devil doll Chucky.
"Nok Air will treat the child angel like any doll," says chief executive Patee Sarasin of the budget airline. "We don't encourage passengers to purchase individual seats for their dolls - it's expensive, after all - but we can't stop them from doing it."
"Bangkok Airways doesn't do anything special for the baby doll - we treat it as a doll," says Arisra Sangrit, a senior media-relations manager for the airline.
"As long as the doll makes it through the security check and doesn't break any civil-aviation rules, the airline has no problem accommodating the dolls."
Bangkok Airways has seen passenger peculiarities before. Travellers have been known to book seats just for their designer handbags.
Several Bangkok restaurants are ready to serve children's meals to the dolls, and shops stock clothing and jewellery specifically for the "luuk thep". There are even beauty salons and nurseries catering to their whims.
Child angels are most welcome at the Hot Pot buffet-restaurant chain, whose managers are savvy enough to know they come in different sizes. Just like real kids, "luuk thep" under 110cm in height dine for free, while the adult price applies if they are taller than 130cm.
The chain even has a heads-up for the "parents": "Please be aware that your child angel might not appear cute or adorable to other people."
And, for other diners: "Please treat child angels as if they were cute little children."
After dinner, it is off to a show. The BEC-Tero Entertainment company is happily selling "luuk thep" seats for its Disney On Ice performances at the Impact Arena convention centre in Bangkok from March 30 to April 3. However, if they are under 90cm in height and can sit on their owner's lap, they can get in for free.
Despite the growing mania for the angels dolls, Dr Jesada Chokedamrongsuk, director-general of the government's Mental Health Department, says the obsession is not a mental illness. It is purely a matter of personal belief, he adds.
Nevertheless, he says, Thais should be more circumspect about their tendencies to both believe in the supernatural and to follow popular trends.