Why is Thailand in such a mess? If you thought it was because the economy has been woefully mismanaged, you would be wrong. The nation's ill-fortune was actually caused by Rahu, the god of shadow, who descended upon the nation during a total solar eclipse in 1995 and has wreaked havoc ever since. At least, that is apparently the view of Khunying Phankrua, the sometimes eccentric wife of Thai prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. In June, she held a five-hour ceremony to placate Rahu at the Chavalits' new home in northern Bangkok. Did it work? Hardly. To avert economic meltdown, Thailand has been forced to seek a multi-billion-dollar bail-out from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other lenders, including Hong Kong. Beset by political turmoil, the Chavalit administration still looks set to go down as one of the most corrupt and unpopular in recent Thai history. One reason, say critics, is because the deeply superstitious Mr Chavalit and his fellow leaders are spending more time gazing at the stars than attending to the country. According to his wife, Mr Chavalit consulted a Tibetan fortune-teller before resigning his army post to run as a politician. This admission was reminiscent of the unsettling 1988 revelation that American First Lady Nancy Reagan was consulting a San Francisco astrologer before arranging her husband Ronald's schedule. Now prime minister, Mr Chavalit's stars apparently still dictate many of his political decisions. A recent cabinet reshuffle revolved entirely around multiples of the number five, which a Burmese numerologist once told Mr Chavalit was his lucky number. There were 15 changes in the new cabinet, announced at 1505 hours on August 15. And note the address of the Chavalits' new home: 555 City Lagoon Estate. In devoutly Buddhist Thailand, superstition is big business. Spirit mediums, faith-healers, fung shui experts and fortune-tellers have always been a popular adjunct to traditional Buddhist worship. With the economy now in ruins, though, the nation's fortune-tellers are reporting a boom in visitors, most of whom are seeking advice on financial rather than emotional affairs. Such consultations are believed to comfort a population that no longer believes the hollow reassurances of its leaders. There is nothing new about Thai politicians consulting the stars. Mr Chavalit's predecessor Banharn Silpa-archa, ordered two elephant sculptures removed from outside the finance ministry building in Bangkok. This was because 'Silpa-archa' means 'horse' and everyone knows that horses and elephants are bitter foes. Mr Banharn, then finance minister, hoped this would bring good luck to Thailand's economy. Instead, the action was just another demonstration of the government's skewed financial priorities: the removal and later restoration of the sculptures cost 60,000 baht (about HK$13,000). More recently, several extra articles were added to Thailand's draft constitution to bring the total to an 'auspicious' number. Surprisingly, perhaps, this was done at the behest of Anand Panyarachun, a former premier better known for a down-to-earth grasp of economics. As Thailand's leaders move deeper into the world of mystics, the opposite is happening: mystics are getting into politics. Attaviroj Sritula, regarded as the trusted fortune-teller of Mr Chavalit's wife, has publicly judged that the prime minister rose to power just as the nation sank to a 'very low astrological point'. Mr Attaviroj has judged that Thailand's stars show it to be 'the most lustful country in the world'. Not to be outdone, other top fortune-tellers have given their gloomy verdict on the political future. One has prophesied as likely a 'popular uprising' in the next few months - a familiar prediction in a nation where rumours of military coups often accompany unstable times. Another astrologer, known as 'Dr Yong', who has been counselling government ministers for years, foresees an 'eruption of violence' between the government and the people. 'The prime minister's days are numbered,' said Dr Yong, echoing a conclusion many analysts have reached by more conventional means. Indeed, fortune-tellers are among the few people who are benefiting from Thailand's woes. A former managing director of a Bangkok cosmetics company claims to be the medium for several ancient Hindu deities. Among them are Shiva, the three-eyed god of destruction and rebirth, and his son Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of wisdom and prosperity. Scores of people - including two government advisers and several generals - regularly visit her home on a quiet street off Bangkok's gridlocked Sukhumvit Road. One ardent follower is a Bangkok lawyer, who agreed to take me along if the medium's name remained unpublished. ('The gods aren't ready to go public yet,' the lawyer gravely explained.) In a crowded room scented with joss sticks, a plump woman in a red dress sits cross-legged before a candlelit shrine. She is supposedly possessed by an incarnation of Ganesh as a two-year-old boy. Her voice is high-pitched and lisping, and she clutches a cuddly toy in the shape of an elephant. Occasionally she drinks greedily from a glass of condensed milk. The infant Ganesh has a sweet tooth, and the medium has reportedly gained much weight since the visitations began. Among the supplicants that night is an elderly woman. She has received a bad cheque for eight million baht and wants to know the whereabouts of the man who wrote it. The medium studies the bounced cheque and says: 'He is in jail.' The medium gives another man with business problems some 'sacred' petals. 'Sprinkle these around your house,' she squeaks. 'It will banish bad spirits.' Recently, the medium held a private session for two Thai generals. A witness to the meeting overheard her tell one general: 'Oh, don't worry about him. He'll die in a plane crash soon.' Phra Payom, a famously no-nonsense monk from northern Bangkok, recently told reporters there were no magical remedies to Thailand's problems. 'People should first develop a consciousness so that they may discover the root cause of their troubles.' Also making his contribution to the political debate is Luang Phor Koon, a much-revered monk who famously 'blesses' followers by spitting on their heads. With characteristic bluntness, he recently offered his assessment of Thailand's overweight prime minister: 'I believe 'Fatso' has performed fine. In these troubled times, it's not good for politicians to start blaming each other.' Followers of Luang Phor Koon often ask him to step on the title deeds to their houses, a gesture they believe will increase the value of the property. Luang Phor Koon obliges, but points out that times are tough. 'Stepping on a deed won't help them if there aren't any buyers,' he warned. Such practical advice apparently goes unheeded in the Chavalit household. Last Friday, the prime minister, his wife and senior politicians attended a ceremony to anoint a golden statue of Brahma on the roof of Bangkok's Government House. The rite, held to 'brighten the star' of the prime minister, began at the supposedly auspicious time of 10.49 am. In less troubled times, such actions would raise few eyebrows among the superstitious Thais. But what concerns some observers is that Thailand desperately needs clear-headed leaders if it is to tackle its current woes successfully. Thailand needs economists, not numerologists, and the nation's future stability depends more on satisfying IMF demands than placating Rahu, the god of shadow.