October 22, 2014
Spirits of Thailand
One of the first things travelers to Thailand may notice, are the colourful and at times ornate ‘Spirit Houses’ (resembling miniature temples or houses), that can be found strategically positioned outside homes, business, schools and public areas. Thai people hold a deep reverence for Spirits who they believe abound everywhere, these miniature dwellings are used to keep many of these spirits happy.
Spirit worship is believed to be the oldest form of religion in the world, and when Buddhism came to Thailand in 228 BC, the religion developed alongside the ancient spirit worship that was already in place. Today many of the beliefs remain intertwined with Buddhism and form part of everyday life for the Thai people.
One of these practices is the use of spirit houses (san phra phum). The spirit house provides an appealing shelter for the spirits who reside on the land where the house or business is built. Permission needs to be granted by the spirits before building commences and the spirit house is erected. This is done with the hope that both harmony and serenity will descend upon the land and property and that the spirits will not haunt the home (or place of work) but instead will dwell happily in the spirit house.
To ensure the spirits and especially the spirits of their ancestors are content in their abode, they are provided offerings of food, drink, garlands of flowers and incense sticks. Those spirits that do not take up the offer of a ‘Spirit House’ have their own name, those who dwell in residential property are known as ‘Phra Phum’ and ‘Phra Chai Mong Kol’ for those who stay in a business
The construction of a spirit house can be simple, such as a basic mini Thai-style home, or as intricate as a palace. They can be constructed of wood, concrete or brick, and one often sees roadside shops with hundreds of colourful houses for sale. They are at times decorated with little figurines of people and animals, along with incense holders, vases for flowers, while others may even contain furniture.
The position of a spirit house is very important; it should never be placed where the shadow of the building will fall on it. One can regularly see Thai’s presenting offerings to the spirits. These can include fresh fruit, rice, chicken or duck, beer, water and other drinks — red and orange Fanta are particularly popular — candles and incense, fresh flowers in the vases and garlands. Spirit houses are often strung with fairy lights at night.
‘Spirit Houses’ are also found at dangerous curves in the road or places of frequent accidents. They are placed there in order to keep the spirits happy, and ask for their protection for all that use the road. A good example of this is on Koh Samui’s ring road just past Chaweng Noi, on the way to Lamai, where a large and impressive spirit house overlooks the bend. You will hear local people driving past, hoot three times to acknowledge the spirits.
Because spirit houses need to be well-maintained, there comes a time when they need to be replaced. Old spirit houses cannot merely be dumped. The spirits are coaxed into the new Spirit House, and the old one is laid to rest in communal ‘burial grounds’ for old spirit houses, usually a location well known to be rich in spirit activity. On Samui, a road known as the ‘Ghost Road’ is the local spot to offload broken spirit houses. It is a rather eerie sight to drive along this road, a back route to the airport, and see hundreds of discarded spirit houses.
As intriguing as the spirit houses are to tourists, and as beautiful as they are to photograph, please remember that to their owners they are a place of worship, therefore please do show respect when taking pictures. A few tips: Never put your feet on any religious item, such as spirit houses or statues, don’t touch or re-arrange items in the house to suit your photo, and never take photos when people are praying.
You only have to look around you while here in the Kingdom, to see first-hand just how much the Thai’s view the importance of keeping spirits happy. One will often find colourful strips of cloth tied around large trees, be they in forests, along the roadside or in gardens. It is believed that spirits reside in old trees. Offerings are placed at the foot of the tree or in its lower branches, the bright ribbons are a symbolic warning for others not to cut down the tree.
The same strips of bright coloured cloth are used to decorate Longtail Boats with the hope that they will keep the spirits of the sea happy and in return the spirits will ensure a safe journey, and at the same time reward the boat owners with a bountiful catch. In the same way, cars, trucks and taxis display garlands of flowers to protect the occupants of the vehicle on the journey.
The kingdom also celebrates a number of annual Festivals that are based around dead souls and their return to this world. they include the Festival of the Tenth Lunar Month which is very similar to the Por Tor Festival or ‘Hungry Ghost Festival’ (or Sart Duan Sib), held annually across Thailand but which has its roots in Chinese folk lore, it also is similar to the purely Thai event of Festival of Offerings to the Dead (Sart Thai Day) วันสาทรไทย, which is held all over the Kingdom, around the same time. It also shares some similarities to The Tiggkrahad ritual.
There are also a number of uniquely ethnic festivals that also contain the same principles of praying to dead relatives they include the Mon people who celebrate, The Mon Floating Boat Festival and their neighbours in Kanchanaburi, the Karen people who have their festival of Khao Ho or Ang Mi Thong. Plus the Yong people of Northern Thailand and their Salak Yom Festival, the Khmer descendants of Isan have their San Don Ta Festival, which is also a reminder of the Killing Fields of Cambodia.
While it may be strange to western people that Thai’s put so much emphasise in Spirits and the need to keep them happy, for Thai’s it is a natural part of their daily lives and something that brings them peace, tranquility and at times fun
Things we could all do a lot more with.
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