Spirit Houses of Thailand

Featured Image by Chainwit

(I thought I had done a Post about this subject but I can’t find it although I had the word part in my folder, so here it is, and I hope it’s not the second time).

It’s rush hour in Bangkok and the noise from the klaxons of the grid-locked traffic is deafening.   Under the impassive gaze of the police, vendors erect their stalls for the illegal evening street market, laying out the fake Rolexes, the Versace tee shirts and the Calvin Klein jeans.   On the narrow pavements all is hustle and bustle as tourists browse and stall-holders finger their calculators in readiness for the haggling.

There are pockets of quiet though.  On islands in the middle of the road, on forecourts of the hotels, banks and shops that line the streets, people are quietly praying, their heads bowed and hands joined before what appear to be pagoda-roofed miniature dolls’ houses perched on top of posts.   But these are not dolls’ houses, these are spirit houses, shrines to the spirits of the land on which they are built, and the people really are praying in the midst of the mayhem that is often found in cities and towns in Thailand.

Worshipers at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok (Copyright; Ninary from Helsinki. https://creativecommons.org/licences/by-2/0)

            One of that country’s most endearing symbols, these shrines fascinate and baffle the first-time visitor to the Kingdom who has read that 98% of Thais are Buddhists.  The gentle tolerance that typifies the Thais however, allows for compatibility of many beliefs, and a belief in the spirits finds easy acceptance among virtually all Thais.    

            Every dwelling, whether private or public, has its spirit house, situated where the shadow of the main house doesn’t fall upon it.  The spot will have been chosen in consultation with an astrologer and in design it will resemble a miniature temple, sometimes painted red and gold, sometimes in plain wood and sometimes plain, dazzling white – public buildings seem to favour white alabaster or marble – and it will be high above the ground to show respect to the spirits who reside in it, but low enough for offerings to be made to them.

            When the shrine is first erected, a house-warming party is held for the spirits, who are invited to move in, the host spending as much money on the party as he can afford in order to do honour to the spirits.  If any misfortune should subsequently befall the house – a robbery, a fire, or a spouse running away, it would be a sure sign that the owner had skimped on the house-warming!   

            Servants will be represented by tiny terracotta or wooden figures placed inside the shrine as well as carved wooden elephants to transport the spirits should they wish to go visiting.   Family spirits are usually housed indoors, but spirits of the land and the highly respected spirits of rice, water, trees and wind always live outside, working within an inviolable division of labour.

Most spirits are benevolent, but some are mischievous and some can be downright dangerous: they are always unpredictable.  Some are restless and troublesome – the spirits of those who have died violently (the Phi Tai Hong) or those who have died in childbirth and who spend their time searching for another body to inhabit (the Phi Tai Tong Klom), and there are some so dangerous that they must be bribed to stay out of the house.  Fortunately, they respond to bribery.

            This can take the form of offering extra special food, walking a number of times round the shrine, or in some cases, if the owners of the property on which the shrine stands fears a personal attack from the spirits, they may wear their clothes inside out for a week or two and change their name in order to confuse them. 

            Offerings are chosen to suit individual spirits.  In the South of Thailand where Islam moved steadily down the coast from Malaysia, the spirits that inhabit the land may be Muslim and the dietary rules that forbid the offering of pork and alcohol must be strictly adhered to.  Others are known to be partial to the odd glass of beer or whiskey and there is a famous roadside shrine just outside the village of Cha’am in Petchaburi province where, it is rumoured, a daily offering of marijuana is left for the spirits.

            At festivals it is usual to offer elaborate meals consisting of whole chickens, coconuts, honeycombs and other delicacies, as a thank you for past favours received, or to secure a favour, a win on the lottery, a new job, recovery from illness, a new wife or husband or even a partner for the night. There is no limit to the kind of request that can be made.  Bribes are frequently offered and being a pragmatic race the Thais, as often as not, withhold part of the bribe until the request is fulfilled.

            The offerings are placed on the small ledge in front of the shrine, like a mini altar.  The food may be eaten by the birds or it may blow away, but if say, a chicken or duck were offered, then this is sometimes removed and given to needy people in the area.  The merit lies in the giving.

            Some shrines are credited with miraculous powers, like the famous Erawan complex of spirit houses next to the hotel of the same name in the heart of downtown Bangkok (see header picture).   Stalls selling candles, joss-sticks, carved elephants and lotus flowers ring the central shrine, and a professional group of dancers and musicians in the sparkling costumes of old Siam can be hired to sing and dance for the spirits.

         There are no hard and fast rules, but when making offerings there are three essentials – water, rice, and joss sticks – and there are a couple of basic things to remember.  Do not offer food left over from a meal, or a piece of chocolate hastily broken off as a token.  Everything must be specifically for the spirits: don’t even smell the flowers if you’ve bought them as offerings.

This shrine with the elaborate roof and carved frontage was one I saw in Chiang Rai.

            The Thais are not possessive of their spirits.  Before travelling onwards, you will often find yourself invited to join them in making offerings for your safe journey.  Whichever method of travel you choose, at the point of departure you will find spirit houses and at Bangkok’s International Airport, where the noses of all planes in Thai Airways fleet have been blessed by the Supreme Patriarch, you can calm yourself before take-off by visiting the spirit house by the runway.

            Just follow the Thai pilots, they never fly without first visiting a spirit house. 

These two very plain looking spirit houses are in the grounds of the Old Royal Palace at Hua Hin.

Header Image of People Praying at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok is copyright of Chingwit https/creativecommons.org/licences/by-sa/4.0