Thais are quite superstitious — they believe in luck, in spirits, in auspicious days, and in lucky (or unlucky) numbers. Indeed, when buying a lottery ticket from street vendors, Thais will take a long time to study the choices so as to ensure that they get the best numbers.
Although 95% of Thais are Buddhists, they also believe in Animism, or Spirit Worship. Animism dates back to ancient times in both Eastern and Western cultures. It is a belief that spirits or souls exist not only in humans but throughout all of nature — in plants, in animals, and in all aspect of the land itself. Since these invisible forces and spirits can help or harm humans, it is important to treat them with respect and honor. If treated well, the good spirits will help protect you and ward off the evil ones.
The manifestations of Animism are seen most vividly in the Spirit Houses that are on many properties and businesses, both large and small, and even at many private homes throughout the country. The spirit houses are typically quite ornate and they are constructed from wood, stone, or concrete. They look like oversize doll houses and various statues and figurines are placed inside and around them. The two main types of spirit house are the San Pra Phoom (for the Guardians of the Land) and the San Jao Tii (for the Lords of the Land.)
The San Pra Phoom appears to me to be somewhat more common than the San Jao Tii. This spirit house typically resembles a Buddhist Temple and it is frequently topped with a distinctive Khmer-style prang. Inside the house is a statue of Phra Chai Mongkol, a Hindu angel with a sword in one hand and money bag in the other. Phra Chai Mongkol protects the land and the residents. On the outside are figurines, garlands, incense, candles, and offerings of food and drink.
The San Jao Tii typically resembles a traditional Thai home and, like the traditional home, it is typically built on stilts above the ground. Statues of an old man and an old woman are placed inside while figurines of animals, primarily horses and elephants, and dancers surround the exterior of the house. The Lords of the Land are expected to provide financial security and good fortune in business.
When the San Pra Phoom and the San Jao Tii are displayed together (which is quite common), the San Pra Phoom is positioned higher and is always a larger structure. Hindu priests are often consulted about the proper placement of the spirit houses. Since the whole idea is that humans looks after the spirits and the spirits reciprocate by looking after the humans, it is important that the spirit house be placed in an auspicious location to placate the spirits. The wrong choice would mean that the spirits were not accorded the appropriate respect and the spirits, in turn, cause bad luck and misfortune to befall the humans.
Many businesses will erect small shrines rather than spirit houses. The San Phra Brahm, for example, is an open-sided shrine that features Lord Brahma (or Phra Phrom), the God of Creation. There are four faces of the statue that represent the four heavenly abodes: Loving Kindness (Metta), Compassion (Karuna), Sympathy (Mudita) and Equanimity (Upekha). I also saw a shrine for Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Paravti.
The pictures below were taken around during a two-hour walk along streets near our apartment — Silom, Surawong, Sathorn, and Suan Phlu.
San Jao Tii
San Pra Phoom
San Phra Brahm
San Pra Phoom and San Jao Tii
San Phra Brahm and San Jao Tii
Thais will frequently wai (a bow of the head with hands put together like in prayer) as they pass these spirit house. Many will also stop to pray and leave offerings of flowers, food, incense, and drink. Thais show similar respect for the Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa). This Bodhi, or Sacred Fig tree is revered by Buddhists since Buddha received enlightenment under this tree. There is a large Bodhi tree outside of our apartment building (pictures below) and it is decorated with silk garments and small figurines.
While the flooding is not yet over, the danger has passed. The newspapers are no longer full of dire warnings, but instead they are proclaiming that the city will be dry by New Year’s Day. (How’s that for going out on a limb?) Government leaders are now debating what needs to be done to prevent future floods. Residents who left town are headed back home and most are beginning the arduous task of cleaning and repairing their homes, businesses, and property. Traffic is returning to the normal gridlock, and the sandbag barriers are slowly beginning to be dismantled.
Happy Thanksgiving and may the spirits be good to you!
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2011 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.