Thainess Part 4: Spirit Shrines

Various animist practices have also been integrated into Thai religious life. Belief in ghosts and spirits is strong in Thailand, stemming from traditional pre-Buddhism beliefs, and you’ll notice miniature shrines set up in villages and cities throughout the country. The houses, called San Phra Phum, or shrine of the guardian spirit, are part of a Thai tradition of spirit worship. They can be found on corners in every Thai city and town and are seen outside high-rise office blocks, cafes and high-end restaurants, residential condos and everything in between.

It is a common sight to see locals pausing on a busy street to give such doll-house-like structures a deferential wai (a traditional form of greeting in Thailand). Some leave offerings at the ornate shrines, ranging from candles, incense and flowers to food and drinks, made to appease the spirits inhabiting the land.

These spirit-house rituals are thought to derive from a mixture of ancient animistic beliefs and Brahmanism (an early form of Hinduism). Although not all Thais practice spirit worship, it remains widely popular. The elaborate shrines are believed to shelter spirits that “own” the land at the location of homes and businesses. They are built in the hope that the land will be blessed and that residents and workers will enjoy good fortune.

Appeasing the spirits is believed to facilitate happiness, prosperity and a peaceful life. However, according to the tradition, misfortune is said to come to those who fail to abide by these beliefs — in other words, if the spirits are not given the proper tributes or shown respect. Visitors should avoid touching such displays.

Many spirit houses are quite elaborate, occasionally being a miniature representation of the buildings there are created to protect. They are placed in a visible location and never lie in the shadow of a building. A Brahman priest or local Buddhist monk familiar with the rituals is usually consulted to carefully determine its location on the property and calculate the best day and time for it to be installed.

Before construction begins, the spirits must be informed for them to grant permission for the use of the land. This typically involves rituals to invite guardian spirits into their dwelling. A pit is dug out and homeowners put in money, amulets, pieces of metal and colorful stones. These are said to bring positive energy.

Inside, the houses are often decorated with tiny figurines, including entourages of servants, dancers and animals such as elephants and tigers.

According to tradition, spirits need food. Regular offerings include rice, a platter of fresh fruit, desserts and colorful drinks. Most include least one bottle of strawberry-flavored Fanta soft drink. The reason behind this is unknown, but two theories are that the beverage is chosen because of its red color — standing in for earlier forms of animal sacrifice and the resultant blood, or that it is related to the old practice of putting red incense sticks in a glass of water, which turned the water red. This sees the spirits continue to be appeased in a modern, sugary, form and is one reason why Thailand has become Fanta’s fourth-biggest market, ahead of both the entire United States and China!

Homeowners or building staff members place their offerings at the front of the spirit houses every day or on every Buddhist holy day, along with garlands of marigolds and burning incense sticks.

Formal shrines for more widely recognized deities. also demand their own sugary tributes. Shrines throughout the country are decked out with sodas, cakes, fruits, alcohol, and even full meals. In a country where female tree spirits receive regular offerings of pretty dresses and even the water buffalo can be magical, spirits available for petitioning include the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, popular household divinity Kuman Thong (who often appears as a sweets-obsessed young boy), and real-life historical figures, such as the revered Thai king Rama V. They all require their own specific gifts.

The rules about what to offer are widely understood. Buddhist monk figures may receive pure water, but animist spirits, saints, and deities get nam waan, or “sweet water.” Kuman Thong always seems to have both red and green drinks in pairs. Rama V shrines are offered cigars and shots of brandy.

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