A Year in Bangkok – Spirits, Ghosts and Shrines.

30 04 2011

On the roof of the apartment block where I used to live is a concrete plinth, about four feet high, with a miniature building on top of it, sort of halfway between a house and a temple. On a small platform at the front of the building, people make offerings of food and water, burn incense sticks, place flowers and even place small ornaments. You see these all over Thailand, including on the housing estate where I now live, and many of them are Buddhist shrines. Some, though, are not shrines but spirit houses. Spirits are very much a part of life here and they are believed to inhabit trees, the ground and even the air around us. When somebody builds a house or some other property, it is believed that the spirits who inhabited the land are displaced so a spirit house is always built for those displaced spirits in order that they are pacified for having their homes taken over. Kind of a spiritual compulsory purchase order I suppose. And it works too. I am never troubled by angry, homeless spirits when I am in bed at night.

A shrine near my house.

It is not easy for westerners to differentiate between shrines and spirit houses. Thai people don’t shake hands like we do, they ‘wai’ each other instead. A wai is when the hands are pressed palms together in a sort of praying gesture. The position of the hands is determined by the status of the person you are waiing. So, to wai an equal, your thumbs will be level with your chin but to accept a wai from somebody of lower status, your hands are at chest height. To wai somebody deemed deserving of extra respect, such as your boss or your mother in law, your thumbs should be level with the bottom of your nose. And so on. A lot of Thai people will wai the spirits as they pass a spirit house in the street as a sign of respect for those spirits, which is probably why it is so easy to confuse them with shrines, which they also wai. The offerings are to try and ensure that the spirits are comfortable in their homes. Old trees which are inhabited by many, often very good spirits, are also decorated and have offerings for the spirits as people want these good spirits to stay there and not move to somebody else’s tree.

A comfortable home for the tree spirits.

When they stay in a strange place such as a hotel or somebody else’s house, most Thai people will wai and tell the local spirits they are there for the night and seek protection from them. On a roadside near where I live, old spirit houses are discarded. They are simply thrown there, often smashed up and left. Quite an eyesore. Every now and then, a taxi driver bringing me home will wai those discarded spirit houses…..hands off the steering wheel and turning to face them as he wais. We’ve not had an accident yet so there must be some protection still emanating from them.

So, what is the difference? Firstly it is in origin. The shrines here originated with the Hindu faith whereas the spirit houses originated with animism. Secondly, both items offer protection but shrines are usually bigger and offer more protection – kind of a stronger version I suppose. As far as I can tell, those are the essential differences.

A typical, small spirit house.

Somebody I knew had a small tree removed from her garden and put up a small wooden spirit house for the occupants of the tree. She also had a little ceremony when some monks came to the house and blessed the new spirit house.

Spirit house on somebody's balcony.

I have a friend in York who leads ‘ghost walks’ and tells ghost stories on the local radio station. He will be delighted to know that, here in Thailand, ghosts are every bit as real as spirits and as real as you and I. My boss, and yes I do have a boss despite being head teacher, is a lovely Thai lady. She used to go on holiday to Phuket regularly but she has not been since the tsunami six years ago. Why not? Because she is afraid of the ghosts that must be there. Unlike the spirits who get moved into little spirit houses, ghosts are generally feared and they are everywhere in Thailand. However, in Phuket there is a major concentration of ghosts. Other things we view as supernatural are also regarded as a normal part of life here. For instance, in an interview, Thaksin Shinawatra (the prime minister ousted in the last coup) stated in all seriousness that his political problems were caused by somebody using black magic against him.

Ground level spirit house.

One arid, windless day I was sitting on a step in a quiet corner of the school grounds. Opposite me and to my right was the school wall and, also opposite me, was a blue plastic waste pipe running along the bottom of the wall and around the corner, continuing along the base of the wall. As I sat looking at the pipe, what looked like a small whisp of smoke appeared from my left and seemed to dance along the pipe as far as the corner where it disappeared into the wall. Remember, there was no wind at all. What was it? I have no idea but, for a Thai person, logic would dictate that it was some kind of spirit. I have discovered that logic, too, can be relative to where you are.

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One response

8 08 2013
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