One of the first things visitors to Thailand will most probably notice are the colorful spirit houses which look like little temples or traditional Thai houses. They are positioned outside almost every house, hotel, restaurant, office, bar and in public areas. Many tourists don’t know the meaning of these spirit houses, so what is exactly behind these little houses?
Thailand is a pre-dominantly Buddhist country. However, there are many beliefs and customs which owe nothing to Buddhism, but instead have their roots in Hindu or animist beliefs. When Buddhism came to Southeast Asia, it developed alongside the ancient spirit worship that already existed here.
Today many of the old animistic beliefs are intertwined with Buddhism and form part of daily life for Thai people. One of these practices is the use of spirit houses. The presence of ghosts or spirits (phi) is a widely held belief and not something that most Thais take lightly, an unhappy spirit can cause huge problems.
There are many different kind of spirits: good spirits, bad spirits, mischievous spirits, spirits that can be trusted, spirits that can not be trusted, spirits that live in the home, spirits that live in the rivers, spirits that live in the trees, the rice spirit, the wind spirit, and many, many more. Each spirit has its own role and can not get involved in another spirit’s domain. So the rice spirit can be asked for a good rice harvest, but it can not protect your home.
Whenever a new house, office or hotel is built, a spirit house (or ‘san phra phum‘ in Thai) must be installed. It provides an enticing shelter for the ‘spirit of the land’ who resides on the land where the new premises is built and it should lure the spirit to dwell in the spirit house and not in the owner’s house, office or hotel. If done properly, a landowner must consult the services of a priest, usually a Brahman, sometimes a Buddhist monk.
But…..just erecting a spirit house does not mean that the spirit will be happy! The spirit house must be placed in the best possible location and there are many rules about where a spirit house should and shouldn’t placed, and getting it right is very important.
The spirit house should also reflect the human owner’s building which means that for a 5-star hotel the spirit house will be quite grand compared to that found outside a farmer’s house.
They are often decorated with small figurines, incense holders, vases for flowers and some even contain furniture.
A spirit house must be high enough to show respect, but still low enough to make daily offerings. Offerings usually consist of fresh fruit, rice, chicken, water and other drinks (red Fanta is popular), incense sticks, fresh flowers in vases and flower garlands.
‘Spirits of the home’ (phi ruan) can be trusted and therefore can reside in the family home (unlike the ‘spirit of the land’). In many cases these trusted spirits are thought to be deceased family members and they get a special place in the house, often on a shelf high up where fresh flowers and drinks will be provided.
Many of the bad spirits are thought to be the spirits of dead people who failed to be reborn and they can be volatile and unpredictable.
Spirits are attracted to trouble, so Thai children are taught from an early age to keep out of trouble. Attracting attention with loud and strange behavior may attract the interest of some unwanted spirits so it is best to avoid trouble wherever possible. If people do attract a ghost there are several ways they can be tricked, but the services of the spirit doctor (mor phi) may be needed.
Because spirit houses must be properly maintained, time will come that they need to be replaced. A ceremony will be held to transfer the spirit from the old house to the new one. Old spirit houses can’t just be thrown away but are placed near a temple or another location which is well-known to be rich in spirit activity, a so-called ‘spirit house graveyard’.
For most first-time visitors to Thailand these spirit houses are interesting, but please do not forget that they are a place of worship. Therefore show respect if you want to make a picture and never touch or re-arrange items to suit your photo.
Whichever of our tours you will join, we can guarantee you to see many spirit houses along the way. So don’t wait any longer and select your preferred tour on our homepage. Our guides can tell you all you want to know about these mysterious houses!