We were sitting in a café atop Rind Hill – a forested hill, park and viewpoint on the east coast of Thailand’s largest island, Phuket. Our outlook through the treetop canopy is of the coastal plains and ocean below. Seeing movement out of the corner of my eye I look up. A monkey (macaque) has jumped up onto the Spirit House positioned at the entrance path leading to the café. Ignoring the banana, fried rice and other food offerings, it instead picks up a small bottle of red soda pop deftly unscrews the top and drinks down the contents.
So began my fascination with Spirit Houses in Thailand. What is their relevance? Why the food offering? Who looks after them? Here are my learnings so far…
Spirit Houses are not unique to Thailand and can be found in many countries across Asia from Japan to Indonesia. No matter where we’ve travelled in Thailand they are ever present. Typically colourful and ornate, Spirit Houses are strategically positioned outside homes, businesses, schools and even in the rice farms of Thailand’s far north. They often resemble small temples or miniatures of a traditional Thai Teak house. They can be simple or grand and elaborate, and almost always mounted on a pedestal of some sort.
Placement on a site is essential, and architects have been known to vary their design to ensure the most favourable positioning of a spirit house within a new development. Other rules suggest that it should ideally be in front of a tree, not be where the building’s shadow will fall on it, not face a toilet or a road, and not be on the left side of a door.
Although ninety-five percent of Thailand’s population identify as Buddhist, Thai people actively engage in daily spirit house rituals, inherited from ancient animistic and folk religions. Regular offerings of coconut, fried rice, fruit, flower garlands and colourful drinks like the red or orange Fanta mentioned above, are made to the spirits, along with the burning of incense.
The goal of all this activity – to provide an appealing shelter for the spirits (souls) who reside on the land where the dwelling or business is built. Each day, prayers, wishes, and honourable requests are made to the spirits by those who tend the Spirit House. Appeasing these spirits and keeping on their right side is said to facilitate happiness, prosperity, good fortune, and such blessings. It may even ward off natural disasters like flooding, and storms. The converse can be said to befall people who do not abide by such practices.
Before a building commences, permissions need to be granted by the spirits. This typically involves solemn ceremony and sacred rituals performed by local Buddhist monks or Brahman priests. Invitees to such formalities include family, friends, and neighbours, along with invisibles, including angels, house gods, and nagas. Even the date of this type of event is calculated using the astrological charts of the land or building owner.
Spirit Houses are often decorated with animal figurines, statues of dancing ladies, and importantly, a gilded angel carrying a sword and a money-bag, signifying the ‘spirit of the land’ phra phum. Colourful strips of cloth and ribbon can also be tied around the pedestal that supports the spirit house.
Spirit houses can also be positioned at dangerous curves in a road or crest of a steep hill – places of frequent accidents. We found an example of this on Phuket island. A road connecting Phuket Town on the east to Patong Beach on the west coast. Day or night, locals driving past hoot their horn three times to acknowledge the spirits and thank them for their protection.
As spirit houses must be well-maintained, there comes a time when they need to be replaced. Old spirit houses cannot merely be dumped. Once again, with the help of a monk or priest, the spirits are coaxed into a new home, suitably blessed and correctly placed. The old one is then laid to rest in a communal spirit house ‘burial ground’ – a location known to be rich in spirit activity. When recently visiting Ko Samui, we discovered a road known to locals as Ghost Road. It is a somewhat eerie sight to drive along this road, a back road to the airport, and see hundreds of dumped spirit houses.
Next time you’re visiting Thailand, do take the time to study the Spirit Houses you come across. They are indeed everywhere once you start looking. Remember to show respect for the site, and the spirits though – causing offense or unsettling the balance would not be good for your travels.
You can read more about our travels around Phuket here. What are your Spirit House stories? Use the form below to let us know. We’d love to hear from you.
An abridged version of this article was published in ‘Lifetime Communique’, an exclusive mini magazine for International Living magazine’s lifetime subscribers. I am the author of both articles. Vivien and I regularly write for International Living magazines and websites.