Sunsets, Temples, and Spirit Housesare the holy trinity of Thai tourism write Anne Anderson and I.T.B. who explore what are these spirit houses and who lives in them? But first, what are they called in Thai?
“Sarn Prapoom, or Thai spirit houses,” says Joe Suraporn, 32, a lawyer and owner of Yim Siam Hotel in Udon Thani. Though the Thai occult is an arcane branch of knowledge to outsiders, Joe has proved a wonderful tour guide into the Thai spirit world and their after-life helpers!
Before Joe went to Bangkok to sit for the Thai barrister test, he lit nine sticks of incense and made a promise to the spirit if it helped him he would buy it a pair of horses.
Two large white horses stand at the front of the platform supporting the spirit’s house. “Now the spirit can go galloping out into the night to visit other female spirit,” says Jo, who believes his guardian spirit is a male.
Where there is a hearth and home in South East Asia, usually there is a spirit house. Each piece of land has its own spirit house which traditionally are made from wood or concrete. The Spirit house merchants often sell chedis too, tall thin pyramids for storing ashes of loved ones, either in temples or at home in the back yard.
Spirit houses come in all shapes and forms. They vary from a medium size one like Joe’s, which cost 10,000 baht, to the sky is the limit for the big shrines at hotels, like Erewan in Bangkok.
Spirit houses, or shrines, all abide by the same rule, even if they are Hindu. When the Grand Hyatt Erawan was being built in 1956, the spirit of four-faced Hindu god Brahma, named in Thai Than Tao Mahaprom, was not pleased. When construction workers started to die, it was believed that the resident of the Spirit House wasn’t consulted on the construction date. After a new shrine was erected, deaths stopped, and the building went up with out any further calamities.
But in 2006, a mentally ill patient attacked the shrine. The man was apprehended and bashed to death by devotees of Erawan Shrine. While rebuilding it, there must have been gold reinforcement to appease the murdered man, who no doubt lives along side the resident ghost of Erawan. Perhaps that was his plan, to be taken care of in one of Thailand’s most sacred sites.
The land spirits predate Thailand’s Theraveda Buddhism that enfolds them. “Mae Thoranee is like the government,” says Joe. “Mae Thoranee is at the temple.” Mae Thoranee, the earth goddess, took her long hair in her hands and squeezed it. Water flowed from her hair, drowning armies of demons attacking the Buddha as he meditated.
Joe has seen this spirit house come to the rescue many times. A couple with a young child came to stay at the hotel, Joe relates.” Their little child couldn’t sleep. At ten o’clock in the evening, he woke up. He was so restless.” So Joe recommended the couple make an offering to his spirit house. “As soon as they spoke to the spirit, the child was sound asleep. He slept for the first time in three days.”
Before midnight can bring any singing spirits on its wings, we make our own offering to the spirit of the land where we will sleep. When we did, calm washed over us. “Don’t you feel refreshed?” I ask. “Yes, I do,” Anne, answers.
To activate a spirit house, Joe says, a Thai person, who knows the rituals of a Brahmin priest, invites the spirit, called jow tee, or owner, into it’s new home. They lure the spirit in with special incantations, and earthly delights such as pig’s head, chickens, fruit, and garlands of jasmine flowers, (dok mali). “The welcoming the spirit rite costs 4000 baht”, says Joe.
In Thailand, the rites of Brahmins date back before the Sukhothai Kingdom (1238–1438), to the Dvarati. Each year, the king continues the Brahmin tradition with a rice ploughing ceremony at the beginning of the rains to predict the season’s harvest.
To activate a spirit house, Joe says, a Brahmin priest invites the spirit, called jow tee, or owner, into it’s new home. They lure the spirit in with special incantations, and earthly delights such as pig’s heads, chickens, fruit, and garlands of jasmine flowers, (dok mali). “The welcoming the spirit rite costs 4000 baht”, says Joe.
Once a week, the spirit house needs attending to.
Before taking the offerings off the Spirit House, Joe says you need to say a special Pali prayer. Then you light two candles and seven joss sticks. And make an offering of Miranda, or Pepsi, or even whisky. A garland of flowers will also endear the spirit towards you.
Who knows, if you follow all the protocols, the guardian spirit just might grant you the wish. But it comes at a price, a few Apsara dancers for entertainment, or a maid to do its laundry, will keep the spirit very happy. And as for transport, a set of horses is definitely great if a spirit wants to gallop to a friend’s spirit house.
This act of paying respect to the ubiquitous spirit house will endear you to Thai people, who see the spirit world as a natural extension of their lives. And the spirits will most likely reward you for your acceptance of a teeming afterlife.
The earth might bind its spirits, but they are not the only spirits abroad.
“There is a bird that feeds on the ashes of the dead,” says Joe. “It learns to see death. After midnight, it lands on a house, and it sings. Within three days a person in the house will die.”
“Have you heard the bird?”
“Yes, ” answers, Joe, “But not for a long time. Now all the trees are gone. It still lives in Laos. In Bangkok they think it is a big bird. It is really a small bird.” His hands draw shapes smaller than sparrows in the air.