While growing up in Ireland I heard many stories of ghosts and ghouls. As I got older it was easy to dismiss these tales as a bit fanciful. In Thailand though, these supernatural beings are accepted by most of the adult population; they are not just viewed as fictional characters in stories to scare young children. If you ask a Thai if they believe in these supernatural beings they will usually look at you as if you have asked the most stupid question ever – of course they believe in them. The main exception to this is the high-so urban Thais; they might look upon such beliefs as a bit unsophisticated – at least during the daytime anyway.
I have learnt the hard way not to ever mock this belief in ghosts in any way. Although the Thais are an extremely tolerant race there are certain subjects that are not to be spoken about with any disrespect; namely The King, Buddha and their belief in ghosts. In regards to ghosts their main worry is that by making fun of them or disbelieving in them, it will encourage the ghost to cause mischief.
Belief in Ghosts is Part of the Thai Way of Life
This supernatural belief affects many areas of the Thai way of life; it can even influence how they choose names for their children. Unlike people in the West much of the population Thailand will use nick names instead of their first name most of the time. It is only really on formal occasions and for business that they use their proper first names. In years gone by nicknames were chosen based on what could be considered negative attributes. Common names include; Lek which means short, Gop which means frog, Uan which means fat and Daeng which means red. The reason for chosen these names is not to give the kid an inferiority complex but instead to protect them from ghosts. Parents are afraid that if ghosts hear them calling their children by names which are complimentary they might get jealous and want to steal the child.
When my son was born we were still living in my wife’s village. My mother-in-law came to stay with us for a couple of weeks while my wife was undergoing Yuu Fai (click here for explanation of Yuu Fai). We had given my son a nice English nickname to go along with his Thai name. During his first weeks at home he cried a lot and this convinced my mother-in-law that the ghosts were upsetting him. She felt that they didn’t like his English nickname and we should try something else. I am usually quite respectful of Thai culture but in this instance I put my foot down – ghosts or no ghosts the name was staying.
Ghosts in the Thai Home
Another area of Thai life where ghosts are taken into consideration is the home. Every house is believed to contain not only the living family members but also dead relatives and other hanger-ons; that is unless you provide for them their own accommodations. This is why many houses will have a spirit-house where the dead family can stay. These houses are very small (more like doll houses) but extensions needed to be added if you put an extension on the main house; you don’t want dead relatives feeling left out as this can lead to all sorts of problems. Families also make daily offerings of food and drinks and leave them in front of the spirit house.
Before cutting down a tree in Thailand it is customary to ask permission from the guardian who lives in that tree. In order to do this they leave an axe lying against the tree over night. If the axe is still upright in the morning, permission has been granted. For centuries their belief in ghosts stopped Thai people from knocking down too many trees; even though they could claim any land they wanted if they were prepared to do so. Of course you will always get the individual who is a bit less respectful than the rest of the community. I am sure the land my father-in-law claimed was without the permission of the tree guardian as it spends three months of the year under water!
My Father in Law is a Spirit Doctor
My wife’s dad is actually a maw pii or spirit doctor and makes a bit of money from it. His services are often required when villagers want to make offerings to ghosts and need him to communicate to the other-side on their behalf. They usually reward him with bottles of rice whiskey; my mother-in-law sells the few bottles that are left over once her husband has had his fill.
My father-in-law is actually quite the fan of whiskey. I remember a few years back we went to some party in another village. He was completely wasted and fell off his motorbike on the way home. I took him to the local clinic where he informed them that a ghost pushed him off the bike; they believed him.
The wearing of amulets in Thailand is big business with some fetching as much as a million Baht. These amulets are believed to protect from ghosts, bring good luck and even stop bullets. If you visit a bookstore or newsagents you will see a lot of shelf-space devoted to material on the subject.
Although the Buddha seems to have acknowledged the existence of spirits who lived in different realms the Thai obsession with ghosts is not really connected to Buddhism, but more to do with their older religion animism. Historically the monks used the Thai fear of ghosts to help teach them Dhamma (Buddhist beliefs), they would demonstrate the strength of the Buddha’s teachings by sleeping alone in burial sites or in the jungle. They would also provide the locals with blessings and amulets to protect themselves from life’s misfortunes.
After living in Thailand a while I have learned to respect their belief in ghosts but wouldn’t go as far to say I am a believer. I remember years ago reading a book called ‘Zen in the art of motorcycle maintenance’. I can’t recall much of the book but one thing I do remember is the author’s claim that ghosts exist if people believe in them.
So what do you think – do you believe in ghosts?
Do you still not believe in ghosts even when the lights are off?
If you enjoyed this post you can subscribe to the RSS feed here