The Ghosts of Thailand Should be Taken Seriously

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.

Thai Spirt House

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.

Thai Amulets

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

Latest posts by Paul Garrigan (see all)

32 thoughts on “The Ghosts of Thailand Should be Taken Seriously

  1. I fully agree with the author Robert M. Pirsig and I opted not to believe in ghosts. But you’re fully right ghosts play a big part in Thai society. In 2002 when the sun of my former Dutch girlfriend was 9 he showed great interest in ghosts and monsters, so finally I took him to Schotland and visited Loch Ness, where he actually believed to sea the monster for one second, when we were driving along the lake. Prior to that we visited haunted places like Edinburgh castle and Mary Kings Close, (underground area of the city in which victims of the Black Plague were quarantined and left to die.) which is supposedly the most haunted place in the world. I had to bribe him for 50 Euro to go, because he had second thoughts about going in there.
    After a while the poor boy got very frightened by the scary voice of the guide and the stories I translated for him and wanted to go back, but no way, we had to follow the guide. Feeling so uncomfortable, at a certain point he farted.
    Later on, the group gathered in a pub and a big note book was passed on where everyone was able to write his personal experiences during the tour. One tourist wrote she heard the sound of a chain dragging over the floor and another one wrote he sensed a very bad smell, we looked at each other and started to laugh. His smell was very bad indeed. Later I told him “So, now you have been in the most scary place in the world and you didn’t notice anything, so you can’t be afraid in other (less scary) places anymore.”

  2. Thanks I-Nomad, I think you dealt with the situation well – one boy’s fart is another man’s poltergeist 🙂 When I was about thirteen there was a phenomenon in Ireland where many people were seeing moving statues. I went along to see one of these statues but it was obvious to me then that anything will move if you stare at it long enough.

  3. Paul interesting stuff that most of us who live here have a fair bit of contact with. I certainly do not believe in ghosts and spirits personally so I just leave my Thai friends do their thing.

    Even today I heard Duen threatening Doy, who had committed some minor misdemeanour at school, with a visit from a ghost when she was in bed tonight. The poor kid was quite upset.

    Bloody stupid in my humble opinion but when in Rome etc

  4. Hi Mike, I also don’t comfortable with threatening children with ghosts. My son isn’t old enough to understand about ghosts, but Oa sometimes threatens him with the policeman – it bugs me but this is the Thai way. I’ll blame her though if he grows up to be a criminal 🙂

  5. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I believe in the spirit of Halloween.

    I recently came across your blog, and appreciate your posts on using mindfulness and Buddhist principles to control drinking. I have recently realized that alcohol is controling me more than the other way around.

    Some years ago I spent time teaching in Sri Lanka, with a brief trip to Bangkok.

    – Suudunona (white woman, in Sinhalese)

    1. Thank you Suudunona and welcome to the blog. I think it is easy for people to slip into alcohol abuse; it tends to be all downhill from there. It may be that some people can regain some type of control, but this was definitely not possible in my case. I do believe tha mindfulness can help with all types of addiciton – it can also make life pretty darn good generally.

  6. Yeah, I don’t know yet whether control for me means never drinking. Guess I’ve been afraid to find out — but at least I’m asking the question. I realize that I need a change of some kind, and that’s a beginning. Twelve-step programs raise my hackles for several reasons, so it’s really helpful to learn about other approaches, like practicing mindfulness. Thanks for sharing your insights in your blog.

    1. Hi Suudunona, the 12 steps programs aren’t for everyone, but they do work well for many addicts. I agree that it is good that you are asking the questions – the good thing about change is that it can send us on the most amazing adventures.

  7. Morning Paul. I didn’t realise that Thai monks used ghosts to teach Dhamma. Would you please elaborate? I’m always looking for new bits to learn about the folk history of Thailand as so little gets explained.

    What are your favourite books of that type? Only two (maybe three) come to mind. Pra Peter sent his latest – My Grandmother’s House – it’s a decent read (I’m reviewing this month). It’s chocker full of folkiness and country living, all wrapped around the life of a young norther monk.

    Ghosts, spirits, gods, are way out of my mindset. I love to read the stories about Thai’s spirits though. I once spent a fair bit of time running around taking photos of the famous spirit houses in my area. My girlfriend’s driver was terrified (he refused to go to one). And my Thai friend tagging along kept going around after me, asking the spirits for forgiveness. When I finally get around to writing it, it’ll be all in fun. Except for almost getting run over, there was not a single terrifying moment 😀

    1. Hi Cat, there is a really good book on the subject called ‘The Buddha in the Jungle’ by Kamala Tiyavanich – incidentally this is one of the best books on Thai Buddhism I’ve ever come across.
      Apparently one of the reasons why many Thais changed from their traditional beliefs to Buddhism was because they noticed that the monks seemed fearless when it came to ghosts. The Thudong monks would even sleep and meditate on charnel grounds as a way to prove their lack of fear of these ghosts – and to benefit their own practice. It was traditional for some forest monks the make their robes from the garments found on corpses.

      I am interested to hear about this new book Phra Peter – is he still a monk? I thought he disrobed?

  8. Hi Paul,

    I’m with you on the issue of ghosts…happy to let Thais be Thais unless the situation becomes ridiculous, ie over the naming of your son.

    My wife is as westernised as they come but even she drags me out of bed in the night to chaperone her to the loo when we’re at my in-laws – which can happen a lot given she is 8 months pregnant.

    Her grandfather is actually a spirit doctor too. When I see him he is forever getting my date of birth and a number of other details to make predictions for me and the family. I never dismiss them but hardly predict my future around it either.

  9. Paul what a thoroughly absorbing read. Great writing and a topic I have a lot of interest in.

    First let me say I don’t believe in ghosts, but that’s because I’ve never seen one. I wouldn’t discount them out of hand but like I said, I’ve never seen one.

    Wilai and her mother are absolutely terrified of them. When I stay at our village home there can’t be two or three days that pass without mention of one. At night (very late evening)for some reason sometimes all the dogs in the village start howling in tandem, that really gets Wilai going. Sat together on the sofa she has at times clenched my arm really tight, she gets that scared. One night I went down our driveway to investigate and I saw………..lots of dogs howling in tandem.

    I didn’t know the bit about parents giving their kids strange names to scare off ghosts. Fascinating.

    1. Hi Martyn, I remember working in this old pub in London years ago. There was always a lot of strange reports about the downstairs cellar area – the landlord had a dog and he would go beserk if you brought him anywhere near the celler. I must admit that I did often seem a bit sinister down there – like there was something wrong about the place.

      I’ve had very strange experiences occur during meditation and this has made me a lot more open-minded about things – I wouldn’t say I’m a believer though.

  10. Hi Paul, your post was very insightful, I had no idea that ghosts played such a big part in Thai life.

    In China we were told that the pathways joining the old buildings were zig zagged, because apparently ghosts can not walk/float? in a zig zag pattern. Also, the raised door sills (which you must not stand on) are to prevent bad spirits from entering.

    It’s interesting to learn how different cultures deal with the supernatural. Personally, I’ve never met any ghosts, but I wouldn’t count them out.

    I’d also like to thank Martyn, who’s most recent post, highlighted this article.

    1. Thanks Snap, I’m with you on this one – I’m not a believer but I wouldn’t count it out. I remember hearing something about zig zag patterns and ghosts previously – interesting.

  11. Nice article Paul. As you point out, the belief in ghosts is practically universal in Thailand and is part of the way of life. I’ve recently started to look into whether certain areas of Thailand have prevalent superstitions – for example in Isaan, Phi Phop seem to be a minor obsession, whereas some other areas seem to focus on reverence of the spirits of dead animals. I’m also trying to find out more about the Sea Gypsies and their island of phi. It’s all good stuff!

  12. I was sleeping in a hotel room in hua hin some night´s ago, on the belly with left hand and foot outside the blanket!
    First i could feel something poking under my foot, and then i could feel a finger inside my hand, which i actually touched. I froze and could not move.

    After a while i turned around and was a bit shook up, cos the dream was so real- i dreamt about a ghost 😉 555.

    After a while i feel asleep again, and had only my head outside the blanket.
    That was when i feel something sit on my back, and i froze again and could not move.
    My arms froze to ice and i could feel the ghost parallised me?
    Was this a dream or was it a ghost?

    I told the staff when i checked out that i sleep bad cos the ghost was bugging me with a smile on my face, but they did not smile back.

    1. I’ve had a few strange experiences but I wouldn’t say I’m a believer – you never know. I remember a few years ago my father-in-law crashed his bike late at night. He said a ghost pushed him off and everyone believed him – even though he was so drunk that he could barely walk.

  13. Paul,
    I need to know if you have heard of this type of “White magic” before. My wife who is from Udon went back home (we live in Bangkok) a few days before I did due to work. When I arrived there everything seemed normal and the first evening one of her cousins hand me a mobile phone and told me to watch a video. The next thing I know I am watching my wife on her knees being pushed forward by two monks with polls to keep her leaning forward, a monk in the front of her chanting repeatedly and her following his chants over and over and over yelling at the top of their voices with other people around then also chanting and yelling. This continued for several minutes until the point where she began to vomit because she was so worked up. When the chanting was finished the monk whispered something in her ear (which she has no idea what he said) and she broke out crying hysterically until she could calm down.
    Watching this made me extremely agree at myself for allowing this to happen and I was not with her, at her for doing it and at the belief that something like this could actually take place. I could not believe she could do something like this and they would actually put a person through such an emotional and stress full ritual or as I say SCAM.
    Even today I feel so bad that I was not there to stop this from happening. She is happy she did it and said the monk told her she had to do it a total of 3 times.
    I am sorry but I cannot accept this, the whole reason she was told to do this was because she became pregnant some years ago before we had met and the pregnancy was ended. The monk told her the spirit of the baby was with her and it needed to be released.
    We have had several discussion since this and I am trying to convince her this is a load of S—, but I do not know how too because her whole family believes in this type of “white Magic”
    WHAT TO DO?????

    1. Hi CB, I don’t envy your situation. I don’t know the ritual you are referring to, but I lived in a Thai village for a few years and saw and witnessed a few of them. The ones I saw were all fairly harmless. My wife’s family has strong beliefs about this kind of thing, but the only time I’ve ever put my foot down was a situation involving my son.

      This is all difficult because we are talking about people’s beliefs. The Christian beliefs in my country would seem equally bizarre to a lot of Thai people. If we try to come between somebody and their faith it is usually us who loses out. I remember an ex-girlfriend of mine joined a Christian group that I believed was a cult. She had her beliefs and nothing I could say could convince here otherwise; in the end we couldn’t even be friends anymore.

  14. Great post Paul…
    Im still sceptical on the whole Thai ghost thing, but its not that i don’t believe in ghosts. Its more that i don’t believe that all the Thai Drama they make about ghosts is really necessary.

    As for seeing a ghost, well ironically an Ex Thai GF of mine used to say an old woman stayed with her, told her lottery numbers and looked out for her. We went thru a bad patch and reconciled. One night as i was sleeping i heard a screeching and felt hands around my throat, i was paralyzed and coloudn’t move but could see my XGF sleeping besides me. The scream was an unmistakably female one and i woke up. Do i still belive it was a ghost? well whatever it was or wasn’t its not important to me.

    My sister was once sitting in a temple meditating and she was finding it hard to breath, she said a baby wearing a cloak and hood and with just one eye and a deformed head floated up to her, and took her discomfort away. She replied thankyou, and the spirit said it lived in the temple grounds.

    perhaps in our dreams and lucid states we can connect to otherworldly dimensions that we can only translate with our knowledge of this realm, hence things get scrambled and we believe they are here, but they are perhaps in an alternative yet parallel dimension. who knows! But i’m still not building a spirit house any time soon.

    1. Thanks Daniel,I originally wrote this article 4 years ago and posted it on here 2 years ago. My views have changed quite a bit since then. I’ve become interested in astral travel/OBEs and this has opened up my mind a great deal as to what is possible. I read a book a few months back that suggested that people who saw ghosts were somehow remote viewing the past – interesting theory.

  15. Hai Paul,

    I lov to hear all the storiers, for me as a muslim those spirits exist in their own world. But choose not to think about when went for holiday with my friend to gentinghighland hotel, Ria apartment. Actually the hotel are haunted stil I ignore it. When I stay there for one night. I experienced the door from my room open by itself, but I pretend to ignore it and closed it back. Stil the door open again, I think the spirits is trying to play with me. The room is quite spooky. At nite almost asleep that time I felt my arms was grabbed by along finger nails, and then I realised this is to much causing the severe pain in my arm. After a while I just read my Quran verses, slowly the long fingernail disappear..I swear to God this thing really happen to me. At that moment I have to be strong to fight back, you Know my friend, she didnt know this things happen to me coz she dead sleep at that moment…actually we went holiday quite frequently at genting. I believe and pray to GOD for giving me the protection and strong heart to fight back when this things happen….

    1. Hi Sharifah, it sounds like you had a scary night for sure. If that happened to me I would have woke the whole hotel up with the fuss I’d make. I’m impressed to hear that your faith gave you the ability to stay calm.

  16. Somewhere in Fujian Province of China in earlier times also has a same belief in nicknames, they call their children dog, stupid pig, etc. They think it would be easier to raise their kids if they call them in a cheap way. One of my uncle was called dog even up to now, but in nowadays no one would give their children those cheap nicknames anymore, at least in our village

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *