I recently visited Thailand and soon after my arrival I was out and about with my camera, snapping pictures of one of my favourite Thai things: spirit houses.
I’ve written before on this blog about San Phra Phum, as they’re known locally. They’re the miniature buildings you see outside nearly every Thai home and business, held aloft like bird-tables on wooden pillars, fragranced by smouldering incense sticks and often garlanded with flowers. Their raison d’être is to provide accommodation for the spirits residing on the premises and to keep those spirits contented, so that they don’t move into the human building and cause ghostly high-jinks there.
Spirit houses need to be carefully positioned in relation to the neighbouring human abode and a Brahman priest should be consulted to identify the best spot for it – which is usually, I’ve read, north of the human house so that there’s no danger of the spirit house having a shadow cast over it. Once the spirit house is erected, certain things are placed inside. These include a representation of the angel-like Hindu deity Phra Chai Mongkol, who bears a sword and a bag of money, presumably to ensure protection and good fortune for the house’s ethereal inhabitants; human figures to keep the spirits company; dolls’-house-style pieces of furniture for their comfort; and possibly models of horses and elephants, to help them get around. I’ve even seen spirit houses cluttered with model cars and other toys, to give the spirits something to play with; and ones bedecked with strings of fancy coloured lights, to allow them some illumination after nightfall.
One memorable sight I saw recently was in the northern Thai town of Chiang Mai, while I was passing a construction site. An old building had just been demolished and a new one was shortly to be built there. Nearly everything in the area had been flattened and a digger was prowling around, removing the last remnants of the old building – but remaining untouched and intact in the middle of the rubble were a pair of spirit houses. Apparently, it’s a bad idea to destroy spirit houses and render their inhabitants homeless. So even Thai developers who wouldn’t think twice about bulldozering an old human property need to exercise caution in how they treat the miniature wooden dwelling next door to it.