Belief in ghosts, spirits, and superstitions are rife in Thailand. Concern for keeping supernatural beings happy affects everything from personal practices to politics to the real estate market. Even the country's current leader, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, boasts about his collection of magical amulets, whose power he purportedly relies on for his success.
Most Thais will freely admit that they believe in phi (the Thai word for ghost), and many citizens identify as animist, a belief system that says everything has a spirit—from a rock to a house to a dead person—and that these spirits must be placated, or there will be consequences. It is not unheard of for a family, knowing that a childlike spirit resides close by, to "adopt" it and raise it as they would their own kid; making regular offerings of food, clothing, toys, and candy to ensure its safety and comfort—and their own protection.
For most Thais, stopping at a favorite shrine to make an offering is a regular habit. The Trimurti shrine in downtown Bangkok is a popular one purported to help visitors find love. Offerings must be red and are best made on Thursdays at 9:30 PM, when the spirit is most benevolent. At that hour, the shrine is swarmed by the desperate, lonely, and lovelorn. People can often be seen openly weeping in front of it.
Author Andrew Alan Johnson is one of the leading experts on Thai ghost beliefs, and his book Ghosts of the New City examines supernatural superstitions in Chiang Mai. I sat down with Johnson in Bangkok to learn more about the influence of the supernatural on Thai daily living, the difference between benevolent and malicious ghosts, and how to keep the spirits happy.
VICE: How do people work to appease spirits in Thailand?
Andrew Alan Johnson: Believers visit shrines and make offerings of food, drink, and incense, depending on what the spirit likes. Some spirits even take "offerings" of dancers who come to the shrine to perform classical Thai dance for money.
There's a popular Thai saying that goes, "Do not believe—but do not offend—the spirits." Some people make offerings just in case spirits are present. They think it's better to sacrifice a small ball of rice and a bottle of Fanta than suffer the consequences. These consequences differ depending on what spirits are being appeased. Some malicious spirits are related to specific misfortunes, such as traffic accidents, due to their own personal histories.
There is a large shrine dedicated to a pregnant King Cobra that was run over in the western part of Bangkok. She became associated with motor accidents and her shrine is where people who work in Bangkok traffic go to seek protection. Behind the shrine are live cobras living in a vacant lot. People feed them as a means of making offerings.
What if an offering is disturbed?
Offerings get disturbed. Nowhere in Southeast Asia is a bowl of food going to sit long before dogs, cats, rats, and insects eat it. We can think of the spirit having gained a kind of invisible sustenance from the food—they've "used" the rice already. If the spirit were offended, you would know: someone would get sick, a fire might break out or a storm might knock off your roof.
According to folklore, directly stealing from a shrine can have violent consequences. I heard about a boy who stole coins from a tree spirit shrine in Bangkok. He became possessed by the spirit and couldn't stop dancing until the coins were returned. Others might suffer a sudden illness, car accident, or snakebite. In the past, cholera was the mark of an offended spirit.
But phi can also provide positive things?
Yes. Phi are associated with anything unusual. That can mean unusual misfortune or fortune. In one neighborhood, there was a large banana flower growing in an alleyway that looked like a human head. That was considered an unusual positive occurrence, so people started traveling to make offerings and ask it for blessings.
In another place, an aborted fetus was found in a vacant lot. That was an unusual negative occurrence. People identified it as a fetal spirit, also known as a kumon thong, which are considered very powerful. They started visiting it to ask it for lottery numbers.
The idea is that anything unusual can generate something else unusual. For example, an unusual tragedy might generate an unusual wealth. Unusual wealth might also bring something else along with it. The flow of the everyday has been disrupted and anything is possible.
But not all ghosts want to help you win Powerball, right?
No. There are also malicious ghosts, known as ithaygo, the ghosts of bad death. These ghosts are what I wrote my book about and why an entire section of buildings in Chiang Mai are abandoned.
It all started during the 1997 economic crisis. There wasn't enough money to finish buildings being built at the outer edges of the city or to pay the workers, who were mostly Burmese migrants. These projects were abandoned. No one ever officially lived in those buildings—yet they had ithaygo. People saw shadowy figures inside and some got sick just walking past them.
There was talk that the Burmese migrant workers had squatted inside and died. That was where the bad energy came from. Thais still won't live in that part of the city.
So, ghosts affect the real estate market?
Yes, in Chiang Mai this belief formed an empty donut around the city. You have the city itself and the first ring of housing developments that were being built during the '97 crisis. Many of them have never been officially finished or occupied.
The post-recovery ring of developments is outside of that and Thais bought apartments there. Thai people believe they will be unlucky if they live in a place of misfortune. It doesn't even have to be actual misfortune, it can be potential misfortune. To put it in Thai terms, a lack of progress—a project that stalled part way through—will continue to block current progress.
There was one hotel in that section of the city but it didn't get business and closed quickly. The owner collects cars at the property and has made them into a sort of museum. However, local lore says that he collects them from traffic accidents and the hotel is considered to be crawling with ghosts.
How else can people ask phi for help?
One of my key informants during my research in Chiang Mai was a possessed spiritual medium. Far from being an outcast, she is much respected by the community, people come to her with problems ([for example], "My son wants to get into a competitive technical school") or questions ("Is my husband having an affair?") and she presents either supernatural gifts, such as blessings and talismans, or advice.
There are mediums like her all over Thailand. Surprisingly little money changes hands in these kind of situations. For her, there is a fee of seven baht (about 25 cents) for a consultation—not much money even for the poorest people in the neighborhood. This is more about status, social organization, and the coming-together of the community than it is about mediums making money.
So, in this way of thinking, every good or bad thing that happens can be, at least in part, attributed to phi?
Pretty much. It's the anthropological question: "If you did the best job that you possibly could and still you didn't succeed, why is that?" In this way of thinking, there is no coincidence. If you tried your best and still failed, there must be something inauspicious at play. What goes along with misfortune is phi.
Do you believe in phi?
When I write about spirits, I take my interlocutors seriously. While I don't personally believe in spirits, it's worth our time to listen to stories about them in the way they're intended to be heard, and not continually try to apply a psychological, physiological, or economic motive to people's actions.
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