Thai Spirit Houses “sanphaphoom”
I have been curious for a while about the customs and rules for having a Spirit house. When I moved to Hua Hin I decided to purchase a traditional Wooden Spirit house from Petchaburi for about 2500 THB after pleading from my Mother that she wanted one. I purchased one but I am sure I have gone the wrong way about it, especially since my neighbor Khun Noi immediately moved the Spirit House from where I put it outside my house. I wanted to know what the do’s and don’ts and I hope some of the information below might be of some interest.
Spirit houses are small building which looks like a miniature Thai house or Buddhist temple standing on a column or stand and can be found outside most houses, restaurants, businesses and hotels in Thailand.
Spirit Worship or Animism started in ancient days before Buddhism when the Tai’s migrated from northern Vietnam to all parts of the Southeast Asian region. Now Animism has developed side by side with Buddhism. Today many of the old animistic beliefs are intertwined with Buddhism, one of these which is practiced by every Thai is the Spirit House. You can even find Spirit Houses close to Buddhist temples.
The reason for a Spirit Houses is to offer spirits that lived on your land before you owned it or moved to it a place to live happily. The spirits or celestial beings can either be ancestors or other spirits that reside on your land. It is believed that spirits can make good or mischief to people. A spirit can also feel disrespected and therefore cause harm so Thai people believe that it is important to show them respect by giving them a place to live and offerings. It also believed that if you do not have a Spirit House, spirits can come and stay in the main house with people and will make a lot of trouble to humans in the house. So Thais purchase a Spirit House and then invite the spirit to enter the Spirit House and settle there, thus appeasing the Spirit.
As well as giving the Spirit a place to reside, they give offerings to show care towards the spirit and thus Thais believe the spirits will be happy, help the families business and home and bring good luck in general.
The actual building of the Spirit House is a specialised field and only an expert Spirit House builder will be considered for its construction. The builder’s responsibility is also to be familiar with all the necessary rituals involved so that the Spirit can be made to feel at home in the Spirit House.
The color of the Spirit House is chosen according to the birthday of the owner: if the owner is born on Monday, the colour of the house should be yellow, if on Tuesday – pink, Wednesday – green, Thursday – gold, Friday – blue, Saturday – purple and Sunday – red. Modern Spirit Houses are made of cement but you can also find elaborate old style wooden Spirit Houses in most cities. Some larger Spirit Houses have an attached altar table to hold offerings. Placing of Spirit Houses is also important; the shadow of the main house should not fall upon the Spirit House and vice versa. Additionally a Spirit House must be in a prominent place on the property but far enough to keep the spirits away from the main building.
Spirit Houses are normally adorned with statues, flowers & garlands, incense and offerings. Often you can see red bottles with red sparkling water inside as it is popularly believed that Spirits like red, so the red bottle is opened with a straw. Food items traditionally served are, betel leaves, bananas, rice, chicken, and duck. Once placed on the Spirit House, the offering of food will usually be left for a week before being changed. Small figures of humans and animals are often place inside the Spirit House to serve the spirits. But the figurine which holds a Thai style double edged sword in the right hand represents the spirit. His left hand holds a money pouch. When purchasing a new Spirit House the owner of the land or house must invite Spirit to move in and become the phra phum chao thii or guardian spirit of the area.
Thai families who believe wholeheartedly in the Spirit House and its importance light incense every morning and ask the spirit to watch over and protect the home and business. Others do it on ritual occasions.
Because spirit houses need to be well-maintained, there comes a time when they need to be replaced. Or if a house has an upgrade so should the Spirit House an old Spirit House cannot be just thrown away. First, the spirits should be moved into the new house. It should be done by prayers and ceremonies. After that the old house should be taken to a communal “burial ground” for old Spirit Houses usually located well known to be rich in spirit activity. You can often see many Spirit Houses by the side of the road, this a typical type Spirit House “burial ground”
Sometimes by the roadside a small standalone Spirit House can be found. The reason for this is so that spirits who haunt the place are given a home and they will not endanger the drivers who pass it. Some Spirit Houses on to road were built to pacify the tormented spirits of people who have died in violent deaths in crashes at that site.
In the same way cars, trucks and taxis display garlands of flowers to protect the occupants of the vehicle on the journey.
A famous Spirit House, the Erwan Shrine, at the Phloenchit intersection in Bangkok is the most famous Spirit House in Thailand and is popular among tourists from Asia because it is considered a place where the gods usually grant them what they request.
It is also common to see long tail boats decorated with bright cloth and ribbon. The ribbons on a boat will keep the spirits of the sea happy and thus a safe journey.
On trees you will sometime see colorful strips of fabric this also considered a type of Spirit House. Thai people believe that spirits also can live in old and big trees. Thai people mark these trees with spirits (Ton Mai) by wrapping colorful fabric stripes and leave offerings (drinks and flowers) in the roots in for the same reason as they do with Spirit Houses.
Some rules regarding Spirit Houses:
- To photograph someone during prayer at the Spirit House should be avoided as it is a place of worship, or at least ask for permission first.
- Never put your feet on any religious item, such as Spirit Houses or statues.
- Don’t touch items in someone’s Spirit House
Shops Selling Spirit Houses can be found on main road heading from Cha Am to Hua Hin. Wooden Spirit Houses can be found on road heading out of Cha Am towards Petchaburi after the overhead merging to the Bangkok Highway (on the left). Prices vary depending on how large or elaborate the design is.