All in Good Spirits - understanding the SE Asian Culture of Spirit Houses

All in Good Spirits - understanding the SE Asian Culture of Spirit Houses

You'll see them everywhere. Ornate and colourful doll-size houses on stilts strategically positioned outside every home, business, school and in public areas. Other than making great photo opportunities for tourists, what is behind these impressive little structures that resemble miniature temples?

Spirits reside everywhere in SE Asia, and locals go out of their way to keep them happy. Animism, or spirit worship is probably the oldest form of religion in the world, and when Buddhism arrived in South East Asia, it developed alongside the ancient spirit worship. Today many of the beliefs are knitted with Buddhism and form part of everyday life for Thai, Cambodian, Burmese and other SE Asian people. One of these practices is the use of 'San Phra Phum' (in Thai) or spirit houses. The purpose of the spirit house is to provide an appealing shelter for the spirits who inhabit the area where the house or business is built. Permission needs to be granted by the spirits before a new building breaks ground. The spirit house is constructed first, to entice the spirits to rather dwell in their own home and not in the house or shop. There are guardian spirits of the house, the garden and the land as well as ones that guard specifically over rice paddy, bodies of water, and military forts. You may notice that Thais always step OVER the threshold when entering a house – never on it. The reason – they don't want to disturb the guardian spirit of gates and stairwells that resides there.

The construction of a spirit house can be simple, resembling a basic Thai bungalow home, or as intricate as a palace. They can be constructed of wood, concrete or brick, and roadside shops with hundreds of colourful houses for sale are a common sight. Construction itself is a specialised field, and only an expert spirit house builder would be considered. Not only is the building thereof his responsibility, but he also needs to be familiar with all the necessary rituals involved so that the spirit invited will find it an acceptable earthly abode. San Phra Phum are often decorated with little figurines of people and animals, incense holders and vases for flowers, and some even contain furniture. You’ll often see figures of an elderly man and woman - they are the caretakers of the spirit house, who will always be there to look after the house. Anything that people need in life, spirits need too. So, symbolically, statuettes of horses and elephants provide transportation, and tiny ceramic or wooden dancers entertain the spirits, while figurines of pets provide companionship. The position of a spirit house is very important, and many a well-meaning expat has unknowingly placed one incorrectly, upsetting the neighbourhood in the process. Important to remember – should you ever need to erect a spirit house, is that it should never lie where the shadow of the building will fall on it. One can regularly see locals presenting offerings to the spirits. Fresh fruit, rice, chicken or duck, beer, water and cold drink, keep the spirits' hunger and thirst at bay. Candles and incense, fresh flowers in the vases and garlands keep the house looking good which are sometimes strung with fairy lights at night for 24-hour visual appeal. Resorts in particular often boast elaborate spirit houses and generous offerings. Spirit houses can be seen at dangerous curves in the road or places of frequent accidents. This is done in order to keep the spirits happy, and ask for the protection of all that use the road. Because spirit houses need to be well-maintained, there comes a time when they need to be replaced. Old spirit houses cannot merely be dumped. The spirits are coaxed into the new house, and the old one is laid to rest in communal ‘burial grounds’ for old spirit houses, usually a location well known to be rich in spirit activity.

You’ll often find colourful strips of cloth tied around large trees in forests or gardens. It’s believed that spirits reside in old trees. Offerings are placed at the foot of the tree or in lower branches, and the bright ribbons are a symbol for others not to cut down the tree. Banana groves are the favoured haunting grounds of female spirits, so one often sees san phra phum along the road nearby.

Longtail boats are decorated with the same bright cloth and ribbon. Keeping the spirits of the sea happy will ensure a safe journey, and bring in a bountiful catch. In the same way, cars, trucks and taxis display garlands of flowers to protect the occupants of the vehicle on the journey. Most cars and taxis are also adorned with 'yan' – religious symbols painted usually on the ceiling of the car, by a monk to protect the vehicle and its passengers. Yan painting can also be found on the doors of houses to keep unwanted or ghostly visitors outside. Spirit houses may be fascinating. They may be beautiful to photograph. However, please remember that to others they are a place of worship, so show respect when taking pictures. Don’t put your feet on any religious figure such as a Buddha or spirit house. Don’t touch or re-arrange items in the house to suit your photo, and don’t take photos when people are praying.

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