Thai people seem superstitious? You don’t say!
What goes around comes around. With Thailand’s population being 95% Buddhist, karma plays a very important role in the religious philosophy the majority practices. But in addition to this, Thai culture is overflowing with a fascinating collection of superstitions, folklore, urban legends, and other myths. One of Thailand’s most remarkable scholars, Phraya Anuman Rajadhon, was the pioneer of studying folkloristics. He made extensive notes on Thai cultural details and heavily examined the stories of village spirits and ghosts mentioned in Thai mythology (Rajadhon, 1968).
Thai folklore is derived from folk religions and stories are often passed over from generation to generation. Rituals play a salient part in Thai folk religions, often with the intent of connecting to the otherworldly. A shaman entails a religious practitioner that interacts with a spirit world through altered states of consciousness, such as trance (Singh, 2018). This is usually done with the intent of directing spiritual energy into the physical world, sometimes for healing purposes.
In Thai, the term phram is used to describe a specific village’s shaman, who conducts exorcisms, performs marriages, and other different ceremonies. In addition to this, there is also the mo phi who conducts rituals, specifically burials, and funerals (Rajadhon, 1968).
As protection against bad luck, there is the usage of amulets which are very popular in Thailand. It is considered a local form of life insurance if you will (Proebst, 2017). They can be worn either as a necklace, but also come in the form of so-called yantra tattooing or sometimes referred to as Sak Yuant. These sacred geometrical designs are supposed to grant the wearer with supernatural love, health, wealth, and protection (Drouyer, 2013). The protective usage of yantras is also used at i.e. airport entrances.
When Thai people have a Buddha statuette placed on a shelf, they frequently hang a charm next to it for attracting customers. Rajadhon did notice, that some of these charms originated from Thai Chinese culture and have over the course of several centuries, been adopted by Thai people with a few changes (Rajadhon, 1968).
There are several superstitions Thai people use daily. What is noticeable, is that the majority of Thai superstitions regard the themes of death, ghosts, and spirits. A few of them include:
- Divination is used to predict numbers for the lottery.
Ghosts play an inevitable part in Thai culture and are believed to be able to predict the winning lottery numbers. This could even occur by everyday occurrences such as a tree hinting at certain numbers (Proebst, 2017).
- There are days of the week that certain actions should not be acted on due to the belief that it causes bad luck. On Wednesdays, hair salons are closed, because Thais believe getting a haircut on a Wednesday is bad luck and Wednesday is even considered a highly inauspicious day (Proebst, 2017). This phenomenon also regards cutting one’s fingernails (Kirdsaeng, 2020).
- In contrast to Wednesdays, there are auspicious days of the week as well. These are especially important when for example deciding on a wedding date or when purchasing a car (Thaitrong, 2017).
The sound of a gecko chirping is considered an omen in Thai culture. If a gecko can be heard before leaving your home, Thais believe it should be seen as a warning sign and you are urged not to leave your house under any circumstance (Proebst, 2017).
- In Thai beliefs, certain colors are considered auspicious and inauspicious. This is primarily evident when purchasing a car and what color it is (Sakaowon & Ruiz, 2014).
- It is strongly discouraged to point at a rainbow, due to the risk of losing one’s finger (Proebst, 2017).
- Babies are involved in many superstitions in Thailand. Fascinatingly, a baby shouldn’t be referred to as cute in Thai culture, cause it is believed it will be stolen by a ghost. Purposefully, babies are called unpleasant and ugly to avoid this (Proebst, 2017). Also regarding pregnant women, there are several superstitions, for example attending a funeral. It is believed that the spirit of the dead person will haunt the baby once it is born, so therefore pregnant women are not allowed to attend funerals (Sakaowon & Ruiz, 2014).
- The head is the most sacred part of the human body and should therefore not be touched, not even a child’s (Sakaowon & Ruiz, 2014).
There are several deities in Thai culture, whose sight is supposed to bring good luck and prosperity (Rajadhon, 1968):
- Nang Kwak is a spirit considered to bring good fortune, wealth and attract customers when displayed in a business. She is often represented as a woman dressed in red Thai clothing, wearing a golden crown and in a sitting position. She is a derivative of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi which shows the correlation between Indian and Thai folklore (Rajadhon, 1968).
- Phi Fa is a deity from northeast Thailand. Additionally, there is the Phi Fa ritual where a person’s recent recovery from serious disease is celebrated. A shaman is employed as the medium that invites Phi Fa to participate in the ceremony (Rajadhon, 1968).
Phosop is the traditional rice goddess of Thailand. She is derived from ancient Thai culture, instead of necessarily the mainstream Buddhist religion. She is propitiated, winning the favor of a god, by ritual offerings carried out in rural areas. She is depicted as a beautiful woman wearing jewelry and a dress, either red or green, holding a harvested sheaf of rice (Rajadhon, 1968).
- Kuman Thong is a household divinity believed to bring prosperity and good luck to the owner. Recently, hyper-realistic children dolls have become extremely popular in Thailand, referred to as Luk Thep. It is believed by some that the dolls can be possessed by the spirit of a child with the help of a blessing by a Buddhist monk (Proebst, 2017).
Spirits & ghosts
Spirits and ghosts are in Thailand known as phi and are primarily found near trees, Buddhist temples with burial grounds, as well as forests. There are spirit houses in Thailand known as san phra phum. These shrines are used to provide shelter for tutelary spirits, meaning a guarding spirit of a particular place or person, and can often be found in urban areas and near trees. It is regarded as bad practice to ignore these shrines and one must make an offering every once in a while to satisfy the spirit that resides there (Rajadhon, 1968).
What is interesting, is that notably cinema, tv shows, and comic books in Thailand have immensely contributed to the widespread popularity of these spirits and legends in Thailand. Some of these films have been so successful, they’ve become classics in Thai cinema. In addition to this, there are countless comic books and animated movies specifically for children that have contributed to this rising popularity (Chiang Mai, 2012).
Along with the many stories and legends Thai culture has, there are several festivals and cultural events that take place, where local folk beliefs are celebrated (Thailand Tourism, 2008):
Loi Krathong, is celebrated on a full moon evening of the 12th month according to the traditional Thai lunar calendar. The origins of this festival can be traced back to India. The name of the festival means ‘’to float ritual vessel or lamp’’, and the tradition entails the making of baskets that are set to float on a river (Jones, 2011).
- Vessantara Jātaka, one of the most popular Buddhist traditional festivals, tells the story of one of Buddha’s past lives. It is also referred to as the Great Birth Sermon. Characterized by its strong folkloric elements, this festival is also celebrated in other Buddhist nations and is interpreted in different ways throughout Thailand (Rajadhon, 1968).
Phi Ta Khon, is commonly referred to as the ghost festival of the Loei Province and is a part of the Buddhist merit-making holiday known as Bun Phawet. The festival consists of 3 days between the months of March and July. The spirit of the Mun River, Phra Upakut, is invited to the festival for protective purposes. The town residents wear masks handmade masks and participate in a series of games. Several dance routines are performed as well (Rajadhon, 1968).
There are several animals throughout Thai folklore, each having different meanings and symbolism:
- The myna bird is mentioned in certain tales, mainly for its imitation skills and ability to mimic sounds (Rajadhon, 1968).
- Snakes play a very prominent role in Thai folklore and depending on the circumstances and background they have, they come with different interpretations. The Nagas figure, a serpent deity, is depicted in some Buddhist temples’ architectural elements. In Thai mythology, there is a suggested correlation between snakes and women and their bond (Vathanaprida et al., 1994).
All in all, it is quite evident how incredibly diverse Thai folklore is and this is a logical consequence of its historical value. Influences from India and China are also noticeable, and generations within Thailand influence the mythology even more. The role Thai folklore plays in the daily lives of Thai people is quite remarkable and will continue to be that way for many years to come.
Drouyer, I. A., & Drouyer, R. (2013). Thai Magic Tattoos: The Art and Influence of Sak Yant (Edition Unstated ed.). River Books Press Dist A C.
Kirdsaeng, P. (2020, October 30). 13 Scary Thai Superstitions Locals Believe In And What They Actually Mean. TheSmartLocal Thailand – Things To Do In Bangkok. https://thesmartlocal.com/thailand/thai-superstitions-explained/
Proebst, I. (2017, October 11). 10 Curious Superstitions You’ll Find in Thailand. Culture Trip. https://theculturetrip.com/asia/thailand/articles/10-curious-superstitions-youll-find-in-thailand/
Rajadhon, P. A. (1968). Thet-Maha-Chat, from Essays on Thai Folklore (1st ed.). Amsterdam University Press.
Sakaowon, P., & Ruiz, T. (2014, February 6). 60 Thai superstitious dos and don’ts for your convenience. Coconuts. https://coconuts.co/bangkok/news/60-thai-superstitious-dos-and-donts-your-convenience/
Thaitrong, A. (2017, September 6). 15 Common Thai Superstitions and Beliefs. Learn Thai with Mod. http://learnthaiwithmod.com/2013/10/10-common-thai-superstitions-and-beliefs/
Vathanaprida, S., MacDonald, M. R., & Rohitasuke, B. (1994). Thai Tales. Libraries Unlimited.