As a Sino-Thai Buddhist, I subscribe to an amalgamation of beliefs including facets of animism, Hinduism, Brahmanism, Theravada Buddhism and a touch of Mahayana Buddhism. Beyond religions, Thais in all walks of life also accept the unseen – the realm of the supernatural – whether as blind faith or with a degree of caution. The mantra here is don’t knock it if you can’t prove it. If certain beliefs have been practiced for centuries, why would one try to contradict them? There is always the nagging feeling that to do so might bring bad luck.
Here it seems that one encounters superstition at every turn, from the colours that one wears on specific days of the week to the propitious hour at which one should lay a building foundation, or launch a business, or hold an engagement or wedding ceremony… I could go on. The right shade or the right minute counts. Even members of the royal family wear jewellery made from nine auspicious gemstones for good fortune.
In every dwelling, be it a semi-detached home or a condominium unit, you will find a spirit house or shrine. In Chinese shop houses, a small red shrine to the land spirits is strategically placed near the hearth. Thai spirit houses are often filled with offerings and trinkets such as garlands and animal statuettes for the spirits to use.
We believe that living things such as large trees are the dwelling places of deities. Some folk wrap these trees with colourful sashes. They even offer full Thai costumes to the Dtanee spirits believed to occupy banana trees. Certain plants, flowers and herbs – collectively called waan – are revered too because not only do they possess medicinal properties, they also bring good omens to the household. If you consider that we are all connected to the ecological system, then it stands to reason that we receive energy from plants and the living things around us.
Thais also like collect animal horns and tusks as motifs of power, while others believe that certain animals bring good or bad luck – a barn owl, for example, is the messenger of death. Moreover we are awestruck by unexplained natural phenomena, such as a two-headed snake, goat, or cat. We worship these biological abnormalities because they offer some kind of special sign that has a relevance in our daily lives.
In times past animists would sacrifice animals and read predictions for the future in their entrails. Another ancient tradition had it that a still-born human foetus – Kuman Thong or a Golden Child – could become a protective spirit for someone needing an invisible guardian.
Nowadays many Thais still wear a Buddhist amulet, sometimes bunches of them, for protection. In the past soldiers would sport talismanic tattoos or wear waistcoats festooned with yantras or protective signs and symbols. Anyone who has these tattoos (à la Angelina Jolie) should conduct themselves within the Five Precepts of Buddhism, otherwise their magical properties fade and they no longer protect the wearer. A phallus belonging to an animal or a human is also revered as a symbol of fertility and strength. Even today, to ward off bad spirits, a phallic amulet made from wood or stone is sometimes placed on a string and hung around a child’s waist.
In the West, when one faces problems and anxiety, one goes to a psychiatrist or a therapist. However in Thailand, a psychic is deemed more helpful. Fortune telling has never gone out of fashion. From ordinary people to the mightiest of corporations, we continue consult astrologers and clairvoyants on all sorts of things ranging from business, academic success, scheduling, hiring, travel, health, and our love lives. One can also look for answers in numerology, palmistry, tarot cards, and geomancy, even by making a wish at the shrines of Hindu deities found in the Rajaprasong area.
In fact, numbers matter much in Thai culture. This goes beyond having the right digits on one’s car license plate – we even consult numerologists to ensure we have a ‘lucky’ mobile phone number. Why do people believe in all of this? Well, simply because life is mercurial and it has always been so. Success, wealth and love – all can change in a heartbeat, so where’s the harm in investing in a little superstitious insurance? If it pays off, all fine and dandy. If not, well it’s all in the mind and no harm done!