Essays on Thai Folklore (Thailand)

Spirit House

by Phya Anuman Rajadhon

When I was in northern Thailand with friends, we played a game of How Do I Know I’m in Thailand?

* Poinsettia trees
* Color, color everywhere
* Spirit houses

I bought this book intending to delve into wat exactly, a spirit house is. (Ha ha) And why they appear on the roof of every department store and hotel in Bangkok – even the Pizza Hut.

I wasn’t expecting to get an Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader for linguaphiles, and travelbugs. But it was delightful – and dense – your brain needs processing time.

Published on the “auspicious occasion of the 80th anniversary of the author’s birthday” in 1968, it includes a sweet foreword from HRH Prince Wan Waithayakon Kromun Naradhip Bongsprabandh and a number of typos.

Before spirit houses, however, a word about Thai:

Siamese Language Bites

book coverYou can’t understand a people until you study their language. Thais call their country “The Land of Smile” – and they have hundreds of different smiles and meanings. I think they enjoy the ambiguity. Thai is tonal, a very Eastern concept.

I have a Thai friend who lives in Fang in northern Thailand. Her name can mean five different things, depending on which tone you give it – rising, falling, flat – I forget the rest. The one she likes best means “Rainglass”.

Historically, the Thai people are said to have come from Southern China. According to the author, “One group became the Shan of Burma, another group became the Siamese of Thailand, another became the Lao, and a number of the Thai with many tribal names [went to] Tongking (Vietnam) and Southern China and even Hainan Island.”

The Siamese in Thailand mixed freely with the Mon (Chinese) and the Khmers (Cambodian). Says the author, “It affected radically the Thai; physically, linguistically and culturally.” Although he doesn’t say how or why Indian people came into the mix, written Thai script has roots in India.

Thai scriptAgain, the author: “Southern School of Buddhism used Pali as its vehicle of thought and language, while the Northern School and Hinduism used Sanskrit. Here they became mixed through their tolerations of one another, unlike that of the religions of Semitic origins; and to add into its melting pot, the indigenous and popular belief of animism was also thrown into it.”

NOTE: As you can see from the quotes above, native English speakers may have to read this book twice: First, to enjoy the charming liberties the author takes with our language; Second, to understand what he is saying about his. (Also, be warned that this book has not been proofread very well.)

ADDITIONAL NOTE: How I wish the harsh, war-worshipping Arab-Semites had practiced “tolerations” of each other. Even the Thai language is tolerant. In one part of the book it talks about how Thai “can’t be bothered” with grammar. It’s that SouthEast Asian easy-goingness that Westerners often misperceive as lazy rather than peaceful.

We Are All One

poinsettia treesI am often surprised to find similarities in folklore between divergent countries; but I really shouldn’t be. The first Thai folk tale in the book concerns a prince who receives three wishes. In the Thai version, an argument between him and his wife results in his body being covered with either male or female genitalia. A second wish removes the offending knobs, but takes away his own body as well so he has to spend the remaining wish on becoming a man again. The author has traced the origins of this tale back to the Mon, and further back to India.

Well, it came to England too. When I was about ten, I remember reading the fairy tale of the woodcutter who wished for endless sausages and was cursed by his wife with a sausage stuck to his forehead. As a child, I gnashed my teeth in rage at the stupidity of grownups. People my age would have wished wisely! What is this tale supposed to teach us? Miracles aren’t real? Or perhaps, as the Japanese say, “Those who eat poisonous blowfish are stupid, but those who don’t eat blowfish are stupid too…”?

To finally satisfy my curiosity about this universal fairy tale, I found a list of interpretations by country.

JungleEstonia: “Whoever fails to take immediate advantage of unexpected luck will lose it forever.”
Persia: “Thus the man lost his three wishes by the lack of wit in the woman.” (Sorry, dudes – it takes two to tango.)
India: “He who cannot think for himself and will not follow the advice of friends, will push himself into misfortune, just like the weaver Mantharaka.”
England: “Lower your expectations. Be content with what you have.”

But the Hungarians take the gold medal in my opinion:

“They, however, made a hearty meal of the sausage; and as they came to the conclusion that it was in consequence of their quarrelling that they had no heifers, nor horses, nor sucking pig, they agreed to live thenceforth in harmony together; and they quarreled no more after this. They got on much better in the world, and in time they acquired heifers, horses, and a sucking pig into the bargain, because they were industrious and thrifty.”

Beliefs & Spirit Houses

Bangkok WatCountry yokels throughout time and across worlds have believed, whether through jealousy or perceived differences, that city dwellers are sinful and evil – and visa-versa. (Think wandering desert tribes vs cities in the Old Testament.) Dr. Rajadhon tells us that city Thais used to be cautioned to never take food or drink in rural areas, lest they be poisoned by someone testing local medicine on a stranger. A kind of Thai voodoo, this “conditioned poison” could be made operative by a secret word from the practitioner if they had been wronged. Sounds like wishful thinking to my modern Western ears.

A folk tradition I do believe, however, is the one where he says Buddhists think that the reason men become bald first on the top, or crown, of the head, is because that is where the spirit slips out at night for [what I would call] astral travel…naturally this disturbs the hair.

Spirit Houses

NagasRiotously colorful Thailand with its glam and glitter was such a relief to my spirit after conservative, boring, mono-chrome, unpainted Japan.

The spirit houses were part of it. Apparently when you disturb the land with construction, you must build a beautiful little house for the spirits you have bothered with your bulldozers. Lovely.

This book is an excellent resource for those who have traveled to, or are interested in, Thailand.


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