A man sells balloons outside the Grand Palace in Bangkok, which was the official residence of the king of Thailand (formerly Siam) from 1782 to 1925. Sitting on the bank of the Chao Phraya River, the palace is still used for official functions and is a popular tourist attraction.
Bangkok – Been There

In Bangkok, the spirits rule

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Bangkok – Been There In Bangkok, the spirits rule

“You are a very lucky lady,” says the oddly calm, wide-eyed Indian man who has just walked into my favorite Bangkok coffee shop. It takes me a second to realize I’ve seen him before.

Cattleya Jaruthavee
Cattleya Jaruthavee Photojournalist

He and his fortune-telling counterparts usually congregate in Bangkok’s backpacker’s area where they make good business from island partygoers and hippy-esque youngsters. It seems their turf has expanded to the central business district, otherwise known as “Expat Ghetto”.

Here, blond-haired families and Japanese businessmen live, work and eat side by side with Thai aristocrats in their multi-generational family homes under the shadows of looming condominium blocks.

I brush off his approach while I sip my coffee but it starts me thinking about the way these pseudo fortune-tellers are now targeting the wider English-speaking market. I guess it makes sense; everyone else in Bangkok is in touch with the spirit world. Just follow your nose. The smell of burning incense fills the air everywhere you go in Bangkok, wafting through residential roads and cosmopolitan shopping arcades alike.

It comes from the spirit houses you can see outside every house and building in Bangkok, no matter where you go among the modern city of gleaming skyscrapers, hi-tech Skytrain and seemingly out-of-control shopping frenzy. They are for the spirits of the land, for those who have come before.

“A spirit house is a new home for the spirits displaced when a building is put up,” says my Thai friend Som. “It reassures people that the spirits are at rest, ensuring future peace and prosperity for those in the building, but also reminds people not to do anything that might offend them.” The doll-house-size spirit houses – red and gold if the owner is Thai-Chinese but other lucky colors depending on the owner’s astrological chart – sit on pillars and are inhabited by small figurines or a Buddha statue.

Their location is carefully chosen by a Brahman or a Buddhist monk to be as auspicious as possible, usually where it is easy for passers-by to make offerings of prayer, flowers or food. When it comes to building design, the placing of the spirit house trumps anything an architect might have planned.

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Although almost all Thais are Buddhists, a philosophy that decries superstition, the worship of spirit houses has roots in animism and the Hindu religion that arrived from India before Buddhism. Photo by Ian Buswell / Alamy

Ian Buswell

Ian Buswell

Agency
Alamy

Although almost all Thais are Buddhists, a philosophy that decries superstition, the worship of spirit houses has roots in animism and the Hindu religion that arrived from India before Buddhism.

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