Some Thais trust spirits more than social distancing
Kitsana Phattharasirisap, a spiritual consultant (centre), prays during a consecration ceremony for a spirit house at a new condominium complex in Bangkok, May 18, 2020. (Adam Dean/The New York Times)
These spirits were not wearing face masks. They appeared well fed, untroubled by the hunger pangs that have afflicted some Thais during the lean times of a pandemic.
But despite the spirits being so coddled — or perhaps because of it — the spiritual adviser accompanying them looked nervous.
These spirits, or at least the pair of figurines representing them, were too tubby to fit through the door to their new spirit house at the Baan Pitak condominium in Bangkok.
For the next hour or so, incense and incantations swirled. A gong pierced the steamy air.
Then, holding his breath just a little, Kitsana Phattharasirisap, the spiritual adviser, rose to his tiptoes and nudged the statues through the intricately carved entry to their new abode. Magically, they fit. A diet of prayers had slimmed them down in under 60 minutes, he said.
“If you don’t believe,” Mr Kitsana said, “then it won’t work.”
Many Thais do believe in such spirits, and Mr Kitsana, 47, thinks this may help explain why the coronavirus pandemic has so far largely bypassed the country. The kingdom has recorded only about 3,130 cases of the virus, with 58 deaths, despite having had the first confirmed case outside of China.
“Thai people respect ghosts and spirits,” he said. “Every day we pray, and, you will notice, our country has not had many cases of coronavirus. The spirits listen to our prayers.”
In every crowded corner of Bangkok, whether by a tin-roofed shack, a glass-plated skyscraper or a marble-pillared government hall, there are said to be spirits who need placating. A coronavirus lockdown is no excuse.
The spirits also require spirit houses, which look like dollhouses mounted on pedestals. These range from a few pieces of plywood hammered together to create a miniature bungalow to gilded structures with ornate spires that cost tens of thousands of dollars. The figurines, sized to live inside, typically fit easily in the palm of a hand.
Spirit houses are common throughout Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, although the architecture differs by country. While not everyone believes, the practice is widely respected, and the houses are an ordinary and integrated part of Bangkok’s cityscape, like church spires in an American town.
All these spirits expect sustenance such as a bunch of bananas, a cooling coconut or a mound of sticky rice. The offerings are usually placed at the front of the spirit houses in the morning by homeowners or building staff members, along with incense and garlands of marigolds and jasmine. Ants or rats may raid in the afternoon.
The spirits are not unreasonable, said Nongrak Puwasawadi, a self-employed spirit communicator, who enters a trance and advises people on the spirits’ druthers. In times of economic crisis, they will scale back their expectations.
“Like now, with the coronavirus, they will be happy with a glass of water for refreshment,” said Ms Nongrak, 75. “But if it’s a more fortunate time, Kuman Thong would like a remote-controlled car.”
Kuman Thong, a young boy with a topknot and pantaloons, is one of the more popular spirits. Today, he is represented in spirit houses and on family altars by plastic dolls with cherubic features.
In an earlier era, his worship used to involve the preservation of stillborn babies with layers of lacquer. The practice of using foetuses in rituals has been outlawed but has still been seen in recent years.
Like many spirits, Kuman Thong favours certain brands, and he is especially fond of strawberry Fanta, according to Ms Nongrak.
“Red is a nicer colour than the brown of Pepsi,” she said.
In their houses, many spirit figurines come with entourages of servants, dancers and bestiary. There are the elephants and tigers native to the country, but also zebras. No one seems to know for certain why zebras, although some theorise it has to do with the safety associated with zebra-striped pedestrian crossings.
There are spirits that organise other spirits, and there are spirits that are standoffish. There are spirits that are evil, and it’s worth ensuring that the good spirits are on your side.
Some spirits live in trees, and the mightiest ficus trees are wrapped in multi-coloured sashes, with incense and sweetmeats placed among the roots.
The cosmology of spirits in Thailand — a Buddhist-majority nation with crosscurrents of Hinduism, Chinese ancestor worship and animism — is vast. Some spirits are family forebears. Others are demigods in the Hindu pantheon. Still others come with the land and stay on the land.
And this shared occupancy is something that developers and homeowners must contend with each time they build on the land.
It was early this year, as construction progressed, when the spirits of the Baan Pitak condominium made their unhappiness known. The former owners of the land — the human ones, that is — had built spirit houses. But they were, frankly, a bit plain. And they faced in the wrong direction.
The construction workers, who were living on-site, began receiving nightly visitations, they said. Two of them got sick and were convinced the spirits were to blame. The workers talked to the forewoman, the forewoman talked to the building manager, and the building manager talked to the landowners.
“I don’t believe in this stuff, but my wife does,” said Pitak Nopprapun, who owns the land with his wife. “I listen to my wife.”
The 34,000 baht ceremony to sanctify the new spirit houses took place on a particularly sticky day in late May. Almost everyone was dressed in white, even the spirits, although one spirit overlord figurine was decked out in gold, clutching his usual sword and pouch of money.
The spread laid out for the spirits, to ease their transition from one set of houses to the others, was sumptuous: papayas, bananas, tangerines, pineapples, watermelons, mangoes, coconuts, corn, taro, sweet potatoes, rose apples and, at the centre of it all, a pair of pig faces.
After the ceremony, the pig faces were given to the construction workers to eat, minus a chunk of one ear, which was sliced for an offering.
“I believe in science,” said Nutthikan Bunthanalaksamee, 29, the building manager, who was recording the ceremony with her cellphone. “But I respect people who have their beliefs.”
Kitsana, the master of ceremonies, is a one-stop spirit shop. In addition to communing with the spirits, he sells spirit real estate. His priciest cement spirit houses cost more almost 400,000 baht in a country where the average yearly income is about 250,000.
In a cobwebbed alley across the river from Bangkok’s old quarter, Puvisit Puwasawadi builds spirit houses out of aged teak. A third-generation builder, he’s unhappy with the proliferation of cement spirit houses.
Puvisit Puwasawadi, a traditional wooden spirit house maker, in his Bangkok workshop, April 29, 2020.
“Wood is natural,” said Mr Puvisit, 53. “The spirits don’t want to live in artificial homes.”
After World War II, Mr Puvisit’s neighbourhood was full of wood craftsmen, who used offcuts from a nearby sawmill to make about 100 spirit residences a day. Now it’s just Mr Puvisit; his sister, 54; and a 90-year-old aunt who carve each latticed eave and tiny shingle.
“Young people have forgotten about the spirits, but maybe with the coronavirus they will slow down and worship more often,” he said.
Their obsession with social media, all that careful tending of virtual spaces, he said, came at the expense of nurturing the spiritual realm.
“If you take care of the spirits,” Mr Puvisit said, “they will take care of you.”