Anyone who has traveled in Thailand has probably noticed a little “toy house” near most buildings. Those are spirit houses. Thailand is a Buddhist country, but the Thais have retained quite a few of their animistic beliefs that stem from pre-Buddhist times. So Thai Buddhism is mixed with a spirit based religion.
The Thais hardly ever talk about their spirit beliefs with foreigners. It is almost like a well kept secret, and the only obvious evidence is the omni-present spirit house. The idea is that there are spirits everywhere, and some like to cause trouble for the humans. Therefore they have to be appeased so that they leave the humans alone. One way of doing that is to build them a separate little miniature home which is just for them only.
Every morning you can see the Thais making offerings of water, food, incense and flowers to the spirits at their little house. Ideally that keeps them away from the main building where the humans live.
But not all spirits are trouble makers. They can also help the humans if they get their offerings and proper respect. The spirits in their spirit house can keep unwanted intruders away, they can help the humans stay healthy and they can help them with money issues too. The Thais ask the spirits for protection, good relationships, better jobs, greater wealth, a prettier girlfriend and a host of other requests.
If the spirits are treated properly they can be very beneficial, but if they are neglected, watch out! Trouble is headed your way.
The belief in spirits and ghosts is deeply ingrained in Thai culture and all kinds of maladies and problems are attributed to such entities. However spirits and ghosts are not the same. Spirits are considered as higher entities than ghosts. The Thais have had a fear of ghosts bred into them from childhood on. When Thai parents want to keep their children away from some place, they generally scare them with ghost stories. This fear tends to stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Thai ghosts can be quite nasty. They can grab you at your throat, they can attack you and they can make you sick. They can make you lose your money, your health and your wife. Many Thais insist that they have seen ghosts, and the media does their part by running ghost stories that reinforce those beliefs.
The good spirits can also protect the humans from the bad ghosts. Presumably there must be some spirit-ghost conflicts going on. Non-Thais generally never pick up on this part of Thai culture and belief system. When you ask Thais about this subject, they will mostly evade it or deflect it.
The installation of a spirit house is not just a matter of putting it somewhere. Every Thai village has a spirit specialist who has to find the right spot, conduct a ceremony, chant the proper mantras, and set up the appropriate protection for the human’s house.
The young urban generation of the major cities is leaning more towards western values and they often try to break away from those traditional beliefs. But the majority of the Thai population is firmly entrenched in the web of interaction between humans and spirits and ghosts that heavily influences their lives.