Thailand – Southeast Asia’s Land of Spellbinding Superstitions and Bewitching Beliefs
By: Edward Alan Kurtz
I have lived in Thailand since 2005. Every day I experience something new and curious: what is that?
From extreme examples of food to “The Floating Nun,” the superstitions and beliefs of this unique and sometimes odd country reveal themselves to those of us who are interested in Thai culture.
Language in Thailand
Thailand is located at the crossroads of several cultures. If the Thai language is reflective of Thai culture, consider the number of languages from which the Thai language finds its roots. Also consider how a culture like the Thai culture is an outgrowth of this language combination, and this includes superstitions and beliefs.
So we must first come to an understanding of the origins of the Thai language as it is directly related to aspects of Thai culture. The Thai language is a combination of the following languages:
1. Classical Sanskrit is a Middle Indo-Aryan language native to the Indian subcontinent, and is the ancient mother language of several other subcontinent languages such as Hindi.
2. Pali, also known as Magadhan, is another language that comes from the Indian subcontinent. This language is important because of its use in the religious texts of Hinduism and all texts of Theravada Buddhism, one of two branches of Buddhism (the other, Mahayana, practiced in northeast Asia).
3. Chinese: there are many Thais of Chinese descent, and the dynasty of the current royal family was founded by Rama I who was partly Chinese. There is strong evidence of Chinese influence in everyday life in Thailand: for example, Chinese New Year is one of three New Years celebrated annually in Thailand (Western New Year on 1 January; Chinese New Year based on the lunar calendar and occurring between 21 January and 20 February; and the Thai New Year called Songkran.
The name, incidentally, comes from a Sanskrit word – which is based on the Hindu calendar and usually takes place in mid-April to recognize the beginning of the rainy season, obviously an important part of the water-based and rice-based countries in Southeast Asia like Thailand.)
Languages of the indigenous people
4. The languages of the indigenous people such as Mon, a non-tonal language today spoken mostly in Western Thailand, and the principle language of the speakers who were responsible for the spread of Theravada Buddhism; and old Khmer which had been influenced at first by the ancient Sanskrit and Pali languages, and later by other languages such as Cham, Vietnamese, and Lao.
It is important to note that the old Khmer language was the earliest written and recorded language in the Khmer-Mon family of languages mostly due to the empires such as the Angkor empire.
The Austronesian Language
5. The final language that helps to make the Thai language what it is, will come as a surprise to some readers: the Austronesian Language. Equally surprising is the fact that this language is the fifth-largest language spoken in the world.
It is spoken in areas such as Southeast Asia, Madagascar, the Pacific Ocean islands, and continental Asia.
Why is an understanding of the origin of the Thai language so important? It is because it holds the key to unlocking the box of cultural characteristics of the Thai people, and this includes their superstitions and their beliefs.
Many of these characteristics find their origin in the places from which the languages came. These languages coalesced over hundreds of years, and with them came aspects of their cultures, many of which became a part of Thai culture.
Luck and Greeting in Thailand
If you were restricted to one word in order to describe Thai culture, it would be luck. All Thai superstitions and beliefs revolve around this one word: luck.
Naturally you, as a Thai, want good luck to come your way; and you want to do whatever you can to avoid bad luck knocking at your door.
Good luck starts with how you greet a fellow human being. In Thai culture it is called a “wai.” Hands are placed in a prayer position in front of the face, a little bow, a little smile, and a little phrase of greeting.
The size of these gestures depends on the social standing of the people who are doing the “waiing.”
A common Thai’s wai would be much more noticeable than the government official being waied. And the government official’s gesture would be more subtle.
The higher the hands, the more respect is being shown.
Monks and Temples in Thailand
Having good luck and merit-making are nearly synonymous. If you wake up early in the morning, between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m., you will see Buddhist monks, led by the eldest monk, walking single file along the street, usually near a temple.
Dressed in their well-known saffron colored robes, they hold a large metal bowl with a lid. They walk barefoot to keep connected to the ground, a Buddhist belief in the importance of staying connected with nature.
It is strictly forbidden for a woman to touch a monk. On any form of public transportation, Thai people will rearrange themselves so that a new passenger, a monk, will not sit next to a woman.
A Thai will kneel on the street as a monk passes by. The Thai gives the monk alms of steamed rice, prepared food from street vendors, juice, fruit, and other food. By giving these things to the monk, he blesses the alms-giver (i.e., good luck).
There are many temples (wats) all over Thailand. People are expected to take off their shoes before entering a temple, and expected to step over, not on, the threshold. Some people wash their feet before entering a temple.
Appropriate attire is required. People generally walk clockwise around a temple or any Buddhist monument.
After tossing a coin into an offering box, Thai people pray to a statue of Buddha. Some pray at more than one altar, leaving incense at each one.
Thai Ghost Superstitions and Bewitching Beliefs
The Thai will also pour a little water into some nearby soil to share the merit or goodness with the Earth and everyone and everything around the watered soil. That includes deities and ghosts.
If a Thai opens a bottle of soda or beer, they always pour a small amount from the top of the container on to the ground. Another way of sharing their merit and goodness to any deity or ghost that might be hanging around the area.
In a related belief, our greed and cravings are represented by hungry ghosts. By offering the ghosts a little of something the Thai craves, the greed and craving will be replaced by thinking of other people.
Ghosts play another role in Thai culture: they give Thai people winning lottery numbers. Some Thais go to specific places, like a haunted tree, which “hints” at the winning number. Dreams also play a role in lottery numbers.
Spirit Houses in Thailand
Also related to ghosts and spirits are the spirit houses that are seen on the land of most properties.
This is not Buddhism: this is animism which goes back much further in history than Buddhism.
It is considered quite natural to practice animism with Buddhism and other Asian religions at the same time.
The idea of the spirit house is that everything on the property has a spirit. By disturbing the trees and rocks, etc., you must erect a spirit house on the property to appease the spirits who were disturbed.
On a regular basis, the offerings of a glass of water, flowers, incense, and other items are placed on a ledge of the spirit house.
It’s a way of saying, “Sorry we bothered you. Here: have a glass of soda.”
More Unusual Thai Superstitions and Beliefs
An amulet is a “votive table” that has been blessed by a Buddhism monk. To receive an amulet, you must donate money to the temple. Inside the amulet is a very small “statue” of one of many famous monks; the amulet is attached to some kind of cord or beads and is worn as a necklace.
The purpose of amulets varies widely, but they all have to do with good luck. They are meant to help the wearer with such issues as love, wealth (mostly wealth), marriage, and health. There are many fakes, so it takes an expert to determine the authenticity of the amulet.
Like many Thai superstitions and beliefs, amulets come with a set of rules.
Take it off when you shower. Leave it outside the bedroom if you’re going to have sex. Pray before putting it on and after taking it off. Wear it above the waist, preferably around the neck.
Tattoos in Thailand
Unlike foreigners who have any and all kinds of tattoos drilled into any and all parts of their bodies, tattoos made by Buddhist monks and magic practitioners represent specific things. It is officially referred to as “yantra tattooing” and was introduced by the Khmer people during their heyday.
Buddhist spiritual tattoo designs consist of things such as animal, geometrical patterns, and deity tattoos with Pali words meant to give the bearer (or the tortured) benefits like wealth, power, protection, etc.
The Thais believe that the tattoos produce good luck, protection, and mystical and magical powers. There are certain tattoos that give the bearer very specific protection.
For example, the tattoo that wards off evil: police, gangsters, military, and taxi drivers favor this tattoo. Thais believe that their tattoo’s power begins to fade after some time. To remedy this they attend a ritual which re-empowers the tattoo.
There is one other issue that the soon-to-be-tattooed Thai must consider: at which location is the tattoo process going to take place. There are several locations that are considered extra lucky places. They are Wat Bang Phra in Nahon Chai Is District; Wat Nhong Khem in San Patong; and Sak Wat Chiang Mai (“sak” is Thai for tattoo).
Good Luck Symbols
Early Buddhist good luck symbols include lotus flower; the Bodhi Tree, an ancient sacred fig tree where Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment and from thereon was called Buddha; the heart shaped leaves of the Bodhi Tree; the Dharma wheel with its eight spokes; the monks’ begging bowls called “trishulas;” the diamond (vajra); the deer; the lion; and the riderless horse.
Another important good luck symbol is the stupa. This is a mound like structure that is in the shape of a hemisphere and contains relics of Buddhist monks or nuns. It is used as a place for meditation.
The Buddhist tradition is to walk at least three times clockwise around the stupa to show respect.
Lucky and Unlucky Numbers
The number nine is considered to be a very lucky number. For example, wealthy Thais are known to pay exorbitant prices for a license plate with many number nines in it because it is associated with long life and progress.
The number three is also considered to be lucky. Three times three is nine, thus the great luck of the number nine. There is one license plate in Thailand that contains five number nines. The last time it was sold, the buyer paid US$354,800!
This doesn’t just apply to license plates or phone numbers. At Thai Buddhist ceremonies, nine monks are always invited to attend. This also happens when a Thai opens a new business: inviting nine monks means the business will be a great success.
In addition to the number of monks, Thais also seek the help of a monk to determine the most auspicious time and day for a ceremony: 9 September at 9:09 a.m. would be a very lucky time.
But the luckiest day was 9 September 2009 (09-09-09). On that day many couples got married; many businesses opened; pregnant women tried to give birth; and music albums and movies were released. At 9:00 a.m. students in all schools over Thailand stood and sang the national anthem.
The Chinese believe that the number seven is unlucky. The Japanese believe that the number four is unlucky. And the Thais tend to feel the same.
Thai people believe that the owl symbolizes wisdom. Yet Thais from the northern part of the country consider it bad luck and a symbol of death: this is an animistic belief.
Nokkhaophika is a kind of ghost that is well-known in northern Thailand. Its symbol is the owl. Local Thais in the north believe that if a ghost visits their village during the night, the owls will cry out in an unnatural way.
Festivals and Holidays in Thailand
Chinese New Year usually occurs sometime in January and February. Songkran is the Thai New Year and marks the beginning of the rainy season which continues until November. This does not mean that it rains every day all day.
About 14% of Thailand’s population is Chinese, and many people identify themselves as Thai-Chinese. Chinese New Year celebrations are impressive especially in Chinatown in Bangkok.
Red is the color for Chinese New Year also known as Spring Festival. The date changes each year as it is based on the lunar calendar rather than the Western calendar.
Red lanterns hang above the streets; people wear traditional and nontraditional red clothes. There are dragon parades, acrobatic dancers, lots of firecrackers, and, of course, Chinese food.
There are also things that are happening in private. Families clean their houses: visiting families will arrive for dinner the night before Chinese New Year. They pray to the gods and pay respect to their ancestors. Parents give children beautiful red envelopes containing money and wish them good luck for the new year.
After all the celebrations on Chinese New Year Day, the Thai Princess ends the parade and festival.
Buddhist Lent Day – Vassa – Rain Retreat
Many Westerners are surprised to learn that the Thais observe a Buddhist Lent Day and a three month Lenten period called Vassa, or “Rain Retreat.” This observation begins on the day in July when the full moon appears during the month of Asadha. It lasts for three lunar months during the rainy season from July to October. During this period monks stay in one place, either a monastery or a temple. They spend most of their time in meditation.
Just like the Western Lenten season, some Buddhists give up certain things like meat, smoking, or drinking alcohol. The end of Vassa usually ends in mid-October. Then everything returns to normal. But everyone is looking forward to the next full moon.
Loy Krathong Festival Thailand
This is when Loy Krathong occurs and it is by far the most popular celebration in Thailand for Thai people and for visiting visitors. It signals the end of rainy season, although like Songkran, the rains don’t always follow the lunar calendar to the letter.
Everyone joins their family and friends near any body of water. The word, “Loy,” means to float. People make the “krathongs” which are small containers made out of banana leafs, decorated with three incense sticks and a candle. A coin is sometime added as an offering to the river spirits.
The krathongs are gently pushed out into the water where they float out into the distance. At the same time, hundreds or thousand of sky lanterns are released up into the sky: they are powered only by the heat from a single candle.
This fun festival is accompanied by fireworks and lots of food. The origin of this tradition came from an ancient rural ritual to show respect to the water spirits.
Thai Pregnancy Superstitions
Thailand has some very unusual beliefs when it comes to pregnancy. They belief that a soul goes into the woman’s womb during intercourse.
Once she knows for sure that she is pregnant she must tell her partner first; next her mother; and next her mother-in-law. If infertility is a problem it is blamed on an imbalance in one of the body’s essences. Specific acupressure points are thought to fix the problem.
In addition to the soul entering the woman’s womb, there is a ghost who haunts her in her home before and after having the baby. In rural areas the ghost flies around the house and shrieks to make the pregnant woman afraid.
This creepy ghost uses its long tongue to reach inside the woman’s womb. This and other unbelievable things are the explanation for problems during pregnancy.
The National Symbol of Thailand – The Elephant
The elephant was chosen as the national symbol of Thailand because of its longevity, durability, and strength. There are two kinds of elephants: African and Asian. The elephant has been used over the centuries to help fight against the Khmer, the Malays and the Burmese.
This lovable animal is celebrated every November in the city of Surin for the Surin Elephant Round-up. Here there are hundreds of elephants playing games including taking part in the King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament in Bangkok.
But there is a kind of elephant that Thai people believe is special: it is much revered. It is the white elephant.
The White Elephant
The white elephant is a symbol of royalty in Thailand. Its color is actually more pink than white. If any white elephant is born in Thailand, it must be given to the king.
Where did this tradition come from? In the Buddhist tradition, during the evening of Buddha’s birth, his mother had a spiritual dream. A white elephant gave a lotus flower to Buddha’s mother. This was the beginning of the traditional respect of the white elephant.
It even remained on the Siamese flag until the early 1900s. White elephants have only ever been used for royal duties because of their extreme rarity.
15 of the Stranger Superstitions and Beliefs in Thailand
Don’t leave your house if you hear a gecko. It is a sign that something bad will happen to you if you go out of your house.
Don’t plan to get your hair cut on a Wednesday – any Wednesday. It is considered bad luck and barber shops are closed. Where did this come from? The royals always got their hair cut on Wednesdays and so commoners were not allowed to do the same.
You are in luck if you eat the last piece of food on a shared plate with your friends, you will find a beautiful girlfriend or a handsome boyfriend.
If you have a dream about a snake wrapping itself around you, it means you will soon meet your soulmate. If you already have a soulmate, it means someone has a crush on you.
Count your blessings if your left eye twitches; you will have good luck, but if your right eye twitches you will have bad luck.
Single ladies should not sing while cooking or eating: it means you will end up with an old husband.
Honk your horn when you drive past a curve in the road or a shrine. Thais believe there might have been accidents here so you honk your horn to show respect to the souls living there.
Don’t point your finger at a rainbow, your finger will fall off.
Someone is missing you or talking about you if you sneeze.
Anyone shows up while you’re talking about them, will have a long life.
Ask a monk or fortune teller before you schedule your wedding or buy a new car or house.
A pregnant woman who sticks a piece of lemongrass into the ground will prevent rain from falling.
If a picture falls from the wall and the frame and glass break, you will die soon.
When you are eating noodles, don’t cut them. The longer they are, the longer you’ll live.
If you carry around a haunted doll called a “luk thep” that contains the spirit of a child, then you will become rich.
The Floating Nun
There is a temple called Wat Tham Mankhon Thong not far from Kanchanaburi, the location of the Kwai River, as in “The Bridge over the River Kwai,” in Western Thailand along the border with Myanmar.
At set times during the day, this enormous nun uses a stick to demonstrate how deep the water is.
She prayed or meditated before she got into the water. Then she floated there on her back and without movement. The audience was 99% Thai.
“The Floating Nun” of Wat Tham Mankhon Thong
Thailand’s nickname is the “Land of Smiles.” Perhaps Thailand’s nickname was not given to this mysterious country by foreigners as most people believe.
Instead, perhaps a Thai local or Thai locals gave Thailand its nickname as Thais are amused and thus smile at the bewildered look on foreigners’ faces as they stare, jaws dropped, at something they don’t understand, something that is just an everyday sight or event in the “Land of Superstitions and Beliefs.” Perhaps.
Written by: Edward Alan Kurtz