Thailand: The Land of Superstition
In western culture, superstitions are distinctly separate from daily life; instead, they are the stuff of ancient folklore and leather-clad books gathering dust on your grandparent’s bookshelves. However, in Thailand, superstitions, especially regarding luck, astrology, and the supernatural are tangible elements of everyday living: governing the movements and actions of Thai people everywhere.
This is a place where offering food to your resident ghost comes before brushing your teeth in the morning, and where those who eat dinner lying down will turn into a snake in this life or the next. While young people in Thailand often scoff at this particular example, there is an array of widely heeded superstitions that you’ll encounter - particularly as a teacher. Whether specific to the Thai classroom or the wider community you find yourself in, there are plenty of quirky beliefs to be aware of.
In 2017, Thai police officers were hurriedly dispatched to a village in Amnat Charoen province: where a malevolent female ghost known locally as Phi Pob had been scaring villagers for months. The locals were in despair: insisting that Pob was responsible for the deaths of four cows, and for causing four border police officers to fall ill.
Eventually, village leaders requested a police presence to “strengthen civilian morale, prevent panic, and boost residents’ confidence in living their daily lives”. With ghost-busting missions far from uncommon in Thailand, officers immediately began patrols to ward off the bitter-minded spirit.
After hearing this story, many Thai people would wonder what could’ve been done differently by this community to appease their unruly spirit; had they enlisted the help of a local animist Monk, or remembered to leave daily offerings at their spirit houses?
Spirit houses are the ubiquitous, often unassuming embodiments of Thailand's unwavering belief in the supernatural. The phi of Thai culture range from spirits taller than palm trees called Pret, to the frequently invoked rice ghost, but the most relevant are those that reside in the home.
Each building in Thailand: whether that be a school, 7/11, beach hut or airport has its own spirit of the land, or Phra Phum, that protects the property. However, as the ghosts of Thai culture are prone to mischievousness, each family must build a small, temple-esque spirit house as a place to make offerings just outside the home or business.
These ornate and colourful structures are designed to reflect whichever building they’re placed in front of: a farmer’s stilt house among the rice paddies will have a smaller, more humble spirit house than the ones located at Bangkok’s international airport (an ancient burial site). Much like dollhouses, they contain miniature figurines dutifully watching over the offerings, and animals representing the spirit’s means of transport. Depending on the family and their beliefs, these spiritual vehicles range from elephants and zebras to toy cars and planes.
Each spirit house should be elevated enough to demand respect, but low enough to provide a platform for daily offerings: which usually consist of things the spirits would’ve enjoyed in life. While one phi is kept happy with bottles of red Fanta and choco pies, another is appeased with bygone-era snacks such as bags of betel nut gum.
Despite efforts to pacify the ghouls that roam The Land of Smiles, a few cannot be bribed and continue targeting the living. Many Thais believe that babies and infants are particularly vulnerable to being stolen away by evil spirits: with countless tales on the lips of Thai elders. These reports claim that the cuter the baby, the more likely they are to be spirited away.
As a preventative measure, new parents must arm their children with a nickname branding them as ugly or unpleasant to confuse the spirits. So if you’re a kindergarten teacher in Thailand, don’t be alarmed when mothers refer to their adorable children as nakliat (ugly), ouan (fat), or my personal favourite: gob (frog) - it’s just an expression of love.
Numerology and Lucky Numbers
Numbers flit past us countless times each day and in myriad ways: from phone numbers, addresses, dates, times, and measurements. While in the western world, we might briefly acknowledge Friday the 13th for its spooky history, this number is considered so unlucky in Thai culture that elevators miss it out entirely: replacing it with 12A.
And it doesn’t stop there: in Thailand and other Asian countries, business owners create entire marketing strategies based on the auspicious rating of specific numbers. Here, someone buying a car will pay a premium price for a plate containing multiple lucky digits.
What makes one number luckier than the next often relates closely to its word association. As the Thai language is homophone-heavy, many words may look or sound phonetically similar and are set apart by subtle tonal variations.
For example, the number 9 (kao) is a homophone for the Thai phrase “to move forward”: pronounced “kaw-nah”. This symbolizes progression, prosperity, and the ability to surpass hardships in life: meaning the owner of this number (if it’s present in their birthday or phone number) is unlikely to stagnate.
The auspicious strength of this number is maximised by another phonetic association: Kao being the word for both “rice” and the phrase “let’s go eat!” (gin kao!”). Given that Thais express love, friendship, compassion, and all other positive emotions through food, this makes number 9 the country’s most coveted numeral. It’s unsurprising then, that a license plate including “9999” is worth over 11 million Thai Baht, which is around a quarter of a million British pounds.
The number 5 is another example of Thai numerals and phonetics combining to enhance luck. In this case, the pronunciation of 5: “ha” has a direct oxymoronic relationship to the sound of laughter. This means the lucky owner of a number 5, whether in their birth date, phone number, height, or weight, is destined to have a life filled with happiness and joy.
Superstitions Surrounding Colour
While the ancestors of my Thai students rarely decided the outcome of my day: the colour of my clothing certainly had the power to. In Thailand, the hue of your outfit can raise a few eyebrows, not because the locals are judging your sense of fashion, but because you might be wearing an unlucky colour for that particular day of the week.
Despite being an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation, some of Thailand’s epistemology comes from Hindu beliefs. While a mere 0.08% of Thais currently practise Hinduism, the various gods and goddesses have been nestled in the periphery of Thai culture for 2,000 years since they arrived from southern India.
In ancient times, such religions proposed a connection between colours, astrology, and the planetary bodies ruled over by certain gods or goddesses. This is combined with the old Thai tradition stating that gods and angels (Thewada) influence our day-to-day lives. And so, the colours associated with each day and deity influence our thoughts, actions, and whether we succeed in our endeavours.
Sunday: Red – According to history, the highest God in Hinduism, Phra Isuan, captured six lions and grounded them with powder. Afterwards, he wrapped a red cloth over them and sprinkled Nam Amarit, which is known as a holy powder, thus creating the Sun. Contrasting colours such as blue are considered unlucky for this day.
Monday: Cream or yellow - After creating the Sun, Phra Isuan is believed to have captured fourteen angels, who he turned into power to absorb their powers. Afterwards, he wrapped them all with yellow cloth and made the Moon. On this day, red should be avoided.
Tuesday: Pink - Pink is known as being the creation of Mars. Phra Isuan was believed to have caught eight buffaloes that he turned into powder: creating the new planet by wrapping them in light red clothes. On this day, yellow and white shouldn’t appear in your outfit.
Wednesday: Green for daytime and grey for nighttime - On Wednesday, Phra Isuan rounded seventeen elephants and wrapped them in a green leaf, thus creating Pluto. This is also the day of the lord Buddha, which means its unlucky colour red should be especially avoided.
Thursday: Orange or brown - Phra Isuan captured nineteen hermits and wrapped them in orange, creating Jupiter. Strangely enough, its complimentary colour, orange, is considered unlucky on this day.
Friday: Light blue - When creating Venus, Phra Isuan captured twenty-one bullocks and wrapped them in blue. The colour to avoid on this day is black, or you’re in for an unlucky weekend.
Saturday: Purple or black - On Saturday, Phra Isuan caught ten tigers and wrapped them in purple cloth to create the planet Saturn. It’s considered inauspicious to wear green on this day.
Nowhere is this elaborate system more closely followed than in the Thai school system. In my first week of teaching, I remember being increasingly perplexed as, with each day that went by, yet another colour appeared in the uniform spectrum: a pigmented reminder that I had limited knowledge of Thai etiquette.
However, once you realize that life in the land of smiles follows a set of superstitions, ranging from the spirits of the dead to the colour of your socks, much of the confusion you once had will lift. While with each passing year, Thailand’s skyscrapers double in size in the global race to become the most modern nation, its folkloric foundations remain intact. Here, the lines separating luck from ill fortune are clearly drawn, but those that divide the living and the dead are frequently smudged.