Spirit houses 2

Spirit houses in their natural habitat.

In my quest to find out where spirit houses come from, I started with a visit to the website of K.T. Spirit House (http://www.kt-spirithouse.com). Unfortunately, the store is located far outside Bangkok, and the proprietors didn’t answer my email. I considered heading out and taking my chances, but then I found a store in town that sells spirit houses, and the woman running it spoke English so I didn’t have to struggle with Thai to explain my interest. In response to my first question, she told me that hers are made from molded poured concrete, but when I asked whether I could see the factory where the houses are made, she grew cagey and said no, not unless I was buying one.

Fortunately, I remembered seeing a plot of land filled with spirit houses on my first weekend in Bangkok, so I returned there. This is Chokenumsin, a factory that makes spirit houses, Buddhist shrines, and other stone outdoor furnishings. The second-generation owner of Chokenumsin, K. Siriwong Chuwonganant, showed me around the factory, all the while probably wondering why this crazy American with bad Thai language skills wanted to see how spirit houses were made.

Chokenumsin makes the majority of its spirit houses from poured concrete, using fiberglass molds to form the individual pieces, and then putting the pieces together. The shop works in other materials as well, including glass and wood, but the concrete ones are by far the most popular.

Lots of small san pra phum ready to come off the shelf; then you have to buy the people and animals to put in them.

There will be more on this topic later.

Spirit houses 1

Spirit houses, which one sees in front of many houses and businesses in Thailand, are the local version of the Greek proskinitaria that I documented in my book (copies of which, ahem, are still available). Unlike proskinitaria, however, spirit houses, or san pra phum, are intended to provide a home for spirits that could otherwise create trouble for the property owners if they are not cared for and given offerings of flowers or food. Although the Thais are predominantly Buddhist, their culture still reflects an earlier time when animism played an active role in people’s thinking. Hence, every place has spirits that need to be appeased to maintain good fortune. A local tour guide explained that, for example, if someone has an argument with a co-worker at the office, he might go to the san pra phum outside and ask the spirits to stop stirring up trouble.

Spirit houses are generally in the form of a miniature temple, and are sometimes peopled with miniature worshippers and animals. They are placed on a dais or pillar in an auspicious location, usually one chosen in consultation with a Brahmin priest. (There is a separate type of structure called a san ta yai, literally “grandfather-grandmother house,” for the spirits of the people who used to live at the site. They have four legs rather that one, and stand lower than the san pra phum.)

Opulent or plain, there’s a spirit house to fit the budget of every spirit.
A san pra phum and a san ta yai stand side-by-side. Detail on the spirit house figurines. Larger ones have more people and animals.

There are many articles, such as this one, that provide more information on spirit houses: for example, the property owner has to choose the right date during only certain moon phases to invite the spirits into their house, and the type of protection that the spirit house offers depends on the type of wood used in its construction. I also read that the bottles of strawberry Fanta that one sees in front of some spirit houses is a modern-day replacement for the blood of animals that people used to sacrifice to the spirits. Others say that the spirits are vegetarians and don’t want blood, but they do like sweets, and red is a lucky color. I’ll avoid taking sides in this debate; personally, I prefer grape Fanta. But I digress.

Left side: a substitute for animal sacrifice. Right side: not so much.

Spirit houses are photographed and written about by every tourist who comes to Bangkok, so I won’t add to the supply of spirit house-related pixels available on the internet, as such; however, I haven’t seen much about where spirit houses come from, so I’m going to look at that.

Next(-ish): part 2