With thanks to Flyonzewall for providing additional information.
Even though the vast majority of Thais are Buddhist, animistic beliefs are still a big part of daily life for a big portion of the Thais; especially (though not exclusively) the lower educated ones. I would say that most Thais are superstitious up to a certain degree. While some may belief in ghosts and dreams unquestioningly, others may not really believe in all this superstition, but try to err on the safe side, "just to make sure".
There are many different forms of 'magic' and supernatural beliefs: animist-buddhist, brahmanist (a lot of the court ceremonies are performed by brahmins, like the famous plowing ceremony for example) and purely animist. Many regions also have their own very distinct forms nowhere else found.
Whatever the origin though these beliefs can, and often do, greatly influence decisions like whether or not to move to a new house or what is the best day to get married, but also more mundane stuff like predicting the winning lottery numbers.
A lot of the superstition is linked to dreams, and many people belief that dreams can, and do, tell you what is in store for you in the future. Every dream seems to have a meaning, and certain aspects in the dream are linked to aspects/events in real life, for instance dreaming about a snake chasing you means someone likes you, while dreaming about losing a tooth means that a relative might die soon.
Most people know the meaning of the important dream images, and for the more obscure one there are dozens of books one can consult. These books will also tell you which numbers are associated with the dream images you have seen, which of course is great for playing the lottery :)
It is also believed that the dead, and especially dead relatives and friends, communicate by entering dreams. They may use dreams to warn you of impending danger, or ask for certain items/food, which can be given by donating the items to a temple in the deceased's name.
Thailand is riddled with ghosts and spirits, or "phii" (rising tone), some are good, some are bad. Some of these ghosts are the souls of death people which have not yet passed to the afterlife, but often 'phii' will refer to what we in the West may call spirits. These spirits are more unique entities, rather than the 'remains' of people, and are usually associated with something, a tree, a rock, an animal, etc.
For example, "phii khluay taa nii" is a spirit of a beautiful woman in a Thai dress that lives inside a banana tree and who comes out at night. Men seeing her will run over to hug her, but she runs back into the tree and the guy ends up hugging the tree.
Also, when nature calls and there is no alternative to using the countryside, try avoiding the old, big trees. Apologize to the spirit and explain that 'you are sorry, but that there is no alternative'.
Not all the spirits are so benevolent though; "phii pop" are evil spirits who live among the people. During the day, they seem like a normal person, but at night they go in search of food (they are said to love chicken). While out searching their body stays in bed, but they take their head with them. They tend to avoid people, but may use clothes that are outside to wipe the blood of their mouth. If a person would boil this cloth, the spirit will come running over because it hurts their stomach. They will then do anything you want to make you stop boiling the cloth.
Another ghost is referred to as the "widow ghost". She supposedly searches for a husband and sometimes takes men while they are sleeping. When men die in there sleep it is sometimes attributed to this widow ghost taking them.
To fool the ghost, men who have been scared by a suspicious death, may resort to disguising themselves as women.
In the old days almost everything in the daily life of Thai people was dominated by these spirit believes, even the architecture and direction of houses. For example, banyan trees were never planted next to houses, as they are said to be easily possessed by spirits. Broken Buddha figurines are said to be unlucky, and are disposed under a banyan tree in a temple. Look at many banyan trees, they are all around Thailand dressed in some cloth, incense is placed under them. All of that is done to placate the spirit housed in the tree.
This is just one of the many rules for a wide variety of different plants.
Nowadays, though, these kinds of spirits, both good and evil, are not really common anymore, certainly not in the cities.
Ghosts of dead people are more still very common though. It takes 3 days before a person knows he or she is dead. The ghost will then return home to collect the clothes and other personal belongings he/she needs for the afterlife. They will also talk to the living, but the living can neither see nor hear them. Dogs, on the other hand, are said to be able to see them and it is said that when a dog howls he is seeing ghosts.
These ghosts are almost always benign.
A very famous example of a ghost returning to the living is the story of Ngarn Ngak. Ngarn Ngak is the ghost of a woman who died while her husband was away fighting a war. Upon his return she continues taking care of him, her husband does not know. Other people however do, and they try to tell him, but she scares away all of them. (For a more detailed story check: http://www.thaifolk.com)
Her body is said to be laid to rest at Wat Mahabut, in Prakanong, Bangkok, and it attracts a lot of visitors every day.
Whenever a house is build, the spirits of the land are disturbed, so a spirithouse (san phra prom) is build for them, in an attempt to pacify the spirits so they will not haunt the house. Spirithouses are shrines in the shapes of houses, and may contain figurines.
Regular offers of incense, fruit, water, garlands, etc. are made to the spirits to please them and guarantee the safety of the house.
These spirithouses are very common, and just about every house/office has one.
A very famous spirithouse is the one next to the Grand Hyatt Erewan. During the building of the hotel, there were a lot of accidents and other setbacks, so a monk was called in. He said that a spirithouse was required to please the spirits in the area. After it was build, the accidents stopped and work continued on schedule. The spirithouse, called the Erewan Shrine, has since become very busy, attracting worshippers from all over the city.
Spirithouses aren't the only form of evidence of superstition though, many of the Thai-style buildings have two "gah-lae" sticking out of the roof (the wing-like decorations). These "gah-lae" are meant to ward off evil spirits.
Little mirrors, usually decorated with various symbols, serve the same purpose, but I think this is more a Chinese custom than a Thai one.
Closely linked to ghosts is also the topic of possession. In some areas in Thailand, families have their own family guardian spirits. They are usually consulted through family mediums who are advising people in trance. One kind of family spirit is always kept secret though, it is the "phii kin kon" ('ghost who eats people). A family who has this protective spirit has to observe some very special rules, and people marrying into a family having this spirit as a guardian are said not to have a very long life.
And when haunted houses need exorcising, specially trained people are called in, who with the aid of a tool called "mai song" can pin point the graves of people. During those ceremonies some protective deities are moving into the "mai song", and possess the arms of the handlers (there are always two). The exorcism is an enormously energetic activity, where the spirits are exorcised with a lot of noise and running around.
Many of the ceremonies performed in Thailand have some underlying animistic beliefs. The tying of white, or colored, strings around the wrists of visitors for instance. By tying these strings the giver wishes the receiver happiness and good fortune. A string-tying ceremony is part of most (all?) Thai traditional weddings.
Another ceremony is the "gae bon". When an oath is made, that when some wish comes true, the ancestors have to be presented with a pig's head and some sweets in a short ceremony early in the morning. In the old days often a Buddha, usually called "buccha" Buddhas, was carved and placed in a temple or cave as well.
Another very common form of superstition are spells and charms. Look around you and you will see many of them, usually in the form of Buddha amulets or special tattoos.
Most of the Buddha amulets are worn (or glued to dashboards) as a good-luck charm, not that much different from a Catholic wearing a cross. However, there are special ones, usually with the image of a certain revered monk, which supposedly protect the wearer from specific dangers.
The amulets are manufactured by mixing a lot of different plants and herbs together; the most powerful ones are when the ashes of a dead famous monk are mixed into them. Fairly common is also the use of a little bone fragment of a dead parent as an amulet.
"Palad kick" (amulets shaped like a penis) are very well known, and highly collectible amulets. They are usually worn by men around the waist, and are used to attract women. They are made of wood, buffalo horn, clay or ivory.
For more information check out: http://www.luckymojo.com/penisamulets.html.
Similar to these "palad kick" are the very distinct black magic/love charms, the so called "ai ngan i boe". They are extremely explicit sexual amulets showing couples in almost any imaginable sexual position, and are used to attract the opposite sex. A women trying to break up relationship will for example place such a figure, which she obtained from a 'moh pii' in the bed of a couple she wants to break up. A prostitute might place a figurine in her bra to attract customers. Men might wear them around their waste to attract some women.
The most powerful ones are said to be from Surin/Cambodia. While they were very common in the old days, they are not used much anymore.
Finally, another very powerful, very rare amulet against ghosts is a Chinese "paa yan" given out at some of the very gruesome Chinese graveyard festivals. While wearing them a few rules have to be observed: no alcohol, no meat from cows, turtles, frogs, elephants as well as some other animals.
Belief in non-existent things is common in Thailand such as tattoos designs known to have power against devilish elements.
The tattoos, or "sak yan" ('magic tattoo'), are something a bit mystic though. They are often applied in a temple by a man, called a "khruu" (teacher), who uses a long (roughly 2 foot) metal stick. The tattoo is made by tapping the top of the metal stick, which causes the pointed tip to break the skin and insert the ink. During the process the tattoo artist chants an incantation to weave the magic into the tattoo.
The tattoos usually consist of sacred images (animals, Buddhas or temples) as well as a written part, and can be placed on just about any part of the body depending upon the type of blessing it is supposed to give.
Finally, there are the 'voodoo' type spells, for which the province of Surin (next to the Cambodian border) is famous. According to the Thai folklore, the people from Surin are very adapt at making potions that when mixed through the food or drink of a person will cause the victim to be very susceptible to the wishes of the person giving him the potion.
The most common use of this seems to be women giving it to men, these men will then fall in love with the woman and she will take all their money before moving on to the next. Yes, that's right, love potions!
Whereas I seriously doubt this works, there are a lot of Thais who will swear to it that they do. And they all seem to know someone who lost a husband (or a wife) to these potions.
Mia nois (minor wifes) are said to use these spells as well, in order to take away the man from the mia luang (major wife).
What they will do is take a sanitary napkin with menstrual blood, burn it and mix the ashes with the food of the victim. The longer the man will eat these ashes the more he will forget his mia luang.
Another method involves a "phoo moo" (a kind of fortune teller/witchdoctor). The phoo moo will make two dolls (one female, one male) using nails, hair and a picture of the people involved. These dolls are then tied together, facing each other, with white string and then buried in the ground beneath the house. This will keep the man at home.
Fortunately, using these spells is not without consequences. Using it for vile purposes, like putting a spell on someone with the intent of making them do your bidding, will have serious repercussions for your next incarnation for instance.
BTW, if you ever get something from a Surin girl which you think is suspect, move it under your leg 3 times to break the spell :)
Besides the aforementioned superstitions, lots of Thais belief in the more traditional superstitions, like walking under a ladder is bad luck. Most of these, like their Western counterparts have no real explanation, and can be very much 'out there'. One of the weirdest ones I have heard is that you are not supposed to cut your hair on Wednesday! And no, I don't have a clue as to why you should not.
What is surprising is that there are a lot of these superstitions related to relationships, giving you girlfriend certain gifts cause the relationship the break up.
Here are the ones I have heard of:
Don't give your girlfriend:
- earrings; if she loses one, you will break up
- a watch/clock; your time together is over
- shoes; they may cause her to walk away
- a handkerchief; you are giving her something to cry in, because you are breaking up
- a knife; you are cutting ties
- perfume; she smells bad (get around this one by having her 'pay' for it, 5 Baht will do)
Unfortunately, there are no taboos about giving gold, cars or condos :)
Obviously not all the folklore superstitions center around relationships.
For example, if you meet some people who have just been talking about you, you are said to have a long life. And if you sneeze, it means that someone is talking about you.
Not all of the folklore beliefs are good though, for instance if you talk about something bad happening before it happens, it is more likely to happen. So, if you go on a trip don't say stuff like "I hope the bus won't crash" or "I hope we won't miss the plane".
This belief is also the reason that when Thais look at a newborn baby they always say how ugly he/she is. If people would say the baby is beautiful, it might anger the spirits who would then take the baby. Giving the baby a nickname is also done to avoid attention from evil spirits.
Oh, and to all you bearded guys out there, facial hair is seen as a sign of dishonesty.
A big significance is also put on numbers. For instance, have you ever wondered why all the Thai TV Channels have odd numbers? The answer is fairly simple, even numbers are considered bad luck.
For this same reason you will never see anybody burn an even amount of incense sticks, or wear an even amount of Buddha amulets.
The number 9 though is considered very good, because its pronunciation is very close to the Thai word for 'exceed' (as in 'more than'). For this reason dowries (or bride-prices I suppose) tend to end in a number of 9s, with each 9 increasing the meaning of the original number.
Whereas the number 9 is considered good, the number 6 is considered a bad luck number. The Thai word for 6 is the same as the word for 'dropping'. So, while 9 will increase the effect of the initial number, a 6 will decrease it.
Just as with 'normal' numbers, a lot of importance is associated with dates, and especially birthdates, and for most important events, a specific date is determined. These events range from weddings and religious ceremonies, to the buying of a house or a car.
Monks are usually the ones who, with the aid of a lunar calendar, determine the date for these events.
Color too, plays a role in the superstition in Thailand. It is believed that if you dress with the color synchronized with the day, it will bring you good luck. The colors listed below are appropriate for each day:
- Color of Monday is Yellow.
- Color of Tuesday is Pink.
- Color of Wednesday is Green.
- Color of Thursday is Orange.
- Color of Friday is Blue.
- Color of Saturday is Purple.
- Color of Sunday is Red.
Black is not a lucky color for conservative people. If you go to a party of Thais with an average age over 40 years, please avoid dressing in black. People reserve the black color for funerals. However, if you go to a party of the younger generation, black is trendy. The best way is to ask the host.
I am fairly certain that I have only scratched the surface when it comes to superstition, and will most likely never get a true understanding of what drives these beliefs, especially since I am neither religious nor superstitious.
Nevertheless, I hope that this has been useful and I would welcome any feedback.
(C) Khun Sanuk. All rights reserved by the author.