During my early years in Thailand, I was invited to conduct some teacher-training in the southern province of Ranong. This was pretty exciting for me as it was my first foray off the main tourist tracks and into the real Thailand. My hosts kindly took me on a tour of the area: beautiful coastline with mangrove reserves and waters still frequented by smugglers; milky white rivers with hot-springs so warm you can cook food in them; and steep tropical mountains whose dense forests hide a few tigers and the remains of old tin mines. As we were winding up a hill to the Chinese grave of Ranong’s first governor (Phraya Rattanasetthi or Kho Su Chiang), our driver tooted his horn three times at one of the many blind corners. ”Letting oncoming cars know we are coming: very sensible,” I remarked. My hosts chuckled and said no, the horn was to pay respect to the spirits who live at that particular place.
Of course, I have since learned that spirits and ghosts live everywhere in Thailand. A couple of years ago, someone saw a vision in an old tree down the road from us; overnight the tree was draped in clothes and given offerings of soft drink and flowers.
Local Buddhist practice leans heavily on ancient animist traditions, and no self-respecting Thai will drive a car or live in a house that has not been blessed by protective rituals conducted by the monks. Every building has at least one spirit house, the location of which is determined by the monks. Our apartment has two: one dedicated to the Brahmin god Vishnu (Narai in Thai), and the other to house any ghosts who might be in our neighbourhood. These houses are well cared for with weekly offerings of fresh flowers, incense and candles for the former, and soft drink and food for the later. I still find it a bit startling when taxi drivers take both hands off the steering wheel in order to ‘wai’ these and other spirit sites.
This last weekend, we drove about 350km south of Bangkok into the bottom half of Prachuap Khiri Khan province and stayed on one of the many sandy beaches along the coastline of the Gulf of Thailand. Just that bit too far for most city Thais or foreign tourists, the area is quiet, and it is always a joy to walk through the traditional fishing fleets and share a smile and laugh with the locals. The ubiquitous spirit houses watch over us and the boats are protected by their floral garlands.
Prachuap Khiri Khan is the narrowest province in Thailand. At one point it is only 13 kilometers from the coast to the mountainous border with Myanmar. On this trip, we headed into the hills just south of that point to visit the Huai Yang National Park with its well-known nine-tiered waterfall. What we saw of the waterfall (we didn’t go all the way to the top) was pretty, but not overly impressive, but it was a nice walk over well maintained paths.
I know by now that we should be ready for anything, but I admit to being surprised when we rounded a bend towards the large pool at Level Three of the falls and came upon an extraordinary collection of spirit offerings. I will let the pictures speak for themselves!
Here’s hoping the spirits look after you and yours…