A lot of Smiling Albino’s customers have never been to Asia before, and the sights, sounds, tastes and cultural oddities can sometimes be a bit overwhelming. But that’s cool, that’s what we’re here for! After all, it’s our job to show you the behind-the-scenes action, the foibles and inside scoops that regular people don’t see.
One of the questions we get asked a lot is why there are so many dollhouses perched all over the place. If you’ve been here, you know what we’re talking about – those little wooden houses, some big, some small, that are stuck on posts outside of stores and buildings, next to (regular sized) houses or in the corners of parks. They really do look like dollhouses, but there’s actually a much more venerable purpose to the tiny abodes that meets the eye.
These are spirit houses, or saan phra phoom in Thai. You see, while Thailand is most definitely a Buddhist country, animism – the belief that everything you can see or touch has a spiritual component – has a long and still very visible presence here. There are many details to spirit houses, but the basics are this: when we, as humans, destroy some trees and plow some land to build a house, we’re upsetting the delicate balance of nature, and possibly upsetting the spirits that inhabit that land. These spirits have something called saksit, which roughly translates as a power, a force, an influence on the visible world. So, to make sure they stay happy, we build them their own house to live in. Every once in a while we leave some food or water on the little stoop to make sure they have all they need, and bam – problem solved. Happy spirits means happy humans.
Of course, like most centuries-old traditions, there’s more to just building a wee house and leaving it outside. For instance, many bigger offices or companies will have two spirit houses – one on a single pillar and one on four pillars. The one on a single pillar is offered specifically to the spirits of the place we’re disturbing – the land, the trees, the river, etc, while the one on four pillars is offered to the spirits of the structure we build – a house, an office or a 7-11.
Some might wonder why one spirit house will be small and rather unimpressive while another will be huge and complex, and the answer is, basically, karma. Sure, a little wooden house with a bottle of soda offered to its residents is okay, but if you have the means to build a large edifice from glass and marble, with a full course of complimentary statues and different types of food and liquids, isn’t that better? Won’t the spirits be happier? Won’t you earn more karmic brownie points? Well…that’s a question we can’t answer, but clearly some people think that size matters.
Spirit houses are also used for prayers, and you can often see Thais kneeling in front of one, incense in hand, bowing their head in silence. They are likely asking to have a wish granted in return for a kaebon or gift. For instance, one might ask for a new promotion, or to find love, or to get pregnant, or to win the lottery, and if they do, they will return with a nice kaebon, say a garland of beautiful flowers, or a statue of an elephant so the spirits have something to ride. Many new couples make a point to go together to buy a new spirit house when they move into their new place together, and pray for happiness, a healthy family, and a happy household.
One of the most popular spirit houses in Bangkok is Erawan Shrine. The story goes that in 1956, when the Erawan Hotel next door was being built, there were several gruesome accidents and the construction workers refused to work there anymore. A monk was consulted and he said that a shrine had to be built and dedicated to the Hindu god Brahma, so work began. Once it was built and installed, presto, the accidents stopped happening.
Believe it? Don’t believe it? Well, you know what we say in the west – better safe than sorry.