Why do Thai Tree Spirits like Red Fanta ?

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Some time ago, when the animals were still talking, I lived in Thailand. Ok, it was only 1.5 year ago that I left Thailand for Japan. I was blessed to became a friend of a Thai young woman who likes to travel, knows a lot about Thai customs and traditions and is also into sustainability. Recently we were texting over Instagram about Loy Krathong festival (celebrated on November 23rd, during full moon) which is traditionally a festival to pay respect to the goddess of rivers. Thai people would put “krathong” or containers in the rivers, which were made from natural materials. But unfortunately many people use non-natural materials like styrofoam and it became more, as my friend called it, a river polluting instead of river celebrating festival.

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It reminds me a bit to the Japanese anime “Spirited Away” which is also about polluted rivers and nature, which are represented by spirits that got cleaned in the bath house. Japanese culture and Thai culture are partly about spirits of ancestors or of an ancient soul. In Japan, you have shintoism and buddhism, and it is difficult for me to know often which practices comes from shintoism, or which from buddhism. In Japan, people go to shinto shrines for celebrations around life and transitions in life, but they have buddhist funerals. It also does not help that Thai and Japanese buddhism are totally different. Japanese buddhist priests can marry. In Thailand, they cannot.

In Thailand, you also find everywhere also small spirit houses everywhere. This could be connected with buddhism-hinduism since when Thai put a new spirit house, they have to ask a buddhist monk to do a special ceremony. These spirit houses are for the spirits who take care of the area. Thai Buddhists believe that there are different classes of spirits or angels: some lives on earth, some in a tree, some in the air, but not in every tree there is a spirit. In Thailand, the spirit is not connected to a certain tree. There was a story where people were stopped to cut a tree, because a monk heard the spirit asking for few days time to find another tree as new residence. In Japan, the tree is not seen as the (temporary) residence of the spirit, but the spirit is the soul of the tree, not of a dead ancestor or angel.

The Asian tree spirits especially fascinate me a lot. Especially the banana, fig , ta-khian and banyan trees are inhabited by trees. Ta-Nee is the famous spirit associated with the banana tree. Many big trees have spirits inside, my Thai friend told me.

My friends in Thailand introduced me to Thai horror, which are mostly ghost stories, and some are about tree spirits. But it was also weird that there was also some humor in it. What can it be about? If you cut down a tree without its permission, the tree spirit would haunt you. An example is “Takien” (trailer with English subtitles)

 

One day, this friend and I decided to climb 3790 steps to Wat Khao Wong Pra Chan. This picture is taken at the beginning. I was very intrigued by this, and she explained me that when Thai people know the gender (or sex) of the spirits they would hang clothes for them. They say the spirit inhabits a Ta-khian tree and sometimes appears as a beautiful young woman wearing traditional Thai attire, usually in reddish or brownish colours, contrasting with Nang Tani who wears a green dress. Northern Thai use also dress trees to ordinate that there is someone there. When a tree is ordinated, no one dares to cut or destroy it. While trees in Japan are marked with sacred ropes with paper folded in a zig-zag way, some sacred trees in Thailand are marked by statues. Also when you looked carefully to some banyan trees at my previous campus, you would find holy statues. A professor who studies the stop of belief in nature spirits as early warning signals of environmental degradation in local villages in east-Thailand pointed me to these statues, and I had one of the best conversations on that campus.

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Please also take note of the drinks in front the spirit house. It seems that the spirits like red Fanta. According to one of my Thai friends, it is because it is a more innocent version of blood, and their beloved previous king loved red Fanta too, but that is maybe an urban legend. My friend and I discussed that people copy from the past or their elderly. Thai people would say “Tum Tam Tam Kan Ma”. Adults love to tell the children that when they ask for the reason. It means “follow what elders did” … but actually, my Thai friend (she is very wise) told me it does not resonate with the Buddhist idea of Kalamasutta; the Buddha named ten specific sources whose knowledge should not be immediately viewed as truthful without further investigation. As you see, Thai norms are sometimes against the Buddha’s thought.

So do not be surprised that  you can find red Fanta at the feet of statues, especially from kings, but nobody seems to know really why. Once, in the big airport of Thailand, people started to put red Fanta at the feet of these guardians, and the airport staff got very confused. Red Fanta bottles were removed. The airport announced “please don’t do this”. My Thai friend reacted: “Very Thai. I have to say that.”

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What do  you know about Thai Tree spirits?

Ps special thanks to my wise Thai friends S. and P. who gave additional information and feedback on my first versions.

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