Thai Culture


In many parts of the world incense is an important part of daily life, associated with religion, ritual and health. As you wind your way through narrow streets in bazaars and market places stalls are crammed with colourful boxes of incense with exotic and evocative names and the air is filled with rich incense smoke as you wander past temples and shrines. But what exactly is incense and why does it play such a prominent role in society, especially in temples?

Incense traditionally comes from tree resins, but can also be produced from certain bark, flowers, seeds and roots. There are two main types of incense; Eastern and Western.

Western incense comes from the gum resins of tree bark such as the sticky gum found on fir trees. The gum hardens to become resin, which is collected by cutting it from the tree with a knife. The pieces of resin are called grains and are sprinkled on burning coal to release their fragrance.

Eastern incense is produced from plants such as sandalwood, patchouli, agar wood and vetiver. These ingredients are ground using a pestle and mortar. Water is then added to make a paste along with saltpetre – potassium nitrate – to help the mixture burn evenly. The mixture is then processed in various ways.

In India, the mixture is spread on a stick of bamboo to make agarbatti, or an incense stick, whilst the Chinese sieve the mixture to form strands. In some cases, incense cones are also formed and incense paste can be formed into Chinese characters, which bring good fortune when burned.

Throughout history, incense has been used by many different cultures and religious faiths to produce a wide range of results. In ancient times it was believed that plants were scared and closely associated with the gods. The burning of certain plants was believed to drive away demons and encourage the gods to appear on earth.

In Hinduism, incense made from sacred wood and flowers is burnt to purify the atmosphere and provide worshippers with a clear frame of mind to perform ritualistic worship or meditation.

Egyptians associate incense with the dead. Incense is specially blended with each ingredient selected for its unique magical properties, which carry the soul of the dead to heaven along with the prayers and good wishes of the mourners.

The Native Americans are also known to have burned mixtures of herbal smoke in ceremonial cleansing and healing rituals. These rituals date back thousands of years and are believed to drive away negative energies and restore balance. Herbs and plants such as cedar, sweetgrass, sage and tobacco were tied into bunches and fanned through the energy field to attract positive forces.

Incense is widely used throughout Buddhism for a number of purposes. It is burned in large quantities at all religious ceremonies and in daily worship. In Tibetan Buddhism, incense is also used in healing and can be used to treat a wide range of symptoms including skin diseases and fatigue.

It has long been thought that the burning of certain fragrances can heighten the senses of sight and smell and in today's society incense is playing a prominent role in aromatherapy.

Many aromatherapy specialists promote the extensive use of incense, attributing it with a wide range of beneficial properties. Certain types in incense are used to reduce anxiety, stress and fear, alleviate insomnia, accelerate healing, revitalise and renew energy.

It is believed that each fragrance has its own vibration and can be carefully selected to aid mood enhancement and assist personal development.

To produce the most beneficial effects for your personality, many aromatherapists recommend blending your own incense. This is a lot simpler than in sounds and can also be a lot of fun.

To start, choose a selection of wood and spices that you feel positive towards. You should use at least one resin or wood as a base, which should be frozen for at least 15 minutes before use. The ingredients must be in the form of a fine powder; you can use either a pestle and mortar or a coffee grinder to produce the powder.

Although there is no limit to the ingredients you can use, it is easiest to start with just three, such as one wood and two herbs. Mix all the dry ingredients together and then add the resins. Place the mixture in a ceramic dish or a large seashell and set light to it to release the calming aroma.

Most incense sticks for sale in shops or on street stalls are produced in factories in China or India. Production is simple and economic. Large bundles of wooden sticks – known as ‘punk’ sticks – are bought from a specialist supplier in bundles of 100 sticks.

The ends of the sticks are cleaned and the bundles selected for a particular fragrance with the ends painted the colour relating to that fragrance. The bundles are then left to dry overnight.

The fragrance oils are mixed the next day and the punk-covered ends of the bundles are dipped into the fragrance and left to dry overnight once more.

Once dry, bundles are individually wrapped in wax paper, sealed in plastic bags and placed in bins to await orders for sale.

So there you have it. From cleaning the mind to honouring the spirits and mourning the dead, incense is used in numerous ways by many different cultures and religions. However, all seem to agree that these small scented sticks have the power to release human spirit and potential.
About the author:

Kirsty Turner This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it (Kay) is a freelance writer currently living in Bangkok. She has kindly agreed to write for and share her love of all things Thai and, especially, all things Khao San Road!

Thai Superstitions and Beliefs

Thai Superstitions and BeliefsUnlike most people here in the Land of Smiles, former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra hasn't ever really been concerned about Thailand's current political tension. When asked to comment he told reporters; "Be patient with the headache-inducing situation until July 2. Mars moving closer to Saturn causes the headache. When Mars leaves, the situation will ease." Like many powerful businessmen, Thaksin Shinawatra is a firm believer in astrology. For Westerners, the fact that such a prominent political figure could base his judgements on astrology and the predictions of a fortune teller is surprising and even a little unsettling. However, in Thailand decisions are often influenced by astrology, magic spells, superstitious beliefs and charms.
It is often reported that the Thai military regularly travels as a group to visit certain monks who are believed to have the power to predict the future. In the months before the military coup of 2006, there were widespread rumours that Cambodian monks specialising in black magic were regularly visited. Feng shui was also used as a military weapon and certain Bangkok landmarks were relocated in order to utilise positive energy flows.

Believe it or not, astrology and the supernatural heavily influence the daily life and decisions of a large number of Thai people. Take 35 year old Nam is a lecturer at a well known Bangkok university. Highly respected and admired, Nam told me that; "I always consult a fortune teller before making important decisions." In fact, she confesses that she seeks the advice of the mystic man for all sorts of occasions, such as before going on a date, moving house and even cutting her hair.

And Nam is by no means alone in this practice. There are thousands of superstitious beliefs and practices that make up daily life in Thailand, and whether we fully embrace them or not, they can offer an important insight into the culture and mind set of the Thai people.

Many Westerners who choose to make Thailand their home and marry a Thai person may be quite familiar with such practices. First of all, a well respected monk or fortune teller will be consulted to determine the most auspicious day to get married. This process can actually be a lot more complicated than it sounds. Certain days are unlucky, depending on which day you were born.

So what should people born on specific days avoid?

Here goes... If you were born on a:

- Sunday, avoid doing anything auspicious on a Friday.
- Monday, avoid doing anything auspicious on a Sunday.
- Tuesday, avoid doing anything auspicious on a Monday.
- Wednesday, avoid doing anything auspicious on a Tuesday.
- Thursday, avoid doing anything auspicious on a Saturday.
- Friday, avoid doing anything auspicious on a Wednesday.
- Saturday, avoid doing anything auspicious on a Wednesday at nighttime.

A couple of years ago, two good friends of mine planned to get married. Unfortunately, the English man had no idea which day of the week he was born on or the time of day, which can also influence which day is suitable. He finally calculated that he was born on a Monday, which meant that a Sunday wedding was definitely out. His girlfriend was born on a Thursday, so Saturday was also void. Tuesdays are generally bad days for weddings and the monk had warned against Wednesdays and Mondays. That meant that the only available days to make the match were Fridays and it was several months before a suitable date could be found.

Another auspicious occasion is the choosing of a Thai name. Most people consult an astrologer or monk to select a name that will bring the child good fortune, health and happiness.

When choosing the name, the monk or astologer will ask the child's day and time of birth. He will then consult a book and/or star chart to find out which letters will bring good luck if used in the name and which will bring bad fortune. Many people strongly believe that their name is connected to their fortune, and it is not unusual for someone who has experienced particularly bad luck to change their name.

The third main occasion when Westerners may come across Thailand's special connection with superstition and astrology is in the building of a new house. The good days for starting to build a house are Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, although take care to also consider the day when you personally should not undertake a special task. Sundays, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays are considered to be bad for starting construction.

It is worth remembering that you should not make merit in your house or have a haircut on Wednesdays, and Fridays are considered inappropriate days for funerals.

Ghosts play a role in most cultures, with certain ghost stories being retold for hundreds of years. Although practically everyone has their favourite ghost story which they love to tell, most Westerners no longer have a strong belief in ghosts and stories are told in a very tongue-in-cheek manner.

However, many Thai people still have a strong belief and fear of ghosts. Many of my Thai friends claim to have seen at least one ghost and can recall a large number of ghost stories in vivid detail.

Here are a few of the beliefs concerning ghosts:

- If you make jokes when eating a ghost will steal your rice
- A ghost will enter your house if you stand in the doorway
- A ghost will curse you if you sing while eating
- You will see a ghost if you bend down and look between your legs

Never say a baby is cute because a ghost will come and take it away.
As I have said, there are literally thousands of beliefs and superstitions in Thailand. Here are some I find particularly interesting:

- Do not look at naked people because your eyes will become swollen
- Do not throw money away because you will lose your finger
- The moon contains a rabbit
- Bite your shoes before you wear them for the first time to prevent them from biting your feet
- Your finger will fall off if you point at a rainbow
- Do not taste food with a large serving spoon because it will make your child ugly
- Bad luck will come to a house if you enter through the window

Another thing most visitors to Thailand notice is that many people wear amulets. Amulets are special Buddha images, often gold-plated and worn around the neck. They are believed to possess a variety of sacred powers such as the ability to protect the wearer from accident or ill-health.

Stalls selling amulets can be seen on virtually every street or market place. However, authentic Jatukam amulets should only be bought from particular temples and the monks who reside there. The amulets are blessed by monks or priests and often three or even five are worn together on a piece of cord. Never wear an even number of amulets as it is considered unlucky.

You should avoid touching a Thai person's amulet as it diminishes the amulet's powers. Also, avoid wearing the amulet in the toilet as it will no longer be sacred.

So there you have it. Astrology and the supernatural have a firm place in Thai culture and anyone wishing to truly embrace the culture must explore, accept and perhaps even embrace these beliefs as well.

About the author:

Kirsty Turner (Kay) is a freelance writer currently living in Bangkok. She has kindly agreed to write for and share her love of all things Thai and, especially, all things Khao San Road!


Of House and Home – Spirit Houses

Spirit Houses
Spirit Houses
Spirit Houses
Spirit Houses
Spirit Houses
Spirit Houses
They can be seen all around Thailand; the tall, slender wooden structures which are set in prominent places outside every house and building. Available in a wide range of sizes and available in all the colours of the rainbow, these spirit houses are an intriguing mystery to westerners.

Spirit houses vaguely resemble bird houses, which can be found in many gardens in western countries. However, rather than attracting birds, these houses are intended to serve as resting places for the spirits.

Spirit houses are built for two purposes: to attract the spirits from the heavens and as alternative accommodation for the spirits that live in the homes of humans. It is believed that if the spirits are treated with respect they have the power to grant wishes, protect people and bring them good health and luck.

If, however, the spirits feel as though they have been mistreated or disrespected, they can cause businesses to fail, loss of fortune and health. For this reason, the spirits must be informed when an important venture – such as a new business or marriage – is planned.

The spirits which reside in spirit houses are known as Phra Bhum Jowthee, or Guardian Spirits of the Land. There are nine different types of Phra Bhum Jowthee, each performing different functions and bestowing various blessings. When selecting their spirit house, Thai people are careful to decorate and adorn it with objects that will appeal to a specific type of spirit.

The main types of spirits that are revered are The Guardian of the House and The Guardian of the Gardens. In fact, these are the only types of spirits that have permanent spirit houses built for them, although temporary spirit houses may be built for other spirits on special occasions.

The main role of The Guardian of the House is to watch over and protect the home. Without exception, every spirit house in modern Thai society has a spirit house for this function and the spirit is also expected to provide financial security and help in business matters.

Many households will also have a second spirit house to accommodate The Guardian of the Gardens, which watches over the garden and areas of natural beauty. The spirit houses are particularly prominent in public parks and gardens.

Paying respect to the spirit house is a matter of instinct and ritual. People always wai to pay respect to their spirit house when they leave and when they return at the end of the day. They will also pay respect to the spirit house at the work and can be seen waiing to large, prominent spirit houses they pass on the street.

In today’s modern society it is often difficult to determine how much of this spirit worship is belief and how much is routine. However, it would seem as though most people genuinely want to show their respect. As a good friend told me; "I always wai when I pass the spirit house. I pay for a safe journey, riches and good health. If I forget by accident I feel guilty and make sure I apologize later."

Indeed, spirit worship is one tradition that is actually strengthening, especially in the city. In the past, communities would share spirit houses, but now each household has their own personal spirit.

When a new house or other building is constructed, a spirit house will be specially constructed. There are many rules regarding the selection and placing of the spirit house. For example, the spirit house should not stand in the shade of another building and should preferably be located next to a tree. The colours of the spirit house are specially selected to match the birthday colour of the owner of the property. The birthday colour relates to the day of the week when the person was born.

Usually, a Hindu priest will perform a ceremony inviting the spirit to make its home in the spirit house. At this time, offering are made such as a pig's head, fruit, rice wrapped in banana leaves and a coconut. The spirit houses often contain figures and small animal statues, especially statues of elephants.

Daily maintenance of the spirit house is an important ritual. Each day fresh candles, garlands of flowers and incense are placed inside, as well as gifts of food and drink. Traditionally, the food and drink would be small parcels of rice and meat, water and tea, but today almost anything can be offered, even brightly-coloured bottles of Fanta.

As I have said, spirit houses can be seen absolutely everywhere in Thailand. People looking for outstanding examples could go to Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai, where hundreds of people gather to make offerings, say prayers and have wishes granted. Other examples can be found outside large hospitals, markets and hotels.

About the author:

Kirsty Turner (Kay) is a freelance writer currently living in Bangkok. She has kindly agreed to write for and share her love of all things Thai and, especially, all things Khao San Road!