Every Thai Buddhist holiday, my grandmother lit incense sticks and invited the denizens of a miniature house under the rose apple tree to a feast.
As a child, I stood by guarding the spread of boiled chicken, rice, oranges, rum, and tea from our dogs, but my real watch was for any sign of spirits that were supposedly enjoying the offering.
The small wooden house seemed no different from my cousin’s dollhouse. Around the house, figurines of servants and helper animals—elephants and horses at ours—sat at the ready. From inside, the likeness of a man and a woman dressed in traditional Thai garb stared out at me.
By then, I’d long known not to go near or touch the saan jaoti, or, spirit house, because the land spirits lived there. Many Thais believe that if properly appeased guardian spirits on our property provide necessary safeguard from malevolent ghosts or ill-intending humans.
That’s why spirit houses are found nearly everywhere in Thailand—across styles, sizes, and materials, from simple unpainted structures to much more elaborate models carved out of fine stone. As with much of country, the realm of spirits can’t escape social hierarchy.
The simple wooden house at my grandmother’s is the most common, but if higher deva deities are involved, their desired presence calls for a saan praphum—more ornate, temple-like structures raised on high pillars. These must be the spirit realm equivalent of penthouse condos that top Bangkok’s growing canopy of skyscrapers.
Installing a spirit house at one’s house isn’t a task taken lightly. The customary ceremonies for inviting guardian deities to the optimal spot at one’s house require the proper attention of expert monks or Brahman priests who can deliberate astrological charts, along with geographical and aesthetic factors, to maximize a spirit house’s potential for auspiciousness. Under a tree, like at my grandmother’s, is a preferred spot to set up a spirit house. Even spirits need shelter from Bangkok’s harsh rain and sun.
I often wondered how the spirits spent their day and if they minded the things we humans were doing: me playing in the garden, my aunts hanging up clothes to line-dry, or my grandfather turning up the TV a little louder for action movies.
My family considered the spirits to be excellent caretakers. My grandmother always asked them to guard over the house before we leave on vacations. Whenever she misplaced something, she’d ask the spirits to help bring it back, with the promise of more offerings, as reward.
Always a skeptical child, I expressed my doubts about the spirits’ existence, but my family countered with testimonies. They talked of the spirits likely having caused the abrupt departure of a would-be thief, discovered only when they found burglary tools abandoned midway through the act, a ghost key still in the lock. My grandmother pointed to a spot under an awning and told me a spirit had appeared there to complain that not enough offerings had been made that year. When I had my own encounter, I would believe them, too, she said.
I never did have one, and I held on to my disbelief for years. In the U.S., I was able to avoid the topic, but whenever someone mentioned coming across spirit houses while in Thailand, I’d chuckle, shaking my head with dismissive embarrassment. I was studying science at a well regarded American university, and I didn’t want Thai superstition to make me appear irrational. I wanted them to know that I, too, held high the candle of the Enlightenment—reason, science, knowledge—humanity’s progress, cleansed of the unprovable.
Not anymore. Even doubt can be doubtable when it, too, resides in the need for comforting belief. Now, whenever I’m in Bangkok during a Buddhist holiday, I happily join my family in front of the spirit house to light incense sticks and ask our ghostly neighbors to help look after us.
Beyond whatever role they might play in gentrification and affordable housing for unseen deities, spirit houses also answer earthbound social animals’ fundamental want of trustworthy company. Since I left Bangkok, I’ve lived in suburban cul-de-sacs, towering skyscrapers, and brownstones, and I’ve learned that the best neighbors are much like what my family experienced of the spirits. They’re out of sight, quiet, and if you’re nice to them, ever so helpful.
In Brooklyn, where I spend most of the year, I haven’t yet put up a spirit house. My building was built in the early 20th century, and I can’t be sure whether previous inhabitants have lingered, but before I leave for trips, I’d pause at the door, clasps in my hands and bow in a Thai wai that I hope an invisible neighbor can appreciate, and ask for them to look after the place while I’m gone.
Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s debut novel, “Bangkok Wakes to Rain,” comes out February 19.