The Fine Art of Giving Gifts to the Gods in Thailand

A san phra phrom is a house for the gods
A san phra phrom is a house for the gods | © Benjamin McMahon / Culture Trip
Photo of Paul Stafford
25 November 2019

What do zebras, Fanta and colourful dresses have in common? In Bangkok, they are all considered appropriate tributes to the spirits – and sometimes, a little gift can go a long way.

Gifts encourage good spirits to stick around | © Benjamin McMahon / Culture Trip

Displayed proudly outside a small hostel near Bangkok’s main shopping district in Ratchathewi is a san phra phum, a spirit home. “I pray here with my family about four times a month,” says hostel owner, Yui Angkana Siriarayapan. “We offer fruit to the spirits and pray for good fortune in life and business.”

In Thailand, good or bad luck isn’t just down to coincidence – more likely, the supernatural will have had something to do with it. Not all ghosts act in good faith, but there are a few spirits you can ask – with the help of a few thoughtful gifts – to swing the balance of fortune in your favour. And there are consequences for those who don’t.

“Last night a huge storm blew the roof off my neighbour’s building,” she explains. “Some of the water came into our place, but we were lucky. They don’t have a spirit house next door yet.”

San phra phum are designed as homes for spirits | © Benjamin McMahon / Culture Trip

San phra phum: Homes for spirits

San phra phum are designed for local spirits. They’re modestly decorated shrines that can be found dotted outside homes in Thailand. The idea behind them is to encourage good spirits to stick around by offering them food, drink and a nice place to live.

“Usually the good spirits are the souls of former landowners of this area who have died,” says Pop Manthana, a postgrad student at the prestigious Chulalongkorn University. “They protect the people living there from the bad spirits.”

Spirit landlords ensure the safety of households and everyone living in them. Their services don’t come for free, but their going rate is fairly modest. The cost of a few pieces of fruit and a bottle of Fanta every now and then could mean the difference between riches or ruin.

There is a limit to how much these spirits can do, however. If you need something more substantial – say a promotion at work, a proposal from your other half or even to pass your exams – you’ll need to take things to the next level and direct your prayers to a san phra phrom.

Figurines of animals and dancers are a typical shrine offering | © Benjamin McMahon / Culture Trip
People offer gifts and pray at the shrines | © Benjamin McMahon / Culture Trip

San phra phrom: Homes for gods

Devotion and desperation often go hand in hand, and Thailand is no different. The gods who have the powers to grant prayers live in another type of spirit home. “[San phra phrom are] for the main gods, and that’s what most people pray to,” Manthana notes.

Unlike san phra phum, which are made out of wood and built on four legs, san phra phrom consist of a single thick pillar supporting a small, ornate temple. They are more elaborately decorated than san phra phum – they’re homes for gods, after all. And gods have an awful lot more clout than spirits.

Almost every major building in Bangkok will have both a san phra phum and a san phra phrom. No matter whether they’re outside a glitzy shopping mall or next to eight lanes of traffic, these shrines will have a crowd of worshippers burning candles and wafting clouds of incense, especially when a san phra phrom has built up a good track record.

San phra phrom are more elaborate than san phra phum | © Benjamin McMahon / Culture Trip

How to get your wishes granted

Bangkok residents who are looking for love in the city go to the Trimurti Shrine. This pristine white marble structure is devoted to the god of the same name – and his services are in high demand, judging from the piles of red roses that adorn his san phra phrom almost every day of the week.

San phra phrom consist of a single thick pillar supporting a small, ornate temple | © Benjamin McMahon / Culture Trip

Though Trimurti’s powers are limited to romance, the range of gifts he’ll accept are varied. There are figurines of cows, peacocks and elephants. Even the occasional zebra gets a look in – though no one is certain what the animal has to do with love or Trimurti. “Usually they are seen as positive because they’re exotic, and the spirits like that,” speculates local IT technician Damrong Kruaysiriwong.

To increase the chances of having your wishes granted, it’s best to go for the mid-range or luxury goods wherever possible – spirits and gods prefer the finer things in life. “People only buy the expensive bubble tea,” says Kruaysiriwong. “If it’s cheap, maybe the spirits won’t like it.”

Strawberry Fanta is an acceptable substitute for chicken blood | © Benjamin McMahon / Culture Trip

But by far the most ubiquitous offering in Thailand – for both gods and spirits – is red Fanta. Its origins date back to the days when animal sacrifices were a regular occurrence. Nowadays, rather than slaughtering a chicken in Bangkok’s city centre, people gift the gods bottles of red fizzy pop – an entirely appropriate approximation of fresh animal blood judging by the hundreds of bottles of strawberry Fanta lined up along Trimurti’s spirit home.

“The blend is the important aspect,” says Manthana of religion in Thailand. The country’s history of faith has allowed traditions to evolve, incorporating new ideas and beliefs. The result is a spiritual pastiche where the all-powerful gods get what they’re given – whether it is strawberry Fanta or chicken blood.

Some shrines are modest, while others most certainly are not
Some people release birds for good luck | © Benjamin McMahon / Culture Trip

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