Tag Archives: thai folklore

Folk Gesture: ไหว้ or Wai

Translation: No literal translation, for it is rather just a coined physical gesture.

Context: In Thailand, the informant states that when greeting family members or friends, in some cases even strangers, one should clasp their hands together, similar to how you would for prayer, place your hands near your nose bridge, and then bow your head. Ever since the informant was a little girl, this has been a gesture that expresses a formal greeting, and it is a sign of respect. “Wai” can be used when greeting someone or departing from them, and it is especially important in expressing piety. T.S. describes that as a little girl, whenever she would forget to greet her grandparents or other elders with “Wai,” should be met with a scolding. Not expressing “Wai” to certain individuals can earn you the title of one without manners. The informant believes that the origins of “Wai” must be tied to the rise of Buddhism since monks have been utilizing the motion for centuries, as they always want to express maximum gratitude and respect. When greeting a monk, it is even enforced that a different form of “Wai” should be used, one that has you place your thumbs to your forehead rather than your nose bridge.

Analysis: Forms of folk gesture can be used to solidify respect amongst a group of people, consolidating interconnectedness and overall companionship. The “Wai” is a gesture that brings the Thais together under a common practice, helping the nation cement a sense of peace within their foundation. The “Wai” is also a way to teach children and early generations to respect their higher-ups and elders, for this creates a stable pious relationship that prevents extended rebellion as they grow up. Speaking from personal experience, there are similar modes of expression within Latin American cultures, specifically the Caribbean. Growing up, I was exposed to “Biendicion,” a saying that holds very similar significance to “Wai.” When saying “Biendicion,” one must connect their cheek to the person’s cheek that they wish to greet. Similarly, as T.S. described, not using this phrase to elders within your own family can be seen as an act deserving of scolding and correction. Even as an adult, one must use it to those in the generations above them, so the phrase never dies off.

Ghost Parties in Thailand

Informant: So, like, my family is kinda, like, the official designated ghost family in my village. And my family is from this very small, um, place, kinda outside of Chiang Mai, like 30 minutes outside of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. Um. And so my mom, even though she was adopted– so she doesn’t have this official designation, but it’s my family, they basically take care of all the ghosts in the village. And the ghosts are like the ancestors of all of the families that live there and each generation, they have a special woman that they picked out, that’s like part of the bloodline, and.. it can’t be a man, it has to be a woman, and she’s like the keeper of the ghosts. Um, and so it used to be my grandma, and now it’s, um, its fallen to, like, one of my aunties, and now it’s with my cousin who– lemme tell you about my cousin, her name is {name}, and she has like a very severe, like.. learning disability.. So she’s the new keeper of the ghosts. And its, its, kind of interesting because, like, she can’t work, she can’t have a job, she can’t marry.. She’s very, very frail and very thin, but.. It’s kinda nice, cuz now she’s the one that has this responsibility. 

Collector: Right, right, she doesn’t need to… Does she makes money off this?

Informant: No, no, it’s not– it’s more of like a communal village position. But the village is like one big extended family. Y’know. And all of our ancestors are everyone else’s ancestors. And we have one little temple in the very center, y’know, we go to like, mass– it’s like Buddhist mass, basically, on Sundays. Um, so.. But anyways, every eight years there’s what we call like a ghost party. I missed the last couple cuz I was in school, um, but basically every eight years it’s like throwing a big party for all of the ghosts. Like, all of the ancestors, and you get, like, all the food gets spread out.. Spirits in Thai culture are very hungry.. They’re basically like, the ultimate hedonists, they just wanna consume everything. And so you give them, like, entire spreads of like chicken, and food, and like carnations, flowers, they love cigarettes, you get them a lot of cigarettes, they really like, um, whiskey, so you give them a lot of whiskey. Um, and it’s like, everyone gets drunk and gets together, and the process of getting drunk with your family members and your village, its like the spirits come, and they’re getting drunk, and they’re eating with you. 

Collector: This is all so interesting.. When, when you say taking care of the ghosts, you mean like giving them offerings, and keeping the altars clean? 

Informant: Yeah, so it’s kinda like that, it’s also kinda like, part of the spirit lore is like, they’re ghosts, so its like human ancestors, and another part of it is like, like, a lot of high-elf fantasy stuff, like, kind of speaks true to Thai culture, where like before the humans came, there were spirits in the forest. And these spirits are very old, and they had been there for like millennia. And they owned the forest, that’s their domain, and like, in Thailand, you know, we cut down the forest, we lived there and we farmed, and so we need to like, give back to the spirits. 

Context: The informant is a close friend of mine, and is a Thai-American young woman. She lived in Thailand for several years with her mother, before they both moved to Southern California.

Analysis: This is possibly my most exciting collection, seeing how I have a friend who has thrown a ghost party before. This experience is obviously personal to not only my informant, for also for the entire village. They do not differentiate their own ancestors from the village ancestors, which ties the entire village together, even after death. It is interesting that Thai spirits are considered to be hungry, as I have seen previous examples of hungry ghosts in Korea and Japan, all of which stem from Buddhism. I also find it interesting that only woman can serve the ghosts, as previously mentioned.

The Hungry Fox and the Sacred Tree


The following informant is a 60-year-old Thai immigrant who heard the following story growing up as a kid. This interview was carried out in a mix of Thai and English. In this I will be denoted as C and the informant will be denoted as S


S: This story is, this story is … uh the fox … uh (in English: the fox) and the sacred tree.

C: I see.

S: There is this fox, it is skinny, hungry, it hasn’t eaten, it is very skinny. So it went and it prayed, in other words it went to ask the sacred tree. The fox asked, it asked to become an ox. An ox that people would take care of and become big and healthy. Strong, and had things to eat all the time. Do you understand?

C: Yes, I understand.

S: And now the fox, whose body was very skinny, became an ox. It became an ox and the people around there started to take care of it. Once they took care of it until it was large and healthy they took it to chai naa.

C: What is chai naa.

S: chai naa (in English) means to work in the field.

C: I understand.

S: After having to work in the field the fox goes back to the sacred tree and says “I can’t take this. Once becoming an ox, they took me and used me in the fields. Can I become a horse or something? At least I’d have someone taking care of me.”
But once it became a horse, the king, uh, the king that lived in that country saw how beautiful this horse was and ordered his soldiers to capture it and make the horse his personal horse. Do you understand?

C: What do you mean personal horse?

S: He used the horse to ride around for fun.

C: Oh, to ride around for fun.

S: He also used the horse to ride for work, for religious events, stuff like that. The King’s working horse. After becoming a working horse, the fox felt bored and realized being a king was betterthan being a horse. You understand?

C: Right.

S: The fox felt the kings used horses and were better than them. So, the fox went to the sacred tree and asked to if it could be a king instead. Now once the fox was a king, it wanted to travel on a boat. It wanted to, uh, wanted to travel on the ocean. So, it ordered its soldiers to go cut down trees to, uh, make a very large boat. And the soldiers ended up trying to cut down the sacred tree too.

C: Uh oh.

S: So now the sacred tree was very angry, that it, that it had helped the king, had helped the king since way before when it was a fox, and fox’s soldiers were trying to cut it down. So, it ordered the soldiers to tell it’s king to come cut the sacred tree itself. Once the king came to the tree, the sacred tree blamed the king that “You don’t know, you don’t appreciate, you don’t, you’re a bad person who got whatever they wanted and it wasn’t enough.”

From being a fox to becoming an ox, from becoming an ox to becoming a horse, from becoming a horse to becoming a king, becoming a king and even trying to cut down the sacred tree that helped it. So the sacred tree cursed the king and turned him back into a hungry fox.

C: Uh oh.

S: The end.

C: Okay.

Analysis: This tale is serves as an example of how someone should conduct themselves and to appreciate the things that people, in this case a sacred tree, would give them. There seems to be a greater message to this tale than just the story itself.

Thai Spirit Houses

Not sure if it is a Buddhist thing or just a general thing, but a lot of Thai people have little miniature houses on a pole or a stick called spirit houses. The Thai belief is that every house or every dwelling has a spirit who inhibits the house, so the Thai people build a house which they keep outside in which the spirits may reside. It is where spirits live, usually right on the property in front of the house, and they give it food and water and take care of it so that the spirit of their house may be kept happy. This is also so that the spirit of their house may protect them from outside threats.

This tradition may also be found in an article by Michael Pearce, who writes about it in The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief in Volume 7, Issue 3, 2011.

Michael Pearce (2011) Accommodating the discarnate: thai spirit houses and the phenomenology of place, Material Religion, 7:3, 344-372, DOI: 10.2752/175183411X13172844495939


Background: I had first heard about the spirit houses from my mom, who did not know too much about them. But then she reached out to her aunt (my great aunt) and told me a little bit more about the tradition of keeping spirit houses, which can be seen all over in Thailand. This interview was conducted live; this story was given to me in person. I thought this was a really interesting combination of folk beliefs and folk objects — mainly a folk belief carried out through the implementation of a folk object. I really enjoyed hearing about this and how it really is believed in Thai culture and that is why so many people have spirit houses outside their own houses, apparently usually out front. This is also something my mom remembers really well from her childhood in Bangkok because she said that she would see them everywhere — in front of every house.

Nang Nak

Nang Nak (Nang meaning Mrs. in Thai) was married to her husband when he was sent off and had to go away to war. she was pregnant and she died they say when the woman died with baby inside the spirit is very strong and she loved her husband very much. She died and no one told her husband that she had died and when her husband came home she was there to welcome him, but it was actually her spirit. The Asian houses are very tall, and one day she was making curry and pounding the chicken and she dropped the tool all the way down. The husband offered to get the pounder but instead she extended her arm unnaturally and got it. The husband ran away and she cried and cried but at the end he ran away. Everytime you say it in Thailand people will know what you’re talking about. People make it into a movie and people like to go see the movies.


Background: This is a fairly well-know story in Thailand, according to my great-aunt. There have been several movies made about it. She said she used to get really scared as a child because people would circulate this story. She knows it just from hearing it from many different people as a young child. I conducted this interview live at my uncle’s house, so I heard these stories in person, but it was still sometimes fairly hard to understand because my aunt has a very thick Thai accent which is sometimes hard for me to hear, so I have to ask her to repeat certain things. I think this story is a great piece of folklore, especially as it is well known in Thailand and there are a few different versions of the story – regarding what she is cooking specifically and what she drops and picks up with her extended arm, and what happens after the husband runs away. I really enjoyed this piece even though it was kind of freaky.