The peak of a steep mountain on the road to Lampang in northern Thailand has accumulated more than 1,000 spirit houses. Unlike a graveyard where broken spirit houses get haphazardly abandoned beneath large trees, these spiritual abodes are arranged in perfect rows that seem to sprout up from the land.The rows are organized with the newest in the front and gradually fade into five decades of stone ruins. Watching over the supernatural landmark is a police box with officers and a large Buddha shrine. Cars and trucks blow their horns in a gesture of respect- a visceral reminder that nobody dare pass by without asking permission of passage to the guardian spirit of the mountain.
The man behind the scenes, however, is a retired policeman turned Brahman priest. Pol. Sub Lt Vichai Puttinun was sent by the district to guard the outpost police box on Mt. Chao Pa Khun Tdan 45 years ago. Khun Vichai has been retired for 15 years, but plays a significant role in the development and devotion invested into appeasing the spirit of the mountain. The story goes, a local man was driving up the mountain pass when a wild elephant crossed the road in front of him at its peak. As this is an auspicious sign, the man made an offering to the spirit of the mountain and soon received very good fortune. When the news got out around the villages people began offering spirit houses at the famous spot. As more and more spirit houses accumulated Khun Vichai extended his police duties to arranging and organizing them into the impressive collection of offerings. In a way Khun Vichai has continued on his job as a policeman of the spirit world, now serving the public with the powerful guardian of the mountain.
What sets this mountain spirit apart from other mountain spirits is his royal and courageous power. The spirit here is Chao Pa Khun Tdan, and is named after a prince from Lamphun that died in battle on the mountain riding his loyal elephant. The synchronicity of the sighting of a wild elephant and the historical prince makes for a convincing resident mountain guardian. A five meter bronze statue of this princely warrior with elephant companion resides in a large shrine in the middle of the spirit houses. Offerings of incense, small yellow candles, flowers, bananas, coconuts and sugarcane are given daily in small rituals performed by locals under the guidance of Khun Vichai’s priestly mediation.
Offering a spirit house is the most popular way Thai people honor the guardians of the land- whether they are tree spirits, land spirits, guardian angels, mountain spirits, village spirits, city spirits, gate spirits, barn spirits or rice field spirits. Thai people believe nature is alive and can be communicated with. Nature has a consciousness that can infuse itself in various concentrations into different objects. These soul essences have their own level of intelligence and purpose. When a Thai enters the space of one of these spirits and uses their resources, they feel the best way to honor the spirit is by giving them a symbolic place of their own, their own home. The spirit house becomes ground to maintain a recipricol relationship; offerings are made in exchange for safety, harmony and abundance.
In Thailand, policemen are some of the most avid followers of the spirit world. Khun Vichai lived as a novice monk from age 15-16 where he learned to chant Pali and perform Buddhist ceremonial rights, but most of his knowledge of spirit house ceremonies comes from books referred to him by a teacher in Bangkok. These books are widely available to the Thai public and have titles like “How to set up a spirit house”. Unlike other Brahmin priests, he does not practice astrology or any special meditation, but sticks to the classic rites and intentions of the spirit house ritual. His ceremonial proficiency shines through a strong voice and fervor that vibrates with devotion though basic intentional statements that inform the spirit of the mountain what is happening. For example, he will say, “Today Mrs. Pat came from Bangkok with her husband Mr. Pui to make an offering of a spirit house to your highness. In return please bless them with prosperity and good fortune.” This is repeated in a few intervals throughout the ceremony as the angels and land guardians and Buddha are invoked to witness offerings of food, flowers, incense and water. The end results in lighting a string of fireworks as to wake the spirits and disperse negative energies.
Supernatural stories in Thailand don’t end until the spiritual realm merges with the material realm. Khun Vichai had such success as a Brahman priest, he opened his own business selling spirit houses at the base of the mountain with his family. During the day his daughter and wife take care of a small convenient cart set up at the shrine selling offerings, cakes and drinks for the spirits and laymen. It seems Khun Tan Mt. is a win-win situation for everyone; the prince and his elephant may have lost their battle, but their powerful legacy lives on through the spirit house tradition.