Whether on a hike in one of Thailand’s national forests or just walking down a street of Bangkok, don’t be surprised if you run into a tree nymph. Recently while hiking in the pristine and protected forest of the Erawan Falls National Park I came across a gigantic tree covered in sparkling dresses. My first question was not why Thai people would hike two hours to hang dresses on a tree, but why did they chose this tree? This tree must be special, and she is definitely not shy.
Tree nymphs are the queens of the forest, and like to be treated as such. The way to please them is by adorning them with beautiful clothing and offering them a home to keep all their treasures. Inside a tree nymph’s spirit house you will find makeup, hair accessories, scarves, cooking stoves, and of course servants to help with her chores. These accessories are placed around a main statue representing the tree nymph who sits with her legs folded and her hands on her knees. The Thai word for tree nymph is “Nang Mai” meaning female wood, but every tree has its own spirit with its own name. For example, one tree spirit I encountered was named Mae Awapim, meaning Mother Awapim (Awapim is her Thai name).
Offerings to tree spirits usually begin with a story of interaction between a human and the tree. This can be in the form of an auspicious sign. For instance imagine there is a woman napping under a tree. In the course of her sleep she has a dream that she won the lottery. After awaking and returning to town she buys a lottery ticket and actually wins. She attributes her good fortune to the tree; certainly it must have had a powerful spirit to bestow her such luck!
Sometimes the interactions can be inauspicious signs or bad omens. One friend told me that while building a condominium the construction workers struggled to remove a tree from the land. After many attempts at uprooting the tree it would not budge. Accidents soon followed and some workers became ill. The workers attributed the misfortune to the spirit of the tree which they had offended.
Discovery of tree spirits can also come through natural phenomena. During one of my visits to a rural village a woman told me that the locals had seen lights emanating from a particular tree at night thus indicating a very strong spirit inside. Even stories of miracles can be attributed to tree spirits. There is a story of a raging forest fire which decimated the area; only one tree survived, presumably with a very strong spirit within.
These interactions and exchanges are not always so easy to interpret. When Thai people need assistance reading the signs or speaking with a tree spirit they often will work through a shamanic elder. These shamans use special communication techniques to make amends with the offended spirits. For instance, “apology- negotiation” ceremonies often take place when cutting down trees to build a traditional Thai home. I have even heard stories of Thai people who -to their dismay- have seen a tree nymph with long flowing hair and wearing a white gown roaming their property.
It could be that Thai people go out of their way to appease Mae Awapim because they would rather she stay occupied in her colorful dress closet than roam around the forest bothering the local visitors because she has nothing nice to wear. For whatever the case, this human-nature interaction is a very charming reminder that trees deserve more attention than we give them. Perhaps if we give what we get, our respect for the forests will bring us the natural abundance of Mother Earth that we all are here to share.