Why did the zebra cross the road? To get to the spirit house of course!
I may have decoded the supernatural mystery as to why Thai people offer zebra statues at spirit houses. Well, I didn’t really figure this out myself. The credit goes to a very insightful Thai monk named Phra Kittisak.
Here is the evidence:
It is very common to find large and colorful ceramic animals surrounding spirit houses; roosters, elephants, horses and tigers seem to be the most popular. All of these animals are in the Thai-Chinese zodiac and they live in Thailand, so it not difficult to find cultural meaning associated with their symbolism.
Zebras on the other hand, are not Thai. Although Thai mythology is filled with fabulous combinations of magical beasts and anthropomorphic species, we are pretty sure they like to stay in dry environments where they don’t stand out, like the unique African savannah. The only zebras you find in Thailand are printed on a girl’s dress or surrounding spirit houses.
Spirit houses are homes for the land guardian spirits, but they are also offered on the side of dangerous roads to comfort lost souls who have died in car accidents. According to Phra Kittisak, one of such lost souls belonged to a child who died crossing the road because there was no cross walk and a spirit house was placed there to honor his poor little spirit, surrounded by zebras statues.
Now if you have not yet pieced the two clues together, this third one will. Notice the striking similarity between a cross walk and a zebra. (The word for zebra in Thai is ‘ma lai’ and means striped horse). White stripes on the black asphalt look like zebra stripes and also bring safety for those crossing the road. The winning combination of black and white stripes + horse + safety + child that got hit by a car = zebra, the perfect spirit animal for protection from car accidents.
Rather than ask, 'why did the zebra cross the road?’ In Thailand, we should be asking how he did it.