Bizarre Bangkok: spirit shrines

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Bangkok is often brought as an example of "shocking Asia", even though at first glance, the only shock here comes from pollution and congested traffic. It is a hectic, busy megalopolis, very distinctly Thai, yet very modern. The tiny alleys, sois and troks may give you a glimpse of traditional Thai life, but even there, nothing is particularly bizarre, merely a bit exotic to the European eye. But one aspect of local culture pervades everyday reality and mixes it smoothly with the supernatural: spirits. Spirit houses line the streets, stand at the parking lots of high-rise office buildings and condominiums, and larger spirit shrines are tucked here and there among the urban Bangkok. While not designed as tourist attractions, and possibly risky to visit, like any kind of tampering with the supernatural, they offer an intriguing glimpse into the true Thai culture hidden behind the smog, glass and concrete. 

© istock/Boyloso

Snake shrine

In the ultra-modern development area of Rama 2, surrounded by shopping malls and residential skyscrapers, stands a lonely temple with a cobra figure on the altar. The last traces of greenery lose the fight for the prized land, torn away to make room for parking lots, but the temple remains unharmed. This is a matter of survival, or so locals believe: snakes can get pretty nasty when they are alive, but the dead ones are way more dangerous. As the legend goes, some years ago, an excavator digging a construction pit for a new skyscraper inadvertently destroyed a cobra lair, killing the reptile and smashing her eggs. The next night she appeared in the overseer's dream, complaining of her untimely death and demanding that a shrine be built in honor of her and her unhatched offspring. The overseer, an educated man, not the least superstitious, shrugged it off. From that day on, accidents and disasters started plaguing the construction site, disrupting work and injuring people, while the snake continued to visit men in their dreams, threatening them. When the overseer finally drove over his own little son by mistake, he gave up. Now, the snake temple marks the spot of the destroyed lair, and a regular line of worshipers comes bringing eggs as offerings.

Phallic shrine

© Wikipedia/Ddalbiez

This shrine is dedicated to the goddess Chao Mae Tuptim, the spirit of female fertility. And since even the most fertile woman cannot conceive without the male counterpart, the traditional offerings here are large phalli - usually wooden, brightly colored. Rows of supersized penises are stacked in front of a large spirit house, and the trickle of pilgrims is steady. Of the three shrines mentioned here, this is the only one known to tourists (and covered in guidebooks), but female travelers are often warned not to spend too long in the premises, unless they are planning a family very soon. 

Mae Nak shrine

© istock/panida wijitpanya

The legend of Mae Nak is one of the most famous in Thailand. A warrior went to battle on the king's order, leaving his wife behind. According to the nicer version of the legend, she was already pregnant. While her husband was away, fighting invaders, Mae Nak died in childbirth. Yet, when he finally came back, she met him and welcomed him home. It was not until a week later that he learned from the villagers his wife had died, and he was living with a ghost. Frightened, he ran and hid in a Buddhist temple. Such betrayal enraged the spirit of Mae Nak, sending her on a killing rampage until a wandering mo phi shaman captured and exorcised the vengeful ghost. Another version of the story is much more bizarre and gruesome. According to it, Mae Nak's pregnancy was not yet visible when her husband went to war. Upon returning home a few months later and seeing his wife with a belly, he accused her of infidelity and slew her in a fit of rage. Then he sliced her stomach and removed the fetus to make a talisman - amulets made of preserved human embryos were believed to make a warrior invincible. It was this inhuman treatment coupled with black magic that turned Mae Nak into a murdering ghost. After the exorcism, she has become the patron spirit of expecting mothers. Her shrine can be seen on the grounds of Wat Mahabut,  a Buddhist monastery in Bangkok. Women bring offerings of child's clothes and toys - the traditional gifts for the unborn child of Mae Nak. 

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