Superstitions of South East Asia: Phi houses and re-internment

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As we’ve travelled through South East Asia, I have been fascinated by the little houses which sit outside houses, shops, lanes, trees and sometimes fields. An assortment of ‘offerings’; flowers and incense, food, drink and other gifts are carefully placed on its veranda.  Initially I thought they might be mini shrines to Buddha, but in the remote village of Pak Ben in Laos, I finally asked our guide, an ex-monk himself, what they were.

These miniature houses known as ‘Phi’ or spirit houses are for wandering spirits and the gifts that are left, are there to appease these spirits so they will not make any trouble for the inhabitants of the house/land. Unlike our western culture where believing in ghosts, ethereal land spirits or fortune telling is often frowned upon and generally doesn’t mix with religion, in South East Asia Buddhism blends seamlessly with mysticism and superstition. The appearance and stature of the Phi houses are dictated by the wealth of its owner. Government institutions, luxury hotel resorts and shopping malls will have impressive, ornately decorated spirit houses. In contrast simple homes in the countryside are more likely to have Phi houses made of wood. On closer inspection some stand on 4 pillars; for the spirits of the land and some sit above one pillar; for the spirits of the house. A second smaller Phi house (Saan Pha Phum) incorporates an angel with money and a sword professing to protect its owner, bringing both luck and fortune. Tiny figures often stand inside, epitomes of the home owners’ ancestors. In Thailand, a bottle of strawberry Fanta, always with a straw, is the offering beverage of choice. I’m not quite sure why spirits need straws to drink… maybe its because their hands don’t work properly? The idea behind using a red liquid as an offering, dates to when sacrifices were made, and blood was offered. Blood, the giver of life, brings good fortune and fertile land and I guess in modern times red Fanta is the next best thing! Sometimes other offerings are given; fake money for luck around the Lunar New year and at our hotel in Siem Reap a bottle of pink nail polish and perfume…… just the job for a bit of spirit pampering!

In both India and South East Asia culture Astrology or the Chinese Sheng Xiao is given high regard, and fortune tellers or Shaman are sought to determine anything from couple compatibility to the best day for harvesting the rice. Travelling on the bus past the sodden rice fields in Vietnam there were many small, walled cemeteries, and our guide tells us more about the funeral rituals of the people living in the countryside of North Vietnam. Here it is the local Shaman who decides whether the day you die is a ‘lucky’ day. If you are blessed to die on a ‘lucky’ day……. although it’s not such a lucky day really as you’ve just died……. then you will travel seamlessly onto the next life. However, if the day you die is ‘unlucky’, then several rituals need to be followed so that the curse of dying on such an ‘unlucky’ day, can be reversed. Money is placed in your mouth to pay the toll for the afterlife, and all mourners attending the funeral wear white, not black. No tear drops can fall on the body and any household cats must be kept out of the house while the body rests, for fear that the spirit might enter the animal causing it to become possessed. The family continue to make a meal daily for the deceased for 49 days, just in case there are any issues with them passing into the afterlife, after all they need to keep their strength up for the journey. The strangest ritual yet however is that of re-internment, where 3 years after burial the body is removed from the ground, the bones are washed and then re buried in a small stone coffin, protecting their loved ones from the frequent flooding which affects this land. “But what if the flesh hasn’t fully decayed?” we ask… “there are 2 options”, she replies, the first is to re entomb the body, digging it up again in 3 years, hoping for full decay to have occurred. The second, is rather more gruesome. After the body is exhumed, any remaining flesh is pared away from the bones, allowing re-internment to occur as originally intended.  Although this custom is growing less popular, nowadays a specialist team is employed, and the ceremony is performed in the middle of the night in Winter. Many families still believe this ritual to be an important expression of filial piety, respecting ones elders right to the end, which is one of the strongest ethics in Confucianism and Buddhism.

Our Western practices of scattering of ashes and leaving out a glass of milk for Santa at Christmas now seem quite tame in comparison to these startling superstitious practices of South East Asia, but certainly gives food for thought.

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