When I think of Thai ghosts, firstly, I am reminded of the people who plaster their faces with talcum powder during the New Year. Secondly, I think of the young girls usually in high school or college or older who religiously apply whitening cream to their skin -- not only ruining the natural sheen of their skin, but causing a distortion to their overall beauty.
You can't talk them out of it. The appeal of white skin to Southeast Asians has a long history. It goes back to the time when the white skinned Chinese dominated commerce in this part of the world. The Chinese themselves are hung up on white skin and this was passed down to the locals. In order to be beautiful (read: successful), one must be white. So, everyone wants to be successful like the Chinese. This is another reason why Westerners are looked up to: the color of their skin; as if it were confirmation of perceived Falang success.
Girls, especially, think they will look more beautiful with white skin. Unfortunately, due to the “wonders of modern science,” it is now chemically possible to achieve the color, if not the beauty.
But, the subject of ghosts in Southeast Asia is a serious matter. I’m not talking about Songkran partiers or young girls and whitening cream. I mean: the ghosts of living beings long dead. In this part of the world, mysticism is ever present and it is not a long jump between mysticism to superstitions. Everyone here believes ghosts exist and are active. When my wife touches on the subject, I am careful to be attentive. Should I dismiss the subject in an off handed way, I would just be showing my ignorance and my credibility would be diminished. So, I pay a certain kind of lip service to the subject of ghosts.
To be sure, ghosts are a problem. But, it is the fear of ghosts, really, that cause the problems. One case in point occurred recently. Thip was regularly riding our farm road back and forth to the temple for evening chanting. That was until her niece started talking about all the ghosts in this area (as if she knew). Thip hasn't been on our dirt road at night since.
Spirit houses used to be prevalent in our area of the Isaan, almost as much as home Buddha altars. A Thai spirit house is “the house of the guardian spirit.” They are found not only in Thailand, but also in Lao, Cambodia and Mynmar. They are placed in an auspicious spot, most often in a corner of a property. The house itself is in miniature in the form of a house but most often a temple. It’s mounted on a pillar or dais. It’s main intention is to provide a shelter for spirits who could cause problems for the people residing at that location, unless otherwise appeased (by food offerings, chanting, prayers, burning incense, etc.). The shrines often include human and animal figurines.
Buddhist leaders have discouraged the installation and maintenance of spirit houses in recent years. As an example, when I first met my wife 18 years ago, her family house had a well-maintained spirit house and now they have none. My wife has never asked me if we can put up one, ourselves.
You still see many spirit houses throughout Thailand and Southeast Asia, however. They are especially popular with places of business who want to show they are appeasing the local spirits.
The main Buddhist ceremony connected with ghosts is Boon Khao Sah, where the dead are remembered and their spirits honored. During this time, as if they were living entities themselves, the spirits are allowed to move around and, in fact, encouraged to do so -- as if they’d been caged up for a year.
I can't say that ghosts don't exist. I also can't say they do. Although I've heard many stories of people who have claimed to see them, I never have.