Tai folk religion

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A shrine to Pho Padang in Lom Sak, Phetchabun Province, Thailand.
Inner hall of the shrine of the god of Bo Lek Nam Phi, in Uttaradit Province, Thailand.

Sāsnā Phī (Lao: ສາສນາຜີ; Thai: ศาสนาผี Ṣāsnā phī, "religion of spirits") is a Thai and Lao term describing ethnic Tai folk beliefs.

Tai folk animist traditions are practiced by the Lao, Lao Isan and Thais of Thailand. These religions are pantheistic and polytheistic and their practice involves classes of shamans.

Animist beliefs are often practiced side by side in Thailand and Laos. Among the Lao, the Lao Loum and Lao Lom[1] are predominantly Buddhist, while the Lao Theung and Lao Sung are predominantly folk religious.


Deities (ຜີ, ผี, [pʰiː]) in Sāsanā Phī comprehend tutelary gods of buildings or territories, of natural places, things or phenomena, as well as ancestral spirits and other spirits that protect people, and there are also malevolent spirits. Guardian deities of places, such as the phi wat (ຜີວັດ, ผีวัด) of temples and the lak mueang (ຫລັກເມືອງ, หลักเมือง, [lak mɯːaŋ]) of towns are celebrated with communal gatherings and offerings of food. Gods of Hindu derivation are included in the pantheon; indigenous non-Hindu gods are called phi thaen (ຜີແຖນ, ผีแถน).[2] Gods are ubiquitous, and some of them are connected with the universal elements: heaven, earth, fire, and water.

Lao people believe in thirty-two spirits known as khwan (ຂວັນ, ขวัญ, [kʰwan]) that protect the body, and baci (ບາສີ, [baː siː], บายศรี, [bɑːj siː]) ceremonies are undertaken during momentous occasions or times of anxiety to bind the spirits to the body, as their absence is believed to invite illness or harm. The baci rite calls all thirty-two khwan back to bestow health, prosperity, and well-being on the affected participants. Cotton strings are tied around the wrists of the participants to keep the spirits in place. The ceremony is often performed to welcome guests, before and after making long trips, and as a curing ritual or after recovery from an illness; it is also the central ritual in the Lao Loum wedding ceremony and naming ceremony for newborn children.[3]

In daily life, most people pay respect to the deities that reside in spirit houses, who are thought to protect the vicinity from harm. Offerings of flowers, incense, and candles are given, and the spirits are consulted during changes or times of hardness for protection and assistance. Natural deities include those that reside in trees, mountains, or forests.

Guardian spirits of people often include ancestors or angelic-beings who arrive at various points in life, better known as thewada. Malevolent spirits (phi phetu) include those khwan of people who were bad in past lives or died of tragic deaths, such as the ghastly phi pob (ຜີປອບ, ผีปอบ) and the vampirical phi dip (ຜີດິບ, ผีดิบ). Deities associated with specific places such as the household, the river, or a grove of trees are neither inherently benevolent nor evil, and occasional offerings ensure their favor and assistance in human affairs.[3]

Priests: mophi[edit]

A class of priests called mophi (mo-phi ໝໍຜີ, หมอผี), "tellers", are locally trained shamans, specialists in the rituals and in communication with their personal angels and gods in general. Using trances, sacred objects imbued with supernatural power, or saksit, possessions, and rituals like lam phi fa (ລຳຜີຟ້າ, ลำผีฟ้า, [lam pʰiː faː]) or baci, the shaman is often consulted during times of trouble, hauntings, and illness or other misfortune that might be caused by malevolent or unhappy spirits. They are also usually present during religious festivals.[4]


A baci rite conducted by a family in Vientiane.

Ceremonies devoted to the gods commonly involve an offering of a chicken and rice wine. Once the gods have taken the spiritual essence of the offering, people may consume the earthly remains. The head of a household or the individual who wants to gain the favor of the gods usually performs the ritual. In many villages, a person, usually an older man believed to have special knowledge of the gods, may be asked to choose an auspicious day for weddings or other important events, or for household rites.

Lowland Lao villages believe they are protected by the phi ban, which requires an annual offering to ensure the continued prosperity of the village. The village ritual specialist presides over this major ritual, which in the past often involved the sacrifice of a water buffalo and is still an occasion for closing the village to any outsiders for a day. To liang phi ban (feed the village spirit) also serves an important social function by reaffirming the village boundaries and the shared interests of all villagers.[3]

For followers of Sāsanā Phī (Tai folk religious people), worship of ancestors is very important, although each ethnic group has different practices and beliefs. The Khmu call spirits hrooy, and they are similar to the phi of the Lao Loum; the house spirit is particularly important, and spirits of wild places are to be avoided or barred from the village.


Lamet religion[edit]

Lamet have similar beliefs, and each village must have one ritualist (xemia), who is responsible for making all the sacrifices to village gods. He also supervises communal houses and officiates at the construction of any new houses. When a ritual practitioner dies, one of his sons is elected by the married men of the village to be his successor. If he has no sons, one of his brother's sons is chosen.

Ancestral spirits (mbrong n'a) are very important to the Lamet because they look out for the well-being of the entire household. They live in the house, and no activity is undertaken without informing them of it. The spirits of the ancestors are fond of buffalos; thus buffalo skulls or horns from sacrifices are hung at the altar of the ancestors or under the gable of the house. Numerous taboos regarding behavior in the house are observed to avoid offending ancestral spirits.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Yoshihisa Shirayama, Samlane Phompida, Chushi Kuroiwa, 2006. p. 622, quote: «[...] Approximately 60 to 65% of the population, most of whom are Lao Lum (people of the lowlands) follow Buddhism. About 30% of the population, on the other hand, hold an animist belief system called "Sadsana Phee" [...]».
  2. ^ Poulsen, A. (2007). Childbirth and Tradition in Northeast Thailand. Copenhagen, Denmark: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies.
  3. ^ a b c d Ireson, W. Randall. "Animism in Laos". A country study: Laos (Andrea Matles Savada, editor). Library of Congress Federal Research Division (July 1994).  This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  4. ^ Walter, M., Fridman, E., Jacoby, J., & Kibbee, J. (2007). Shamanism: an encyclopedia of world beliefs, practices, and culture. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc.


  • Yoshihisa Shirayama, Samlane Phompida, Chushi Kuroiwa. Malaria Control Alongside "Sadsana-Phee" (Animist Belief System) in Lao PDR. In: Modern Medicine and Indigenous Health Beliefs, Vol 37 No. 4 July 2006.

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