It's a weird thing, in the internet age to want to share photos and information about about a place whilst having a firm sense of borrowed protection over it at the same time.
Since my first jaunt in Thailand and over the time between, Chris from Souled Out Studios has been feeding my unconcealed delight at all things folk-horror-come-ghostly by casually informing me that Thai people are fierce believers in the spirit world. Those little houses in the corner of just about every property? Yeah, those aren't "just mini shrines" or elaborate birdhouses. No. Those are spirit houses - houses for actual spirits; the last conclusion I'd have jumped to simply because it's better than anything I could have imagined.
Anything written here is what I've been told. If you know better and I'm getting this wrong, it's probably because I've misremembered or butchered some else's better explanation. Feel free to correct me or share your knowledge, because I could drink from this cup all day.
The more I try to investigate them, the blurrier their explanation and meaning gets, which I love. It reminds me of how when I was a teenager, a Bulgarian man asked me "what is 'though'?". A word so ever-present in my daily speak should have been easy enough to explain or define and yet still, 15 years later, I chew over what I should have said. Spirit houses seem similar; as present and accepted as the sky itself- where do you start?
What I do know is that wellness, luck and good fortune are very closely tied to spirit houses and by extension, so are their negative counterparts. The gist of my understanding is this; the houses offer shelter to guardian spirits that could otherwise complicate the good times in your life. This is why offerings come into play. Fruit, Fanta, flowers and incense? That's not for decoration, those things are for the ghosts.
Reluctantly and after listening to two Westerners discuss them at length, a Thai lady explained one facet of the topic to me like this; spirits (like animals) can't earn merit; they're outside the realm of earning good karma and so require it to be gifted to them. Help someone out, make a good choice, see someone else benefit from your actions? You can assign all that good-feeling and the glow of core happiness to a spirit house, or specifically, the spirit that lives there who is is otherwise incapable of performing the good deed itself.
I found this link between action and possible meaning made most sense to me. Until this point the whole idea of spirit houses felt like a beautiful, wildly charming wishing facility-come-nod to traditionalism. This however, is where the presence of them in daily life became truly wonderful to me; want a better life? Be a better person. The ingrained instruction and belief that you might feel happier if you do something good for someone else seems like a very good base recipe for a happier community or indeed larger society. Even if it's used as currency in astral bartering.
I mean, you can poke holes in anything worded as simply as I have the above, but it definitely has a rosier glow than the Western teaching of 'look after number 1' and 'it's a dog eat dog world'. In short, we're taught that you can fuck everyone over and that it's okay as long as you can call yourself a success in the end.
In any event - why do I suddenly care? Any grasp of the idea I have is thin and it's not exactly a practice I can suddenly adopt myself. Spirit houses aren't HIIT training and learning to eschew all dairy in favour of pulverised nut products. It's belief based practice - not practice alone.
It's because any time I get a text that says "Mate. There's a load of dumped spirit houses in the jungle. Scary as fuck - I'll show you next time you're out" I want to know why they're scary, why they're bad news and why they get dumped. Are they a sign of savage non-believers? A miserable ghost too belligerent to appease in any way? Does stumbling upon them actually move you to feel in any way on-edge? Is this where the walls of our reality are at their thinnest?
Apparently the improper disposal of a spirit house is unthinkably irresponsible but for whatever reason, there are definitely houses surplus to requirement as the discarded ones don't exist alone; they lay in toppled clusters, appearing in increasing numbers overnight - nobody owning up to their sudden presence.
Listen to anyone talk about how Thailand isn't the 'untouched' place it was in the 80's, factor in all those decades of properties tumbling through the hands of developers and it's easy to get an idea of where at least some of them probably come from.
I thought this spelled a lot of displaced spirits, homeless, unappeased and increasingly disenchanted- trying to connect the dots myself, it wasn't long before I was asking Chris if he thought I could restore them. I got a resounding "no" or rather "maybe, but I wouldn't touch them without a monk". Paranormal pragmatism at its most endearing - also adopted by those who regard the idea of ghosts as entirely laughable but vehemently swear never to play at summoning them - even with a device so outwardly harmless that it's made from cardboard and bears the name "Hasbro" upon it. And that's good enough for me; don't fuck with spirit houses.
Instead they're believed to function as beacons to wandering spirits. An open-house to unfulfilled, often malevolent forces and here we are, at my thrilling night drive to see them. Having arrived on the train in my pyjamas to be greeted by Chris and a stray dog at 3am at an otherwise deserted station no bigger than a Cape Town taxi rank, we were off into the jungle via bike and sidecar.
Driving at night down roads and paths thick with the scent of tropical blooms is one of those activities I enjoy so much that I feel like I'm experiencing a stranger's memory; they're so uniquely precious they can't possibly be my own, even without the payoff of snack-sized ghost houses at the end of the lane.
But there I was and there they were and the next day, we went to find more- along with a cave clustered with squeaking bats and some cast-off snake skin upon a very high jungle hill.