Numbers, flowers and the spiritual side of Thai culture

Today is Friday 13th July. In the English-speaking world, Friday the 13th is considered a day of bad luck. For others, it is just an old superstition.

In Thailand, people also dislike the number 13. In fact, according to the blog My Egg Noodles, most tall buildings in Thailand don’t have a 13th floor, they have a 12a instead. Also, try to spot a table 13 in a restaurant – you won’t see many.

What’s in a number?

When you visit Thailand you’ll soon come to appreciate the importance Thai people place on numbers. Most odd numbers are deemed lucky (apart from 13) – especially the numbers three and nine. As the Thailand travel blog points out, gao, the Thai word for the number nine, sounds similar to two other important words: Kow-nah (meaning progress, or moving forward) and khao (meaning rice, the staple food of Thailand).

A famous example of the importance of the number nine in Thailand can be seen in the fact that several years ago the Thailand transport minister bid 4m baht ($95,200) in a fundraising auction for a car registration plate that included the numbers 9999.

Say it with flowers

Most cultures have a unique set of beliefs, customs and superstitions. In fact, for many travellers, part of the charm of visiting new countries is the chance to see these cultural differences up close.

One of the first impressions any traveller will have on visiting Thailand is the profusion of flowers. Jasmine garlands – phuang malai – are sold by the roadside everywhere. And you’ll see these dangling from the rear-view mirrors in taxis, buses and tuk-tuks – and even on the prows of long-tailed boats.

It will come as no surprise that the garlands are used as good luck charms. They are, in fact, offerings to the spirit guardian, Mae Yanang the goddess of journeys, who is believed to protect vehicles and the people inside them. As  says, the garlands “are a sort of Thai equivalent of carrying a St Christopher medallion.”

Flower garlands (phuang malai) are sold at roadsides, markets and temples throughout Thailand

As well as the jasmine garlands, inside most vehicles you’ll see images or little figurines of Buddha, amulets, and maybe lucky bank notes featuring the image of the King of Thailand.

Flower garlands are often hung in front of windows as natural air-fresheners and are often given to guests as a gesture of welcome.

Garlands are also used as offerings on Buddha statues, or pictures of monks. And many Thai people place garlands in front of photographs of relatives who have passed away.

There are many types of garlands – some are circular and others have ‘tails’ of flower ribbons. Different designs and flowers are used for different occasions with the most intricate and complex designs used for people of higher status.

Garlands offered to monks should use odd numbers of flowers and remember – you should never sniff the flowers before offering them.

Spirit houses

You may be visiting Thailand to explore its natural beauty, to flop on a beautiful beach or to have a romantic honeymoon. But wherever you are you are sure to notice that Thailand is a land of spirits.

Everywhere you travel in Thailand you will see spirit houses – or phi – which provide protection and shelter for the Guardian Spirits, which in turn will provide good luck. You’ll find spirit houses outside businesses, restaurants, hotels, markets and even in remote forests and on beaches.

Spirit House in Thailand

Spirit houses in Thailand. Photo credit:

Every house in Thailand will have a spirit house and every spirit house will be festooned with flower offerings.

To get an insight into the importance of flowers in Thailand, be sure to check out Bangkok’s Pak Khlong Talat night market.

Thailand is a fascinating place to visit and if you keep your eyes open you will come to appreciate that there is a rich spiritual side to the country’s culture.

So, what interesting aspects of Thailand’s culture have you experienced in your travels around Thailand? Do leave a comment below, we’d love to hear your stories and don’t forget you can win prizes for submitting your Thai story to Thailand Reunited.