The Chao Phi
To the imagination of folk people, an uninhabited and desolate place such as a forest or a wilderness is full of unseen beings or phi, mostly malevolent ones. Over these numerous phi there is in each such place a lord or chao phi who rules in his or her particular do main, or sphere of influence. There is always a shrine built by the people in a prominent place as residence for the chao phi where personally the people can make offerings and ask for the chao phi's good will and protection. The chao phi is, therefore, a tutelar or guardian spirit who is called in Thai "arak" or "theparak", "Arak" is in Sanskrit "araksha", to protect, and "thep" is "deva" or deity, but the people reverently call such chao phi "chao phaw" or "chao me" which means either the lord father or the lord mother as the case may be, When addressing the chao phaw or chao me' the worshipper will refer to himself as "luk chang" which means an elephant calf. This is interesting. I venture to think that in the old day's herds of elephant's roamed far and wide. A herd of elephants might at any time come up suddenly and destroy the crops of the people. In such a circumstance the folk were helpless and unable to cope with the situation. To a primitive mind anything extraordinary or abnormal which inspired awe was accredited to the supernatural. Here the chief elephant of the herd must have been no other than a chao phi in disguise who came to punish the folk for their negligence towards the chao phi who was their unseen father. By calling themselves luk chang or elephant calves and entreating the elephants to leave the place, the chao phi in elephant's disguise would be appeased. This is probably the origin of the term "luk chang".
At the clearing or opening into a forest or at any prominent place there usually stands a shrine to the chao phi who is supposed to look after the forest as his domain. Anyone going into the forest must stop at the shrine to pay respect to the chao phaw or chao me as the case may be. If someone desires to cut trees for his own domestic use or to kill game, he must pay respect to the chao phi and ask for permission. The usual way to do this is to make one end of a stick into a hook and stick the other and in the ground or hang it at a certain place on a level with the eyes of a person standing. This is an act of respect among the Siamese. The head of a superior must always be in a high position and when he is sitting it is disrespectful for an inferior to stand above a superior, That is why we have to crawl or sit down when a superior is squatting on the floor. If the superior is sitting on a chair, the inferior must not walk in with his head erect and above that of the former. He has to go in with a bowed head as a sing of respect.
The question arises as to why a hook is made on the stick when asking permission from a chao phi. The word hook in Thai is "Khaw" and so also the word to ask permission. It is a play on a word with identity in sound but difference in meaning "When a stick with the hook has been placed, it is usually to be left overnight. If the stick remains intact in the morning, then it is a sign that the chao phi has given his or her consent. Such a convention is not confined only to the supernatural beings, but may be used also for inaccessible humans. If you are tired and thirsty while travelling in an uninhabited place, and you come suddenly on a plantation where there are many ripe melons to quench your thirst, but are unable to locate the owner of the plantation, then the best thing for you to do is to make a hook and place it somewhere nearby as a sign asking permission to take away a few melons. Then you can take then without incurring the ill will of the owner or appearing to be a thief.
When there is a sure sing from the chao phi that permission is given, the folk can go into the forest to fell trees or kill game, enough for their own domestic needs only. When they leave the forest with their felled trees of game, they will stop as the shrine again to give their thanks to the chao phi. If they have killed game. They will cut a certain portion of the animals killed, usually the ears and the tips of the nose, as an oblation to the chao phi. It is a paradox that most of the uneatable parts of the animals are usually given to the chao phi as a suitable part of the animals are usually given to the chao phi as a suitable offering. Such a practice is general among many races of people in their primitive animistic belief.
It is indirectly known by the folk people that in certain seasons, especially the rainy one, the chao phi even if he is asked, will not give his or her consent for anyone to go and cut wood or kill game. If anyone dares to do it, something-unwonted may happen to him or be may become sick with fever. This is due to the anger of the chao phi. Such a belief has indirectly a utilitarian and preservative value for the people whose outlook is still primitive. Young trees and animals can grow and thrive unmolested during certain parts of the year. Nowadays some progressive people from towns, going out to fell trees or shoot game with the help of local folk, ignore the practice and tradition. The folk begin to sense impotency in their chao phi and imitate their modern-minded brothers without the knowledge the is harm in it; hence harm has been done to the forests and geme.
The chao phi whose domain is the forest is sometimes called chao pa or lord of the forest. In fact there are chao phi of various locations. There may be a "chao khao" or lord of the mountain, a "chao thung" or lord of the open land, a "chao tha" or lord of the ferry or landing, a "chao thi" or lord of the place. The people believe that these spirits travel during the day between midday and two o'clock in the afternoon. On a day's march the people will stop travelling for a while during such times, fearing that they will unintentionally tread upon the toe of the unseen, and become suddenly ill through their anger. This is practical. To travel during the heat of the day through open land is unbearable when the sun is hot overhead. You may have sunstroke, which means that you have trod on the toe of one chao phi or another.
The chao phi as already mentioned were developed probably prom natural objects which inspired awe in the people, hence they are nature spirits. But there is a particular class of chao phi, which developed from the spirits of the dead and grew about the memory of outstanding dead persons. They are worshipped with love or fear because of the reputation of their virtues or their vices. No special name is given to such chao phi. To the people there are no differences in kinds of chao phi, for all have similar attributes and habits. But in the Northeast of Thailand, these chao phi have been known as a particular class named "phi mahesak", a corrupted word from the Sanskrit "mahesakha" which means great power. They are much feared by the people, especially the phi mahesak whose reputation when alive as human being was savage and cruel in the extreme. A slight neglect or omission of worship to these spirits on the part of the people will result in great harm.
The Phi (Evil Spirits)
The phi here, as already mentioned, means in its restricted sense a ghost, a devil, or an evil spirit. It also means the spirit of the dead and the corpse of a person. There are many kinds of such actively malignant phi; some of them are traditional ones, but others by their peculiar names bet ray foreign origins. Out of these numerous phi the following names are well know.