Anyone familiar with Thailand’s culture knows that Thai people have a strong belief in ghosts and the supernatural (see our post on the Thai zombie village). This is especially true among the tribal peoples of Isaan (Northeast Thailand), such as the Phu Tai, Tai Yo, and Tai So tribes.
Many Isaan tribes have a belief in powerful Thai ghosts named Phi Fa (ผีฟ้า) or Phi Tai (ผีไท้), who are on the spiritual level of angels and have the power to heal the sick, remove obstacles, and bring good fortune.
Beliefs vary widely, but there are basically two different ancestral ghosts (Phi Fa) with the power to cure illness. One is an ancestral ghost who has lived amidst a respected family or clan across many generations. Another is an ancestral ghost who has chosen to live with any person in the village who has a strong spiritual faith.
In both cases, the “Phi Fa” became a powerful spirit due to the high amount of merit they accumulated during their life on earth. The person they choose to live with is usually a woman, and that woman becomes a healer or shaman called Mae Khru (แม่ครู) or Mae Mueang (แม่เมือง) in her community. They perform healing ceremonies called Mor Lam Phi Fa (หมอลำผีฟ้า), which can involve singing, dancing, and chanting that invites the Phi Fa to enter into the sick person and heal them.
In the distant past, tribe members sought the assistant of the village healer or shaman to cure any kind of sickness, as all illness was thought to be caused by bad spirits or demons. However, these days knowledge of modern medicine is widespread. So, a Mae Khru is primarily asked to heal those who have a mysterious illness that modern treatments have failed to cure.
It may seem surprising to some, but many healers and shamans in Thailand have had quite good success rates at healing the sick when modern medicines have failed (according to reports from villagers). This can likely be attributed to the elaborate healing ceremonies tapping into the human body’s miraculous ability to heal itself.
The last type of “Phi Fa” are ancestral spirit angels who are called upon every year in a large ceremony involving dancing, singing, drumming, and offerings of sweets, flowers, and incense to bless the community with abundance in the coming year. The “khaen” (bamboo flute) is a traditional Thai instrument that usually is integral to the “Mor Lam” music that is played.
In old villages on the lakeside of Nong Han Lake in Sakon Nakhon, these Phi Fa offerings are sometimes placed in small flower boats (krathong) just like you see in Thailand’s famous Loy Krathong festival every year. The date of the annual Phi Fa ceremonies vary, but the rituals are often held in February or March, before the Thai New Year’s celebration of Songkran.
Lastly, the term “Phi Fa” is sometimes used interchangeably with the term “Phaya Taen” (พญาแถน), but many Isaan people view Phaya Taen as divine beings separate from Phi Fa ancestral spirits. They are considered angelic deities, descendants of Phra Indra, who is the creator of all things and sometimes called Ong Phaya Taen (องค์พญาแถน), the god of the sky.