The Shan also believe in phi or spirits. These spirits are believed to have power to cause good or evil in a person’s life and must be appeased. The two types of evil spirits : Phi, which are good and evil, and Puh, which are evil seeking to harm people. Spirits can be avoided by gaining merit, making continual offerings to them, having tattoos, and wearing amulets. People who suffer bad de aths are reborn as evil spirits. Not all spirits are bad and when their advice is followed people often get results.   A folk tale tells of two spirits that visited earth, ate, and then did not have the strength to return so they became man and woman. Once a year a certain man gets possessed by the village spirit and then warns the villagers of coming dangers. He also instructs them on how to have happiness and peace.

Spirit Houses

These are ornamental miniature homes that stand outside mainly Thai Buddhist homes, but have been adopted by some Shan that live in Thailand. It is hoped that spirits will live in these houses instead of the homes of people. Offerings to appease the spirits are made at these houses.

Territorial Spirits

The Shan mainly believe in sprits that take on more “mobile” and “territorial” characteristics. Belief in territorial spirits predates Buddhism among the Shan. These spirits can roam anywhere they please and therefore require different methods to appease or ward them off. These different methods include tying a string around a house, hanging a dried flower arrangement over doorways, putting a basket of rice along with a dessert in a certain part of a house, and tying these same baskets to the central pillar of a house while it is being built. When trouble comes, house owners can go to that original pillar and ask the spirit for help. There is also a special way of appeasing the spirits that only happens once a year.   The Shan boil rice, flour and salt together.   When the mixture floats to the surface, it is offered to the spirits.

Spirit Doctors

The spirit doctor is an individual that has the ability to speak to spirits. This person is thought to have earned a lot of merit and have good Karma. The main responsibility of the spirit doctor is to help villagers ward off evil sprits. One way this is done is by means of tattoos. Their power is passed down from other spirit doctors. People also visit them when they are sick or want to know the future, which is done through astrology.

Spirit Shelves

Spirit shelves are highly decorated shelves that hang on the wall to ward off spirits. Some spirit shelves have pictures of previous Buddhist teachers, lights or flowers.


Tattoos are extremely prevalent in Shan society. In fact, it has been said that this practice existed prior to Buddhism. Tattoos are known for their ability to bring prosperity, to attain victory over evil spirits, to protect from gunshots, knives and other weapons, and to extend one’s life.

It is believed that tattoos gain their power when they are being applied. The person applying the tattoo, primarily a spirit doctor, blows a spell into a tattoo while simultaneously making a clicking noise. Tattoos are usually written in Shan script because it is believed that spirits cannot read. In addition, it is thought that when a spirit comes close to a tattoo the spirit gets hot and goes away.

Different tattoos cost different prices depending on the power that is needed, i.e. protection from being killed costs more than being healed. The most difficult tattoos to get include those that bring honor, high position and wisdom.

Many civilian men who believe in the supernatural power of tattoos tell both legendary and personal stories of being untouched in battle because of the powers afforded by tattoos. The tattoo has in many cases, transcended its practicality. Today many use tattoos to serve as promises not to do certain evil acts.


In the same way tattoos provide protection, amulets are also believed to affect the same power. Many Shan children can be seen wearing necklaces with amulets, given to them by their parents as protection from harm and to ward off evil spirits and sickness.

Ja Rey

The “JA Rey” or the scribe holds an important role in Shan society. He is responsible for teaching young men how to read. He also recites specially prepared poems on important occasions and knows powerful spells that can be used to help those who seek out his services and harm those he is paid to curse.


Dreams are also an integral part of the Shan belief system.   Dream interpretation can be viewed as a form of entertainment.   Some Shan keep books full of symbols that help them understand the meaning of their dreams. The village spiritual leader can be known to have the ability to interpret dreams.   Many people come to him to ask the meaning of their dreams.

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