Thai Characters You See Every Day


Alana Morgan is a twenty-something traveler trying to figure out life one place at a time. Check out more of her stories, photos and experiences of what it’s like to be a young expat in Asia on her blog Paper Planes.

After spending some time in the Land of Smiles you’ll start to recognize figurines of different mythical characters all around. While many are often found on temple grounds, you’re just as likely to see mini-shrines, pictures and businesses with these common figures. Who are they? Where do they come from and what do they mean?


This mythical half-bird, half-human creature is the national emblem of Thailand and symbol of Thai royalty.  Coming from Hindu and Buddhist traditions, the Garuda is thought to be a vehicle for the Hindu God Vishnu and, in Buddhist mythology, powerful spirits that are enemies of the naga.


Shortly after the Buddha had reached enlightenment, a big storm arose when he was meditating. A naga king protected the Buddha throughout the storm so he could maintain his meditation. Now the naga continue to protect the Buddha by being stationed at the entrances of Thai Buddhist temples.


Yaksha – These (usually) benevolent spirits are often stationed at the gates of Buddhist temples and meant to scare away bad spirits from entering. In Thai, the spirits are known as “yak” (ยักษ์) and are used as the mneumonic for the character ย.

Nang Kwak

You’ll find Nang Kwak statues in almost every Thai shop and place of business. The figure is a woman kneeling and beckoning customers with her right hand as her left rests in her lap or holds a bag of gold. Thought to bring good luck, particularly for business, Nang Kwak is a popular folklore figure who came from the earlier, Mae Po Sop (Siamese rice goddess) as well as the Hindu Lakshmi. The current statues are thought to be modeled after the maneki-neko cat.


maneki-nekoChances are you’ve seen this beckoning cat figurine before, but didn’t know where it came from or what it meant. The good luck charm is displayed at the entrance of businesses to entice customers with the cat’s beckoning paw. Though Japanese, the figure is now also popular among Chinese and other Asian merchants.


lersi-figurineBefore the historical Buddha, there were the Lersi hermits. Often depicted as an old man with white hair and wearing animal print robes and an oddly-shaped hat, these hermits are believed to have gone to live in the jungle practicing meditation and magic.

Phra Mae Thorani

phra-mae-thoraniImages of Phra Mae Thorani (พระแม่ธรณี), the earth goddess, are commonly found in shrines, temples and fountains throughout Thailand. Often the figure is a young woman kneeling and wringing out water from her long hair. In temples she is placed below the Buddha as the waters from her hair were away Mara’s armies while the Buddha reaches Nirvana.

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