Zebras, Questions, and the Chao Mae Tiger Shrine


This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.

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Zebras and tigers and chickens with questions…

Agree or disagree, but I believe that I live in one of the most interesting cities in the world – Bangkok – in one of the most curious of countries in the world – Thailand.

Living here is just like being 3 years old again. Why? Because my most often used word now is why.

  • Why aren’t there seat belts in the back of taxis?
  • Why are Thai vowels under, over, behind, and in front of consonants?
  • Why is alcohol sold at Villa Market all day, but elsewhere, not?
  • Why am I given a 10% tourist discount at Central, when I am not?
  • Why can’t I find a decent electrician, plumber, or carpenter?
  • Why are zebras everywhere?

And while I have found some answers, tracking down zebras wasn’t as easy as I thought it should be.

I assumed that it would be a simple question to answer. But Khun Phairo (my Thai teacher and very good friend) didn’t know. And my regular taxi driver, Khun Pisout, didn’t know either. Very Thai’s index even came up a blank.

Months later, Khun Phairo came in waving Guru (a Bangkok Post insert). Inside was the treasured answer. Sort of.


The article was arranged in a quiz layout. A question is asked, you pick one of three answers (with two being so far off they are not funny). That sort of thing.

The question was, “what is the significance of zebra statues at spirit houses?”

Animals are an important icon in Buddhism to remind people about their relation to the natural world.

There is an interesting theory about why the zebra is the chosen statue around some Thai spirit houses. It’s believed that because a pedestrian zebra crossing is technically a ‘safe zone’ on the road, placing the statue at shrines can bring the same sort of protection to an individual.

It is alleged that a monk told one truck driver to deploy zebra statues to ensure a safe path to success, and over time other Thais began placing similar statues.

The safe zone theory makes sense as zebra crossings are all over the place in the UK and Thailand too. Warning: While I would brave a zebra crossing over there (the UK), I would not brave one here. Not on my life.

Chickens In Thailand, herds of zebras are mostly found along busy highways, but I came across zebras at a shrine for King Taksin, which is located along a river in Chachoengsao Province (ฉะเชิงเทรา).

Fair enough, as water can be dangerous too.

My question at พระสถูปพระเจ้าตากสิน (prá sà-tòop prá jâo dtàak-sĭn), King Taksin’s shrine, was: “Why all the chickens?”

Poker-faced Khun Pisout shot back:

Because we didn’t have any ducks.

Ooooooooo kaaaaaay… 😀

Chao Mae Tiger Shrine…

A short while back I wrote about Bangkok’s Fertility Shrine, Chao Mae Tuptim. And if you remember, Chao Mae (or ‘jâo mâe’) in Thai means: goddess (female guardian spirit, or angel).

In my hunt for zebras, we three – Khun Phairo, Khun Pisout and me – visited ศาลเจ้าแม่เสือ (săan-jâo-mâe sĕua), which is the shrine of the Tiger Goddess.

ศาล เจ้า แม่ เสือ
săan-jâo-mâe sĕua
shrine goddess tiger

Zebras The shrine is located along a busy highway, where every so often you will hear the honking of cars going past. When I asked why, I was told that the drivers are letting the Tiger Goddess know that they are there. It is sort of in the hopes that she will safeguard them on the road.

I assumed that the drivers were keeping their hands on the wheel while honking, but I did not ask (next time).

Wrapped in a crocheted shawl with gold beads dangling down, the Tiger Goddess reminded me of the big bad wolf after he had eaten granny.

But I was not there for the goddess. I was tracking down zebras to photograph for this post. And opportunities to cross a new why off my list being what they are, I went for it.

The question I asked was this: “Why are there more zebras than tigers at a tiger shrine?”

Now, Khun Phairo did not know for sure, so she asked one of the worshippers at the shrine. The women came back with “Nadda. Nothing. Not a clue”, then went back to lighting joss sticks.

So Khun Phairo offered up a plausible answer:

The Chao Mae Tiger Shrine is on a busy highway. There is no pedestrian overpass, so locals might have lost their lives crossing over and back. With each loss, near miss, or wishful thinking/hoping, a new zebra was added. And so on.

Khun Phairos’s suggestion is logical, and makes total sense to me. What do you think?

Religion and superstitions and such…

Now, I am not a religious person. Nor am I – knock on wood – superstitious. But I do have a grand time in Thailand with superstitions. They are a way of life out here and not easily avoided, so I might as well have fun, right?

I totally enjoy teasing Khun Phairo about Thai ghosts and spirits and what not, and she delights in kidding me right back.

Ok, sometimes she gets scared, so I do watch what I say (it is all in good fun, and I like to keep it that way).

Recently, we started keeping score. She comes up with a for instance, I prove it wrong. I come up with a similar instance from the home country, she raises her eyebrows in response. Each time she learns something and I do too. A win win.

For instance… during our visit to the Chao Mae Tiger shrine, I went to step over what I thought were hundreds of zebras for sale. You know, to get the perfect photo?

A gasp from Khun Phairo halted my foot midair and I pulled back to get the explanation. Just like stepping on a baht note that is blowing away, you never, ever step over the religious icons placed around a shrine. And I knew that.

But these were everywhere. Spilling onto the sidewalk, trampling on the grass, threatening to overrun the road even. And my bad, my plan was to purchase a zebra to donate to the shrine. Or put on my balcony. Either one.

Joss sticks Concerned for her own safety – Khun Phairo swears that since I am a foreigner the goddess won’t think ill of me, but for her… well, well – she started waiing in the direction of the Tiger Goddess to ask for forgiveness.

Then, not wanting to take any chances on the long road trip ahead of us, she grabbed a handful of joss sticks to seal the bargain.

Only, they would not light.

Again and again she tried, but they would not light.

Waiing deeply, Khun Phairo asked the Tiger Goddess to help her light the joss sticks.


Up they went in a bonfire of flames.

Honk, honk. Khun Phairo one. Cat nil…




11 thoughts on “Zebras, Questions, and the Chao Mae Tiger Shrine”

  1. Cat, in Thailand, rolling eyes in response to older people’s statement is very disrespectful, too.

  2. Tee, you brought up a great subject and I would love to hear more Thai versions, so please feel free to share 🙂

    We used to call them old wives’ tales, or proverbs (?) now they are considered urban legends.

    I see that Richard Barrow has a post: Old Wive’s Tales about Eating

    From my mother I got, ‘If you stick out your tongue or cross your eyes, your face will freeze that way’.

    A generic one is, ‘If you let your cat sleep in the nursery, it will smother the baby’.

    They are quite fun now that I’m grown up, but they were irritating when I was still under the influence of elders (inlaws – country aunts and great aunts).

    In Thailand, does rolling your eyes in response to older peoples’ statements show the same disrespect it does in the west?

  3. Hi Catherine, glad to discover this blog, too.

    Regarding stepping over books, I’m not about the real background behind it. However, my parents always threatened me that I’d do very badly academically if I stepped over books. As you may already know, Thais believe that there’s a “Kru” (Teacher) in every taught field of art and science. Therefore, one can assume that book (textbook, in particular) is also a form of “Kru”, and consequently we should not be stepping on our teachers, so to speak.

    There are also many other “Mythical Threats” my parents gave me when I was a child, such as “Finish your plate of rice, or else you’d get pimples all over your face when you grow up!”, “Don’t lie on your belly and eat, or else you’d be born a snake in your next life!”, etc. Pretty much like the monsters in the closet in the West, I guess.

  4. Welcome to WLT Tee! Westerners also have odd (but interesting) superstitions – a fear of black cats crossing their paths, walking under ladders, throwing salt over their left shoulder (or is it their right?), saying ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes, knocking on wood…

    I’m not religious (or superstitious) but I still have some of the same knee-jerk quirks. If something is too much of a coincidence, I get the chills even though I know there is no real connection to anything solid.

    I didn’t realise that you weren’t supposed to step over books in Thailand though. What is the history, do you know? Is it because at one time all written material was created by monks?

  5. It’s my first time reading your post, and I enjoy it very much. As a Thai and a born Bangkokian, I’m always interested in finding out how foreigners perceive our beloved city and country.

    As a child, I was also raised and taught all these sets of beliefs, do’s, and don’t’s i.e. never to step over books, banknotes,(as you may have heard, Thais have a slang referring to “feet” as “Farang’s Hands”), to “wai” all the shrines we see (especially ones at the junctions), not to mention “death” on birthday, etc.

    However, now that I’ve learned more about Buddhism and what it really preaches, I’ve stopped believing in all these things. I also quit practising these superstitious stuff (as long as my parents are not around).

    Thailand is surely a superstitious country, and more so as days go by. Sadly, we are slipping farther and farther away from a good and true Buddhist society we should be.

  6. Martyn, I too wondered at the wasted money on zebra crossings in Thailand. Many someones somewhere have made a tidy pile out of all that white paint and manpower. And around and around it goes.

    I am glad that the posts are being enjoyed. Thank you for saying so. And I’m equally glad that I am contributing to Khun Phairo’s Buddhist soul. She swears that before I arrived, she had never prayed to so many spirits and god(esses) in all her years.

    And of course, there is all that praying for forgiveness, so my soul comes into it too.

    You see, I’m a bit of a klutz – just this week I crashed a vase next to a smiling Buddha. We were all embarrassed in a giggly ‘we’re going to get caught’ sort of way. Hilarious.

    Both Khun Phairo and Khun Pissout went around the room of Buddhas, laying on gold leaf while asking them to excuse.

  7. Catherine a delightfully written post, full of humour and interest. I agree with Talen in saying more of the same please.

    Zebra crossings, I have for a long time wanted to try and cross one as you would back here in the UK but even well oiled I thankfully have never had enough guts to do so. Sober I have always wondered why Thailand wasted so much money on black and white paint.

    I loved the “Because we didn’t have any ducks.” classic as well.

    I didn’t realize you couldn’t step over the animal figures for sale, at the shrines I realize it is not the done thing but the ones on display, well….I’ve seen plenty of these zebras on my travels and now their significance is a lot clearer to me.

    I quite often scare Wilai with ghost stories myself. My favourite is late at night when she’s watching the TV and I come back in the house after smoking a cigarette.

    ‘ Dek Dek (nickname) I’ve just seen a big dog sat in a samlor waiting outside our front gate. I think he wants to drive somebody somewhere.’

    Her eyes get bigger and she kind of cuddles up to herself and then continues watching the TV but only after a nervous glance over her shoulder at the drawn curtains.

    It’s cruel but I just can’t help myself.

  8. Thank you Talen. Our trips around Thailand are starting to be a weekly event. So much so, that I cannot keep up with them (as far as writing posts go).

    A place we visited on the same day but was not mentioned in this post (no space) was the bat Wat – Wat Pho Bang Khla. Now that I have a movie camera I’ll go back in order to share the full experience of all that noise!

  9. Beautiful pictures Cat and a very interesting read. I loved Khun Pisout’s answer to why there were chickens at the shrine “Because we didn’t have any ducks.” classic.

    I knew about the Buddhism relation with animals but even though I have seen some zebra statues in my travels I never really thought about it and Khun Phairos’s suggestion seems like a good answer.

    Really great read Cat and I hope you continue to show us more of your Bangkok and Thailand along with the Thai language resources and information…it suits you well.


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