If you spend enough time in Thailand you become accustomed to seeing all sorts of unusual sights on your travels. Whether it’s giant phallic symbols in public places or pictures of Al Pacino on the back of trucks, there is an old tradition, superstition or belief that helps explains the reasons why. But then there are the things which even Thai people can’t explain. For example, why can you sometimes see statues of zebras at shrines? You might expect to see figures of elephants at shrines because of their symbolism for Thai people or animals of the Thai zodiac such as dogs, horses or tigers. But zebras have no obvious connections with Thailand nor do they have any association with Buddhism or animist beliefs so why are they placed at shrines? The answer isn’t as black and white as the animals themselves.
Most of the Thai people I’ve asked about the reasons why there are zebras at shrines responded with an enigmatic smile and a ‘mai reu‘ (don’t know). One theory put forward by a Thai academic is that the zebra represents safety. According to an article in the Bangkok Post, Associate Professor Srisak Vanliphodom suggests that the zebra represents safety because the animal is associated with the pedestrian crossings on roads. In Thailand these crossings are painted black and white and know as ‘tang ma lai‘ (literally ‘path zebra’). Given that many of the zebras seen in Thailand are at shrines located close to busy roads, this theory would seem to make some sense. It’s plausible that most people who place zebras at shrines are wishing for safe travel and protection on the road. However, whether a zebra crossing in Thailand is actually a safe place to cross the road is another matter! Most Thai drivers won’t slow down if they see somebody trying to cross at zebra crossings and pedestrians should never assume that cars are going to stop for them.
Another theory for the presence of zebras involves the flower garlands that are laid at shrines and spirit houses throughout Thailand. In Thai these are known as ‘puang maa lai‘ which is often simplified to ‘maa lai‘. With the Thai word for zebra being ‘ma lai‘ the play on words could explain why zebras have become a popular offering at some shrines. Combined with the belief that some spirits are also supposed to be fond of exotic animals, zebras might logically be seen as a good offering to keep the spirits happy. Whatever the reason, the zebras make for a striking addition to the range of figurines seen at many shrines in Thailand.