They are everywhere, ubiquitous to the point where they are nearly synonymous with the spirits themselves: small, plastic bottles of strawberry Fanta, placed solicitously in front of shrines, straws helpfully tilted towards the gods for easier sipping.
Turn the corner just off of Bangkok’s Charoen Krung Road, and you’ll spy a single Fanta in front of a simple concrete spirit house. At the popular night market Asiatique, a battalion of crimson bottles vie for space before the resident spirits. Even the mighty Erawan Shrine, a pre-Covid magnet to thousands of tourists daily, warrants a bottle or two of red Fanta, left among the flower garlands, coconuts, and platters of fresh fruit donated by those hoping to have their prayers heard.
But how did Fanta nam dang, “red water,” become the spirit drink of choice? How did Thailand—a country physically smaller than the state of Texas—become Fanta’s fourth-biggest market, ahead of both the entire United States and China? How did a strawberry version of the soda concocted by a Coke-deprived, World War II-era Germany find its way into the culture of a country halfway around the world?
“Thais aren’t the only people who give food when praying,” says Kalyanee Rudrakanchana, who points out that the Tibetans, Chinese, and Japanese also offer food to placate unhappy spirits. Rudrakanchana serves as a spiritual adviser to individuals and companies in search of auspicious locations for their businesses and offices. But she must also occasionally serve as a “ghostbuster” for locales already infected with restless spirits, finding ways to put them at ease.
The spirits she has communed with have yet to ask for red Fanta. Yet “offering sweet, red water at a shrine is something that is uniquely Thai,” Rudrakanchana explains. “Nobody knows why it has to be strawberry Fanta, but it probably has to do with its bright red color.” After all, she notes, “Thais are a very visual people. They probably think it looks pretty in front of the shrine or spirit house.”
The demand for Rudrakanchana’s very specific services shows how Thailand teems with the supernatural. Often, concessions are made to extrasensory beings to keep the peace. Many Thais believe that spirits reside in trees and the land itself. As a result, the small shrines known as spirit houses—also a tradition in Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia—are a common sight, since spirits must have a place to reside when they are displaced by construction, lest they decide to move in with the humans.