2016-03-21

It’s a living — being paid to pray

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by Neil Godfrey

Today I returned to the Erawan shrine in Bangkok to see how it had fared since last year’s bomb attack (that the Thai government refuses to call an act of “terrorism”). There was very little to remind anyone of the carnage last August. It was very much business as usual. I do feel for the Thai dancers, though. They surely have one of the most gruelling jobs — hours every day sending up prayers to the god through their dance and chants.

Tourists (I’m sure they are mostly tourists, Chinese and Japanese mostly) and the occasional local drop by to pay for a blessing or prayer; the more they pay the longer of more effective the prayer, I think. Pay little and maybe only two dancers will do their act; pay lots and you’ll get the full house. The number of musicians remains constant.

It looks to me like the prayer or blessing one pays for is written on a piece of paper and handed to a lead dancer so she is sure to say the right things and decide how many should accompany her.

And whenever they get a chance for a break they get those crowns off their heads very fast and make the most of their short breaks — checking iphones, having a smoke. It was very hot work and they looked like they were fast wearing down in between dances.

I suppose you could call it a service industry. Those earning the money are giving hope and comfort, not unlike western psychiatrists, astrologers and priests, perhaps.

I try to imagine what Jesus would want to cast out here. Surely he’d have pity on the tedium and low pay that the dancers and musicians so stoically endure. Perhaps he’d be offended at the rip off prices charged for the holy trinkets, incense sticks, prayer scrolls — but he would want to be careful he did not leave the cleaners and maintenance staff without a job. But the prices don’t look all that “rip off” to an affluent Westerner like me. 25 baht is a little less than $1.

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Those dints in the plaque are probably a reminder of last August’s bomb blast. They weren’t there in June 2015 (the bombing was two months later) when I took the photo below:

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A $1 for a garland would be very expensive for the poorer Thais but hey, this is a Hindu shrine in “the land of the Buddha”. (Though Buddhists do seem to me to pray to anything that looks sacred.) Maybe Jesus would be angry that the prices prohibited the poorer Thais from participating. But on the other hand there don’t appear to be an over abundance of those poorest Thais in this central part of the big city dominated by multinational brand names no matter what direction one looks.

Maybe Jesus would just like to see the dancers, musicians and maintenance staff get a bigger slice of the day’s takings.

A few short clips:

Looks like two Chinese tourists planning where to place their garlands and incense sticks and one local (left) who has done it many times before. . .

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “It’s a living — being paid to pray”

  1. (that the Thai government refuses to call an act of “terrorism”)

    Could that be tactical? Insurance policies sometimes have clauses that they don’t have to pay in natural disasters, acts of war, or acts of terrorism. If it is called terrorism, the government might be responsible for the costs of repairs.

    My wife and I visited a Buddhist temple in Vietnam during the Tet holiday. She bought a handful of incense and immediately set it on fire.

    1. I understand the reason is economic, to keep Thailand free from any association with terrorism for the sake of the tourist industry. The shrine is a popular tourist attraction. It appears the perpetrators were opposing the Thai government’s cooperation with China in returning Islamic Uighur refugees back to China. (There is an independence struggle in the south that has a history centuries old and that sometimes erupts in similar bombings but that is away from the usual tourist areas.)

      Thailand’s tourist industry has taken a few hits in recent years as a result of shutdowns, occupations and violence from the political tensions between the poorer mostly-country-based population and the middle class generally urban groups.

      I tried to be sociable and join in with a temple ceremony in Japan last year but was told I only polluted the area because I poured water on my hands over the sacred well instead of over the ground beside it. At least no-one made a scene or embarrassed me over the scandal. Everyone kindly pretended the water was still pure and holy despite my atheistic germs.

  2. On our last trip to Vietnam, we traveled with friends of one of our friends to urban and rural areas in the country but they were reluctant to go to even to Cambodia or Malaysia with us. Apparently, they thought a tall blond-haired man might stick out in a crowd and draw undesired attention in those places.

    1. I did experience hostility as a white westerner in Hanoi a few years ago. Was denied service at a food stall by a group led by an elderly woman and could only (eventually) conclude it was because I was associated with their enemy. But that was an exception — unless one interprets as anti-western hostility the time I was robbed in a Ho Chi Minh City street and other times I was targeted for cheating and robbery. But I made myself a target in a poor country by traveling alone, I guess. But Cambodia is even poorer yet my experiences with the local people were far more positive.

      (Back to Vietnam — Hanoi, and only a hundred metres from a large crowd watching a street opera was another crowd that attracted my attention — by the time I arrived they were standing around the bodies of two young men lying face down, with only one slowly trying to move an arm, obviously both casualties of a fight and both looking either dead or dying.)

      The serendipity of travel.

  3. Sorry – I do remember a couple of your earlier posts about it; but I think it would be cool to have links to them within the article. You’re the only blogger whom I’ve seen cover it.. and you’ve done so from an exemplarily objective viewpont.

    “Maybe Jesus would just like to see the dancers, musicians and maintenance staff get a bigger slice of the day’s takings.”
    Yeah, that’s the kind of idea we might draw from canonical gospels overall… but I don’t think we can draw anything so particular about them that we can pretend to say what Jesus thought or taught… as this blog’s always pointed out.

    Sorry again; I usually get online in remote bars, so… thanks for providing such reliably good content.

    1. Are you suggesting links to my earlier posts relating to experiences/observations in Asia? If so, it does cross my mind. I really do badly need to take time to organize all my posts with proper labels for easy access. Also thinking of copying them in some easy-to-navigate web page, too, perhaps.

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