Category Archives: Thailand

Buddhist Thailand – occasional notes

While speaking of Buddhism in Thailand here are some additional little details:

Signage in a city train. Can you guess what the orange one represents? A Buddhist monk.

I don’t often see monks on public transport and have to confess I felt somewhat outraged when once a monk asked me to move for him. There was a vacant seat next to me but if he took it he would have had to sit between me and a woman. He made it clear to me he had no intention of sitting next to a woman!

Monks are not allowed to touch female members of the opposite sex. And that makes for some interesting gossipy news as per the following that I have taken from a news site:

The monk normally places his hand on a man’s heart for the extra blessing but on a woman’s head for same; but this is a trans man undergoing hormone replacement treatment. As I alluded to earlier there seems to be a more easy acceptance of transgenders here in Thailand than one expects in Australia. (Nonetheless the above picture did cause a bit of a scandal even here.) Recollecting The Federalist article I spoke about earlier, I should add that there is nothing unusual about seeing a prostitute taking a few moments out to offer prayers and offerings at a shrine or temple. No-one there to respond with a command, “Go, and sin no more!”

A more common scene in both streets, shopping complexes, work offices and factories, and in household properties, both inside and outside houses and units, are Buddhist shrines where regulars and passers-by will often be found stopping to pray and leave offerings. People do both in public quite unselfconsciously as if simply filling up at a petrol station or pausing to answer their cell phones.

That photo reminds me of a scene I witnessed this morning. In a busy city street a man had stopped on his bicycle to call to a passing monk. After sorting out the various food items in his bike basket he gave most to the monk who then proceeded to pray for him. Both faced each other, hands held together in our familiar prayer gesture, while the monk prayed at some length. (He had been given a lot of food, after all.) They each then went on their way.

Here are the contents of one of many aisles in a large supermarket. Can you work out what they are? They are ceremonial items for one’s shrine at home or anywhere else where one wants to stop and pray and leave an offering. All part of the weekly grocery shopping list.

And here’s the shrine at the entrance to where I happen to be staying now: Those items on the front table are drinks, one an equivalent of a Thai coke with a straw in it. They are part of what have been left there by passers by stopping to kneel as they pray before moving on with their daily business.

I find it difficult to dislike Buddhism because what I’ve been exposed to is on the whole so non-judgemental compared with Western Christianity. But it does consist of humans and as I think I mentioned previously there are massive public scandals about one outfit accused of all sorts of corruption. Nor do I ever know what to make of seeing monks in a goldsmith’s shop, as I sometimes do. And I cannot help but wonder if behind the public facade there are the same sorts of sexual abuse going on that have finally come to light among Western Christian churches.

 

A Passing Note on Thailand

While waiting here in KL for my flight to Thailand I have been catching up with rss feeds from all over the place and one stood out as timely and appropriate: What The West Can Learn From Thailand About Loving One’s Heritage by Casey Chalk. Unfortunately it’s from The Federalist site whose articles I normally find way too “conservative” for my own tastes, but it does make some substantial points about Thailand that are worth noting.

Since the story of the Thai students trapped in a remote cave hit the international news wire, observers have been fascinated with the children’s expression of Thai religious piety and customs. Videos released by the Thai navy show the boys offering the “wai,” a traditional greeting where the palms are pressed together. Images that accompany related news stories often show large groups of Thais, including their classmates, offering Buddhist prayers for the stranded children.

The first time I was in Bangkok and greeted by two Thai nieces with the wai I gaffed by wai-ing back. It is not appropriate, I quickly learned, for the senior to wai the junior, or certainly not to bow in doing so. There are all sorts of rules about that.

Tourists visiting Thailand are usually taken aback by the signs prominently displayed at Suvarnabhumi Airport and on billboards along the highway into downtown Bangkok. One such billboard reads: “It’s wrong to use Buddha as decoration or tattoo. Means no respect. Don’t buy or sell Buddha.” Another sign asserts: “Welcome to Buddha Land. It’s wrong to buy or use Buddha symbol as merchandise, decoration, tattoo or to own Buddha head. Disrespect to Buddha is wrong by law.”

Thais are a very conservative people and the Buddhist religion runs deep. It is customary for boys to spend time as monks just as it is customary for young men to do “national service” in some other countries. I find Buddhism easier to stomach than western “Churchianity” but don’t think Buddhism is all the same here. There are serious corruption charges under way against certain Buddhist monks under way. Some monks come across as plain greedy. But those appear to be the extremes. As usual there is the vast middle of normality and by-and-large respectability.

Families are bound by values Westerners would regard as old-fashioned. It is not universally accepted, for example, that young people live together before marriage. For a young person to do so could well cause deep pain, even offence, to many parents.

Reverence for the Thai monarchy has been bound up with Buddhist conventions, too. I can discuss that side of things another time in more depth. Not everything connected with that question is a good thing.

Oh yes — when you go to a movie here in Thailand you will experience just before the main feature the playing of national anthem and a film of the king. Everyone stands, of course.

Casey Chalk talks about the infamous sex tourism but it is very easy to live and get around in Thailand without seeing that side of things at all.

I’m not sure I’d think of certain Western differences from Thai culture as “losses” as Chalk goes some way to suggesting. The “traditional ways” have their own challenges. There’s way too much poverty here and I can’t justify the status quo by appealing to (or hiding behind) “unifying traditions”.


Added note some time after original posting:

It doesn’t really work to compare values or social attitudes between different cultures as if there can be neat correspondences. Example: I’ve talked above about the ‘conservatism’ of the Thais but I would despite the West’s gains in acknowledgement of gay rights I still would not expect to walk into a very ordinary hairdresser shop in a major conservative-area suburban-type shopping mall and be attended by a ladyboy.


 

Thailand Holiday with Rhyming Parallels from Another Ancient World

Each time I visit Thailand I find myself wondering if I am in a country with religious parallels to the ancient Mediterranean world in which Christianity emerged. Obviously there are enormous differences, too, and it would be silly to ignore those and try to say that Thailand, like a number of other east Asian countries are replicas of the world of the New Testament. But history does rhyme, does it not? Take a look at these photos…

Everywhere one turns there is an image of the king or his wife looking benignly upon all and sundry. Thais overwhelmingly demonstrate adoration for their beloved king. People have photographs of him in their homes, in their business offices, in their work factories. And of course in public places, roadways, buildings. King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) died in October last year but there is a year long period of national mourning and the amount of black being worn by shoppers and office workers cannot fail to be noticed. Westerners who come from a tradition of mocking their leaders should understand the seriousness of Thai customs and their lèse-majesté laws. Do let the reader understand!


Check out the official name of a certain hospital building, too. The same name cum date cum title cum occasion, in full just as you see it here, is attached to the building itself.

But that’s just what we should expect in a city whose full ceremonial name is nothing less than

“City of angels, great city of immortals, magnificent city of the nine gems, seat of the king, city of royal palaces, home of gods incarnate, erected by Vishvakarman at Indra’s behest.”

But you can call it Bangkok, or if you want to impress the locals, Krung Thep.

Then there is the religious variety. Thailand is a Buddhist country but people are seen pausing to pray to images or other reminders of Hindu and Chinese deities or spirit protectors as well. One even sees the occasional reminder of Christianity as one of their options.

Buddhist temples are ubiquitous, of course.

But then there are any Hindu deities everywhere, too, and people don’t mind what their provenance, they will very often be seen praying to them without discrimination. read more »

Pity the dead who were poor

Today’s photo from Thailand. . . . I’ve met this chap a few times now, always in the grounds of a Buddhist temple. His presence never fails to put a smile on my face, so I’d like to share his company with you, too….. He is inviting you to slip a donation into the coffin at his feet. It’s to pay for the funerals of the deceased (specifically for their coffins) too poor to finance their own final farewell.

Two more pics from Bangkok

And taken with permission, one of the most ubiquitous of scenes but one I always enjoy encountering …..

Ladies Parking

They do things differently in foreign countries, as I was reminded this evening shortly after landing in Bangkok, Thailand. I would be surprised if many immersed in Western ways would be familiar with an entire floor in a multi-storey carpark being reserved for females. (No, there’s no religious reason; Thailand is a Buddhist nation.)

Here’s a close-up:

Presumably it’s a space where women can feel safe from violent and rapacious men. We are warned in public announcements at airport railways stations not to touch any stray dogs here. Rabies being the reason. The parking floor is a depressing reminder that wild dogs aren’t the only threat.

Damn. It’s actually been a good day and I should have posted something more positive. Will try again tomorrow.

Good place to plant a bomb

Heavy on my mind at the moment is the bombing at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok. Just pausing to put up a few photos and one video I took of the shrine when I was there two months ago on a family visit to Bangkok. No way of knowing who was responsible yet — I’d be surprised if it came from Redshirt activists from the rural and North region or from the Muslim separatists in the South; Thailand did return Uyghur refugees to China a month or so ago . . . Who knows. Horrific. These pictures were taken around middle of day. The bombing was in early evening when the site was much more crowded.

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shrine

dancing

prayer2

These details are superfluous, but for the record it’s a Hindu deity but the worshipers are mostly Buddhist.
Seven more pics and one video . . . read more »