Buddhism is by far the most popular religion in Thailand. Over 93 per cent of Thailand’s population is Buddhist, and as of 2004, the country has over 40,000 temples, or “wats.” Most houses and businesses in Thailand have small shrines where they leave sugary drinks and blessed flowers as offerings.
The temples are shiny, colourful beacons, and most are open to the public. The best experience I had in a temple was in Ayutthaya. In a case of being in the right place at the right time, we were blessed by the monks. Monks standing at the top of a giant likeness of Buddha tossed down bolts of fabric that were the statue’s robes. Everyone present kneeled on the ground, holding the fabric over their heads, while more monks splashed blessed water on everyone.
Ayutthaya is best known for the beautiful ruins, still well preserved, from the Burmese invasion in the 18th century. Compared to the flashy gaudiness of Thailand’s modern temples, the ruins are a breath of fresh air. As we walked the old walls, I noticed another section of ruins that was in the process of being restored. It seemed like a shame, because the untouched nature of the ruins is what makes them stand out from the thousands of other temples.
Because they are so numerous and respected, Monks get special treatment. If a monk’s robes so much as brush a woman, he is supposed the discard them completely. In airports there are private rooms for monks to wait for their flights away from the regular folk.
On my last day in Bangkok, my friend May said that she had to deliver papers to a temple. Her father had racked up thousands in credit card debt without her mother’s knowledge. Their house was now on the line if he didn’t pay, but thankfully all the credit cards he used were only in his name. To avoid the responsibility of supporting his family while paying off his debts, or perhaps to try to absolve himself, May’s father ran off to a temple and pledged to become a monk. May now had to go to the temple to serve him divorce papers. This is an outrageous exploitation of the whole point of the temples.
Another problem with the prominence of Buddhism in Thailand is that there isn’t much room for other religions. Some Muslim friends of mine had such a hard time finding halal food near campus, that some of them decided to just forsake that aspect of their religion for the sake of eating regularly.
Temples are centres of traditional Thai culture, and not just for religion. Because most of them are meant to be open to anyone, children will play soccer on the grounds, and women will conduct dance classes.
While the open nature of Thailand’s temples does leave them open to abuse, it also ensures that they become not just a symbol of religion, but of the Thai people and their resilience.