Samui Wining & Dining
Buddhism is not the only religion in Thailand – there seems to be room for everyone.


It’s Buddhism, isn’t it? That’s the instinctive reaction. Ask anyone between the ages of 20 and 120 – they’ll reply that Buddhism is the religion in Thailand. And so it is. But that’s like saying that New York is full of Christians, or Muslims never touch alcohol. Nothing’s ever quite so clear-cut. When it comes to religion over here, there’s a lot more than Buddhism. And even this won’t be quite what you’re expecting!

        Although Buddhism is both the primary and the state religion, the Thais have always subscribed to the ideal of religious freedom. Thai constitutions have stipulated that Thai kings must be Buddhists, but monarchs are invariably also titled the “Upholder of All Religions”. Overall, Thailand is a very open and receptive nation, although in practice now and then you’ll notice a bit of a tremble.

        Take the State religion of Buddhism, for instance. Those of you reading this, that are (ahem) of a certain age will immediately nod to yourself and relate this to a timeslot in your past. The word ‘Theravada’ springs to mind immediately – and it just so happens that this is the form of Buddhism prevalent in Thailand today. It’s not easy to come up with a slick outline of

Theravada beliefs, but back in the days when pop idols had personal gurus, it was all pleasantly simple. We’re heading towards spiritual perfection in order to attain Nirvana. This can only happen in stages of gradual improvement and enlightenment via birth and rebirth. Merit is earned, and advancement brings us closer to Buddha. There are lists of things to do and things not to do, and it’s all very spiritual.

         In Thailand you’ll find this sort of laudable mission statement going on inside the temples (except for maybe one or two exceptions such as the renegade jet-setting monk, Luang Pu Nenkham Chattigo, whose assets – including his private jet – were frozen in June pending an official investigation into charges of financial irregularity and moneylaundering!). Where was I? Oh yes. Human weakness aside (or even maybe in quite a central position after all), Thai Buddhism in the temples is an admirable business, forsaking all personal possessions and worldly trappings, and seeking to attain spiritual enlightenment. Got it? Good. Hold on to this thought.

          In the not too distant past, a young woman whom I came to know quite well had the usual little spirit shrine on the wall inside her house. Well, actually, she had three. Twice each day she would go through a short ritual in turn with each of them, involving placing incense sticks and shot-glasses of water or alcohol, sweets and snacks on their tables and praying to each. I finally asked her what it was all about. “This one is for my Buddha,” she explained, “to keep away the ghosts and help me be a better person.” (Note that the ghosts were the main thing here.) “This one is for my mama and papa: I pray they have good luck and that my family has good luck and can send them money. And this one is for me. I ask Buddha for money with my business and good luck for the lottery every week and that I not get sick and that I am lucky with love and find a good man with money who take care of me.”

          And that’s the way it seems to be at a grass-roots level. Spirits and ghosts are very real, even to the point that a Thai person dreads the idea of staying in a house alone. There is a strong element of animism, too, where trees and rocks and ancient, lonely places have their own spirit which needs to be kept happy – or else! And lots of good luck and gimme gimme money is top of the list every time. But in many ways this is not so different from Christianity – or at least people’s approach to it. There are those who pay lip service to it all and go to church religiously every Sunday, because they reckon that’s all it takes for their place in heaven to be guaranteed. And there are others who work non-stop to be less selfish, put the rest of the world before their own interests and do to others as they would be done by. I guess it’s the same all over the world.

          There’s actually a very strong Muslim contingent in Thailand: less so, but evident, in the northern and central regions but becoming more concentrated the closer you get to Malaysia. All of the big cities have several mosques and with this number rising sharply in southern cities like Nakhon Sri Thammarat and Had Yai. Samui has traditionally had its own Muslim community down in the south-eastern area of Hua Thanon, where the hand-decorated fishing boats have long-since become a tourist attraction. In the earlier days, Muslims gravitated naturally together. But you’ll find that this is now becoming decentralised, with new mosques appearing all over the place, the most recent of these being in Maenam. Hindus are less well represented, and are certainly more of a minority, although there is now a Sikh temple in Bophut.

          Traditionally Westerners are inclined towards the many facets of the Christian faith. But there’s a cultural difference here. Whereas all the other religions require daily devotions of a private or collective nature, and their followers are actively engaged in their religious beliefs, in the West this has faded. There are certainly far more Westerners on the island than there are Muslims. Thus by rights there ought to be more churches than mosques. But there are few. There are Catholic ones in Chaweng and Nathon and a Baptist church in Plai Laem. Then there’s a Chabad (Jewish temple). And that’s about it. There was a Russian Orthodox church in the planning back in 2008, although that doesn’t seem to have happened yet. But, given the recent explosion of Russian residents, Russian churches all over the island is one idea that’s definitely not hard to believe!


 Rob De Wet


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