Home TA Online A model of religious harmony, Thailand’s still drawing tourists

A model of religious harmony, Thailand’s still drawing tourists

It was heart-warming to see ordinary Thais crossing inter-religious boundaries at places of worship

The floating market in Damnoen Saduak - BENEDICT LOPEZ

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Prior to the pandemic, Thailand was a haven for tourists.

In 2019 some 40 million tourists visited the country, enthralled by scenic tourists’ spots and pristine beaches.

In 2019 Thailand ranked eighth globally, with 40 million international tourist arrivals. Tourism accounted for 11% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), valued at two trillion baht in 2019. The Thai tourism sector created 36 million jobs between 2014 and 2019.

Like in most other countries, the pandemic tormented Thailand’s tourism sector in 2020 and 2021. By September 2021 tourist arrivals had plunged and international flights to Thailand had nosedived by 95% from the previous year. Hotel occupancies crashed to 9%.

Tourists flocking back to the country

Thailand’s tourism industry is now bouncing back after a disastrous phase. From 1 July 2022 Thailand has reopened completely to foreign tourists.

Apart from showing a passport or border pass upon entry, vaccinated individuals need to show a vaccine certificate (taken at least 14 days before travelling) upon arrival while unvaccinated or partially vaccinated travellers will have to show proof of a negative PCR test result or professional antigen test kit result taken within 72 hours of travel. Those arriving by land using a border pass will be allowed a stay of up to three days within the specified areas only.

With air fares relatively low and hotel rates in Bangkok reasonable, I decided to spend five days in the “land of smiles”.

Bangkok is now a hive of activity and tourists are flocking back to the country in droves: akin to the pre-pandemic days.

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Floating markets

The floating markets are a popular attraction in Thailand, and I visited the one Damnoen Saduak, over an hour’s drive from Bangkok.

On a motorised boat, travellers get an up-close view of everyday life on the backwaters of Bangkok’s canals (see photo above).

The retail outlet vendors here sell fresh produce and other foodstuffs, souvenirs, handicraft and handmade sweets. The floating markets provide tourists with a glimpse of popular Thai culture.

The pandemic had hit the livelihoods of many of these vendors, who depend on tourists for a steady monthly income. Fortunately, as tourists again flock to the country, their incomes will rise.

Bridge on the River Kwai

Bridge over the River Kwai, Kanchanaburi – BENEDICT LOPEZ

Another attraction I always wanted to visit in Thailand was the Bridge on the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi, about two hours’ drive from the capital.

Constructed during the Japanese occupation, this railway was built to cut across Burma to aid the Japanese invasion of India. I noticed the dexterity of the workmanship as I walked along the stretch of the railway across the River Kwai.

Stretching over 400km, it was formerly called the Thailand-Burma Railway and earned the nickname “Death Railway” because over a hundred thousand labourers died during its 16-month construction period.

Some 13,000 prisoners of war died and were buried along the railway. About 80,000 to 100,000 civilians also died during the railway construction, including Malays, Indians and Chinese from Malaya.

Just next to the bridge is the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, which was the main prisoner of war cemetery for victims of Japanese imprisonment.

Fallen soldiers: The war cemetery in Kanchanaburi – BENEDICT LOPEZ

The cemetery contains 6,982 graves, mostly British, Australian and Dutch prisoners – of whom 6,858 have been identified.

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While walking along this well-maintained cemetery, I noticed that most of the fallen soldiers were in their 20s and early 30s. Words inscribed on the tombstones paid sombre tribute to these fallen heroes.

It must have been heart-breaking for the families of these soldiers to know their sons and brothers gave their lives for their country in such circumstances.

Exemplary religious harmony

Most Thais are Buddhists, and some of the most renowned Buddhist temples are found all over the country.

In Bangkok, I visited the Traimit Witthayaram Temple, where I saw the largest golden Buddha image in the world (made from pure gold). I noticed that even Hindu tourists from India were praying in this temple in front of Buddha’s statue.

Later, while passing the Sri Mahamariamman Hindu Temple, I observed it was filled with Thai Buddhists making offerings and praying.

Crossing the religious divide: Thai Buddhists praying and making offerings at the Sri Mahamariamman Hindu Temple in Bangkok – BENEDICT LOPEZ

Upon entering the temple, I enquired from a Thai woman about these worshippers.

She replied it’s quite common to see Thai Buddhists praying at this Hindu temple.

Even for a Catholic like me, the sight of Buddhist and Hindu worshippers revering each other’s religions was moving, as it reflected the exemplary religious harmony prevailing. Such kinds of venerations bring out the best in humanity, and these believers tower over those who are narrow-minded and bigoted.

Despite being a Buddhist majority nation, Thailand is steeped in Hindu influence and many Thais have names of Indian origin. Their kings have been called Rama IV, Rama XI, Prem, Anand and Supatra. In 2019 Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn’s coronation ceremony was laced with Hindu and Buddhist rituals.

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Besides its scenic tourist spots and delicious cuisine, many tourists also like shopping in the country. In the Sukhumvit area, over a dozen tailor shops cater to customers who want trousers, shirts and blouses tailored within 24 hours. Nearly all the tailor shops here are owned by ethnic Indians, some of whom are third and fourth generation Thai citizens.

What makes Thailand so attractive? Considered the most popular tourist destination in Southeast Asia, Thailand offers tourists a variety of clean beaches, a vast expanse of flora and fauna, tasty Thai food, cheap beer and a range of hotels, including one of the best luxury hotels in the world. Literally speaking, there is always something for every interest and every budget.

Even during periods of political uncertainty, like the standoffs between the yellow-shirts and red-shirts some time ago, tourist inflows into the country remained unaffected. Perhaps even then tourists did not feel insecure, as they believed it was purely domestic politics, and the country was still a safe destination for a holiday.

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The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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Titus Pereira
Titus Pereira
31 Jul 2022 10.30am

Was planning a visit, now it will be soon

J. D. Lovrenciear
31 Jul 2022 1.06am

I cannot disagree with you Sir one once. Thailand and its people have a very open mind and they don’t just tolerate differences but accept (embrace) differences. That makes the nation progress by leaps and bounds in terms of national happiness index. We Malaysians who are tearing into each other’s throats over race, rights and religion need to swallow our pride and eat humble pie. We have a long long way to go or be doomed as the region races ahead in the next quarter century.

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