Buddhism and tourism in Thailand

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A country, that is called the “Land of smiles”, that welcomes LGBTQ+ with the richest vegetarian kitchen to be tasted, and green mountains as well as white beaches to be explored? No wonder, so many backpackers flood Thailand and islands like Bali. But not only these features make Thailand so interesting: Buddhism, a religion so tolerant, peaceful and mindful, that tourists from all over the world travel to the Southeast Asian country to find a deeper connection to themselves.  I could actually name 5 friends of mine from the scratch who returned with a – more or less – spiritual tattoo from Thailand. Like the lotus flower, copied from Buddhist symbols. What I asked myself: Is that already spiritual traveling? In this case, my friends who arrived as tourists in Thailand seemed to be heavily impacted by its spiritual philosophy when they returned. And What about the other way around? Which footprints did my friend, as one of 32 million (!!!) tourists traveling to Thailand annually, leave behind in the country? 

To get closer to the answer, let’s look at Buddhism in Thailand and how it forms the Thai culture. Later on, I will give you an insight into the impact of tourism on the country and its religious way of life. 

A tourist overcrowded Temple in Thailand. 

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Buddhism is Thailand´s state religion and practiced by 95% of the Thai population.  The king in Thailand is constitutionally determined to be Buddhist and a representant of the faith. Does that mean, that there is no freedom of religion in Thailand? No, not necessarily. According to Buddha and the general concept of tolerance embedded in the religion, there is always a freedom of choice. No human being can or should be forced to be Buddhist. The first Buddha in history, Siddharta Gautama, born in today’s Nepal, searched for enlightenment for years and achieved this state of inner peace and wisdom after 49 days of meditating underneath a Bodhi tree. To share his spiritual experience in Nirvana, a place in the inner self liberated from suffering, he travelled through India and soon many parts of East and Southeast Asia. His teachings – the Dharma – were based on the following rule:  

“You should do your own work, for I can teach only the way.”  


The Bodi Three. 

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Buddha did not teach in his Dharma what he actually realized, but how he reached the realization. One could awaken one’s enlightenment for oneself, through own experience and not by following dogmas. Like other great world religions, Buddhism comprises various interpretations and philosophies.  Still, the core of Buddhist beliefs is universal. When getting into Buddhism, you will ultimately learn about three “tools” that are central to Buddhist beliefs and help reaching enlightenment. 

  1. The three Universal Truths 
  1. The four Noble Truths 
  1. The Eightfold Path 

Getting to the core of these guidelines and implementing them will take time and patience. Nevertheless, we will try to summarize the ideas. What it means for your life, will be up to you! 

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The three universal truths teach the believer, that nothing is lost in the universe, everything changes, and the law of cause and effect take place. The lastly mentioned truth you definitely heard of – it is commonly known as karma. One action will ultimately lead to a reaction, that can turn out to be pleasant or unpleasant. This depends on whether the first action was exercised skilful or unskilful. Therefore, karma teaches awareness, and to take responsibility for your actions and its consequences. Maybe you already recognized it yourself at some point in your life, and a good duty you did has gotten rewarded sooner or later. Unfortunately, it works the other way around as well, so be conscious in what you put out there! 

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The Four Noble Truths, very simplistic depicted acknowledge that life is influenced by suffering, which is caused by greed. By getting rid of being greedy, one frees oneself from suffering. It means to get to identify the pain, find its cause, and resolve it. Sounds logical, but I am sure it’s not an easy road to take. To help you with that, Buddha thought of the Eightfold Path. This path is meant to be implemented in your every-day-life, each action and thought. To break it down to its base: wise, ethical and disciplined actions will lead you to liberation from greed, ending suffering and with time, commitment and meditation, reach enlightenment. 

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There is so much more to learn about Buddhism but find it out yourself! For now, this should be enough to realize, how peaceful and tolerant this religion is. Besides the ‘theory’, how is Buddhism implemented in Thailand`s every-day-life? 

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Some practices of Buddhism embedded in Thai culture are very obvious. If you have been to Thailand already, you might have noticed colourful spirit houses, packed with daily offerings in front of a building, protecting its inhabitants. Ancient temples are to be found all over the country, and if you see Thai people feeding street dogs, it is an expression of Buddhist belief as well. It is common to give a donation to monks, recognizable by their yellow and orange robes, when they collect offerings in the streets. In the life of a young Thai, it is generally expected to commit at least 3 months of lifetime to strict religious studies before the 20th birthday. It is supposed to fuel good karma and thought to bring success and wealth to the monk. Usually, shaving their heads and eyebrows, as well as taking over duties like cleaning the temple they reside at are part of the rituals preparing a practicing monk.  

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In order to create a dialogue between cultures, religions, or just individuals, some temples in Thailand offer tourists to have a chat with a practicing monk to answer questions and explain their philosophy. Their way-of-life is highly respected by the Thai society, and so should it be by a tourist.  

For vegetarians and vegans, Thailand is THE place to go – thanks to Buddhism. As we remember, one of its morals is to not harm – not a human nor an animal. This led to an extraordinarily plant-based, diverse and renown way of cooking. In contrast to most Western cultures, Buddhist celebrations and holidays in Thailand are generally not accompanied by alcohol. At Makha Puja for example, Buddhists gather at temples nationwide to light candles during the full moon in February. Besides hosting religious celebrations and being home to monks, temples are places of worship and education.

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Chiang Mai’s Doi Suthep temple.

To many tourists it is self-evident to adapt the own behaviour as good as possible to the hosting cultures habits during their visit. Reading a news article from 2015, that depicts a young tourist kicking a holy bell in Chiang Mai’s Doi Suthep temple, one realizes that not all tourists act sensitive and considerate when encountering local customs. This becomes even clearer when looking at the mass tourism destinations on Thai islands. Red light districts flourish, as tourists from all over the world partly misuse the unstigmatized, tolerant approach of Thailand towards prostitution. Beaches flooded by trash from tourists, drunk foreigners insulting local Uber drivers, and in more extreme cases, religious tourists trying to convert locals to Christianity. These examples sound like rare, individual cases. Unfortunately, they are not. There are severe environmental, cultural and social impacts to be observed, while superficially, the economic impact can be seen as a benefit. But evaluate yourself: 

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Environmental impact 

Of course, there is not only the economic impact of tourism on Thailand. Tourism is also affecting the environment of the country, which are mostly negative effects. Big issues are water pollution and deterioration of air, often caused by air traffic and urbanization on the natural land. The consequences are damage on the coral reefs, trough lack of sunlight, and the stifling of the surface by waste in, for example, Ko Phi Phi. 

Nevertheless, some governmental actions have been taken and are considered to be taken in order to protect local culture and environment, for example by shutting down one of the most popular party islands for half a year, so different tourism concepts could be developed, and nature can heal from the damage. 

What we do know is that Thailand is aware of their situation and they do understand that the beauty of their nature and culture is the thing that attracts tourists to visit Thailand. So, when the almost new island Krabi was discovered and it was constructed with new hotel resorts, which effected the natural environment badly, they developed suitable waste system facilities to protect the island from trash, which demonstrates the awareness of the Thai government (UKEssays, 2018).  

The effects of tourism on Koh Phi Phi within 25 years. 

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Economic impact 

The economic impact of tourism in Thailand is huge. In 2016 the more than 17% of the GDP comes from tourism and is forming one of the largest sectors of employment in Thailand (Statista, 2020). Evidently, without tourism there will be many citizens unemployed and considering indirect income, large areas in Thailand are dependent on incoming tourists. Sure, one can criticize the high dependency – it always comes with uncertainty and risks. At the same time, it can be acknowledged, that the industry fuels large land stripes with financial resources. Aside from cultural exchange, Buddhism can benefit from tourists wallets: the Golden Temple, an attraction based in Bangkok, collects donations and government investments are reserved to fix the temple, which otherwise would be uncared-for.   

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Impact Spiritual and Mindfulness tourism  

Within the last years, spiritual and mindfulness tourism became really popular with Thailand as destination. Spiritual and mindfulness tourists travel to religious places to find their “true self”, recharge themselves, spiritual accomplishment, self-reflection and/or transform themselves. Or we can just say working on personal troubles in life like break-ups, divorces, loss, addictions or other private issues. Undoubtedly, there are others who are just interested in Buddhism as an aspect of Thai culture, to understand the Thai way of life and want to connect with and understand mindfulness more deeply.   

But how is this kind of tourism changing Thailand? For instance, in Chang Mai. By the Western people, Chang Mai is seen as the perfect place to go to for a spiritual experience. Therefore, this city, which is the second largest in Thailand, successfully changed into a well-known spiritual location. The Thai government smartly invested in this form of tourism and changed the previous “party” image into a more calm, positive and spiritual one. This form of tourism created many retreat places, yoga studio’s and programs connected to Buddhist temples, which are useful for the economy and locals. We must not forget that most of these facilities are set up via western investments and that they still try to fulfill the requirements of western tourist and constructed a sort of bubble which had nothing to do with Buddhism at all. Some are worried about the touristification of the Buddhist temples and the religion itself. The companies based in Thailand regarding to mindfulness and spiritualism are regularly disconnected from the original culture, society and religion and misuse the intentions and values they are trying to teach. Those businesses are mainly focusing on economic advantages and understate the effect of this kind of tourism on cultural patrimony. For example, the Buddhist temples are seen as holy, but through tourism, are more and more menaced by secularization. On the other hand, the interests of tourists in mindfulness in Thailand is contributing to the economy of the land and spiritual tourism is now an important sector. So, we can say that spiritual and mindfulness tourism has benefits as well as disadvantages, and that it is important to the find the balance between them (Choe & O’Regan, 2020). 

The video shows the overall impact of tourism on Thailand.

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So, what was this all about? Let`s remember: 

  1.  Buddhism is a tolerant, peaceful religion paving the way to enlightenment. 
  2. Thainess finds its fundamental values in Buddhism, and is expressed in Thai homes and on the streets and in restaurants…it’s basically everywhere. 
  3. Buddhism attracts more and more tourists searching for spiritual experiences. 
  4. Spiritual tourism tours might exploit Thainess and Buddhism for economic purposes. 
  5. Tourism contributes to maintenance of spiritual places like temples. 
  6. Mostly, tourism can threaten: Nature cherished by Buddhist followers gets destroyed, spiritual attractions are littered by trash. 

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