Religion in Bangkok

After spending a few days in Bangkok, Linh and I have escaped to a tropical island paradise. There's not much to do here besides relax, and the next Euro 2008 match doesn't start for 30 minutes or so, so it's time for a blog entry. Today's topic: religion in Bangkok.

I really shouldn't even dare to approach this subject considering how ignorant I am of it. But traveling around Bangkok, I am struck by the very different ways Thai people show their piety. One of the first things I noticed was that there are little shrines outside many many buildings, ranging from federal government agencies to apartment complexes. These always seem to have a pretty fresh coat of paint and several offerings of flowers, incense, and even fruit to the little Buddha statues inside.

One of the first sights we saw was Jim Thompson's house. He was a very rich American who made himself a mansion out of several old Thai houses and filled it with Southeast Asian antiquities. His collection consisted (as I've come to realize almost all old Southeast Asian art did) of pottery, porcelain, and religious art. The religious art included paintings of what I was told were some of the Buddha's past lives, paintings of a Hindu epic, and sculptures of the Buddha in different poses. Since that day we've visited many temples and museums and seen very many more examples of these forms of art. I suppose I might think Europe an extremely religious place if I only looked at the very old art in its churches and museums, but there are other things I saw in Bangkok that brought my attention to religion.

Walking around Bangkok, riding the bus, sitting on a river ferry, I saw monks with shaved heads and bright orange robes. Sometimes alone, sometimes in large groups, the monks didn't appear to be doing anything particularly monk-like; they were just shopping, commuting, walking like anyone else. I saw monks talking on cell phones, smoking cigarettes, and shopping in a mall. There were some differences: on all public transport vehicles there are designated areas that are reserved for monks. It also appears that they ride for free. It took me several days to find some monks doing something particularly monk-like: in the evening at a temple many of them gathered in front of a Buddha statue to chant.

I was also struck to see many very young monks; some looked not even 12 years old. During the chanting, some of these young monks were sitting in the back of the temple elbowing each other. As was explained to me by a tour guide at a temple, almost all Thai men become monks, though many only for a short while (I think the minimum is 3 months). Even the king was a monk for 3 months. They do this because they believe it will help their parents in the afterlife (or the next life, I'm not quite sure). Once I learned this, many things made sense. There are lots and lots of monks because every male has to be one. Some of them don't seem to behave very differently from lay people because they're really just lay people temporarily playing monk to fulfill a familial and cultural obligation. Perhaps there are lots of young monks because it's easier to take 3 months off to be a monk when one is young. I'd be interested to learn what proportion of Thai monks are only monks for 3 months, and what proportion do it for life.

A picture of the monks on the ferry. They have a special place reserved for them.

Click for a video of monks chanting.