Brooke Schedneck, author of Religious Tourism in Northern Thailand
Temples, like many places in Thailand, have seen reduced activity since March 2020 but are slowly filling with tourists again. As tourism returns to Thailand, with restrictions to enter the country completely lifted on July 1, 2022, how are Buddhist temple residents feeling about opening their temples again? What are the ways Buddhist monks are rethinking the role of tourism for their temples?
In my monograph, Religious Tourism in Northern Thailand: Encounters with Buddhist Monks (2021), I analyzed the ways tourism, education, and urbanization were part of the experience for student monks in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, with fieldwork conducted from 2013 to 2018. I investigated sites of what I term “cultural exchange programs.” These programs are developed by individual monks and temples in order to take advantage of tourism for activities like chatting with a monk, staying over at a temple as an individual or with an educational tour, being temporarily ordained as a novice monk, or teaching English as a volunteer in a temple school.
I visited Chiang Mai again in June and July 2022, and asked student monks about how the lack of tourism and attendant economic effects during the last two years affected their daily lives. I specifically asked,
How has Covid-19 affected life at your temple?
What have you missed about talking with tourists?
What are the benefits of having fewer tourists?
Their answers reflected the loneliness they felt during the pandemic and the benefit of cultural exchange programs, of which tourists are a necessary part.
The main issue for Buddhist communities during the pandemic was the breakdown of the merit economy, an essential part of Theravada Buddhism that connects laypeople and monastics. The offering of food and material goods to monks is an integral part of the daily practice of Buddhism in Thailand. The belief is that through the act of giving, lay Buddhists receive merit. Merit is believed to negate the effect of past evils in the giver’s present life and in the next. Lay Buddhists make merit in many ways, such as donating time, goods, and money, depending on their circumstances. Monks, for their part, are at the top of the Buddhist social hierarchy and are considered to have the most merit. Through a disciplined lifestyle and dedication to study and practice, they are considered worthy recipients of gifts and offerings.
With laypeople and monks afraid of the possibility of catching and transmitting Covid-19, the necessary relationship between these two groups was strained. Many temples closed four or five times for a month or two each time, resulting in monks having to cook for themselves. Overall, there was a lack of connection and communication with laypeople, especially in city temples with many monks and novices to feed.
Phra Boon of Wat Sompow in Chiang Mai experienced periods of up to three months when his temple was closed and he could not receive offerings on alms round. However, life was easier at small village temples outside the city with fewer monks and dedicated supporters. Phra Jor said that Covid did not affect him and his temple too much. In this village temple, which is thirty minutes outside Chiang Mai city, people in the community, for the most part, continued to give. This was due to the close connection of the three to four monks in the temple to the small village.
At Wat Phra Singh the lack of tourists created less income for the temple, which needs funding for the temple school located on the premises. In contrast,Wat Palad has the support it needs without being dependent on tourism. Without tourists visiting Wat Palad, the monks were able to develop the temple further with landscaping and building projects and had more tranquility and time to focus on their environment.
Several months ago, tourists started to return to Wat Palad as part of private tour groups. These types of tourists, Phra Thavy finds, are more peaceful because they are shown how to observe the monks’ life through their guide. But lately more individual tourists have come with a different attitude that says, “Why are there so many rules here?” They ride into the temple on their motorbikes without a guide to explain how to behave appropriately and respectfully. Tourism produces varying responses, depending on the temple and local situation. Tourism can be necessary as a source of income. It can also be distracting, offensive, or a welcome addition to the temple atmosphere depending on the levels of respect and awareness of the tourists.
Monk Chat—a program where curious tourists and monks who are college students engage in casual conversation—was closed for two years at Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Srisuphan, and Wat Suan Dok. Many of the student monks choose to attend the monastic universities in Chiang Mai because of the Monk Chat program, where they can practice English with native speakers. Covid-19 made it difficult to recruit new students and created a less than ideal learning situation, where monks lacked motivation to practice and apply English.
Phra Kyo, a teacher at Wat Suan Dok’s Monk Chat and Meditation program, loves to teach. Being forced to stop doing what he loves was hard, and he lost confidence and motivation. However, he tried to meditate on the Buddhist truth of impermanence as the ups and downs of tourism along with a global pandemic certainly provided possibilities for reflection on these deep Buddhist teachings.
This period of time without tourism was challenging in many ways, even with peace and quiet as compensation. As restrictions lifted, most monks were just happy to see people again, making merit and receiving offerings. The student monks at Chiang Mai’s monastic universities were excited to be able to talk with tourists again and explain Buddhism in English to curious listeners.
In addition to exploring tourism and urbanization, my book also looked at the effects of tourism for student monks. Through their participation in cultural exchange programs, they felt more open and understanding toward different cultural and religious groups. They also were proud to be able to spread Buddhism to new audiences. These possibilities are especially exciting for student monks currently attending monastic university, who were unable to take advantage of the urban educational possibilities of Chiang Mai for the last two years.
Brooke Schedneck is assistant professor of religious studies at Rhodes College and author of Thailand’s International Meditation Centers: Tourism and the Global Commodification of Religious Practices. Her latest book, Religious Tourism in Northern Thailand: Encounters with Buddhist Monks, is available now.