Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Buddhism in Thailand: Temples, Monks, Spirit Houses and More

Integral to any cultural exploration of Thailand is a consideration of the religious heart of this land, Theravada Buddhism. Upon a visit to Thailand, whether your goal is the cities, the mountains and tribal lands or the beaches, you will be surrounded by religious and cultural icons and symbols of Buddhism.

Temples and Buddha images
Everywhere - similar to churches in the West. See pictures below for the unique Thai-style temple architecture. Inside of temples are images and icons of the Buddha. Self-awareness with regards to dress, behavior and the pointing of your feet inside temples is of supreme importance for the tourist in Thailand.

Ubiquitous – you can’t miss them if you’re near a temple. Most Thai men and some Thai women will become a monk at some point as a passage of rite, if not something more religious. Shaved heads and robes, along with the daily morning ritual of alms collection, give the monks away (but you still see them in internet cafes, with ipods dangling from their ears and carrying about casually in their daily activities).

Spirit Houses
On the grounds of many houses and virtually all businesses adhering to Buddhist principles, spirit houses are believed to be a home for the spirits who otherwise might be tempted to torment those not paying homage with the daily sustenance of food and drink and tender, loving care…

Taxi drivers and others may have fresh-cut flowers in the shape of a necklace somewhere nearby. There is no specific day of the week which Buddhists have set aside to worship, but instead do so as they please, but specific holidays are often popular times in the temples.

In general, Thai culture is very modest in clothing and behavior, which may come as a surprise to many farang (foreigner), but all the places with open consumption of alcohol and other carnal desires that Bangkok is famous for are for the purpose of, well, farang!

Pictures above:
1. Thailand's most famous sight, the Grand Palace complex, includes Wat Prat Kow, a temple of royalty.
2. Chiang Mai's highest regarded temple.
3. A Spirit House in front of a "Seven" on Ramkhamheang Rd. on the outskirts of Bangkok.
4. A taxi-driver displays a spirit necklace, fresh flowers for protection.
5. Paige and Sean catch a moment by a waterfall in Southern Thailand.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Walk Through a Thai Market

One of the joys of being in a developing country is the genuine local flavor of nearly everything, except in the bigger cities, of course. You just don’t have the big imports or the presence of large, multinational businesses, unless you want it. In developing countries, you have to go find the homogenous corporation instead of it finding you. Here’s to authenticity!

A local market, where freshness and friendliness abound, can be just the place to connect: Connect with the people, connect with the fruit, literally, of the land, connect in a convivial way with the country you are exploring. Many people already know this about France and other European corners where “fresh” and “in season” are the highest complements, but the same is true in Thailand.

So we take a walk through a Thai market: All four food groups are represented (even though judging by a quick Google search, the “four basic food groups” is so 1975): Fruits and vegetables in abundance, meats of all kinds both trustworthy and frightening (to the foreigner), rice, and even some dairy seen in the stacks and stacks of eggs.

These neighborhood markets are found throughout Thailand and SE Asia, quite often the equivalent of a local grocery store, especially in rural villages.

More of a pictoral blog entry this week than a textual, I hope you enjoyed our walk and can get to your own local farmer’s market soon.

Pictures above:
1. Most markets are outdoors, but this one in Chiang Mai is large and in-charge indoors.
2. One of the more dazzling-looking fruits found in Thailand, but usually these types of fruits are all show, and the go just isn't very tasty. I'll stick to my peaches and cherries in season, thanks.
3. These are frogs with their hearts ripped out to prove freshness. Anything for freshness!
4. A typical outdoor market scene, this one found in the Southern Thailand area of Nakhon Si Thammarat.
5. Duriane, the most famous of unique Southeast Asian fruits, is known for smelling really, really bad and tasting okay. The smelling bad part I can confirm...

Monday, January 12, 2009

Top 10 Best Ways to Offend Thai People

Just a fun look at unexpected cultural rules you are sure to break if you don’t read this, or something like it, before you come to Thailand:

1. Disrespect the King (don’t stand in honor at 8am, 6pm or before a movie and always make sure to lick that stamp with the King’s image).

2. As often as possible, as blatantly as possible, show everyone the bottom of your feet.

3. On that note, make sure you step over things lying on the ground or floor and especially step over people who might be laying in your way in a hallway, aisle or line.

4. Touch the top of a Thai person’s head as often as possible.

5. When entering someone’s home, do not take off your shoes and make sure to get dust, dirt, sand and muck all over the floor…

6. When entering a temple, don’t take off your shoes and always point your feet directly at a Buddha image (bonus points if you show the bottom of your feet to the Buddha image).

7. If you’re a man, touch a female monk. If you’re a woman, touch a male monk- oh yeah, they love that.

8. Kiss and touch your lover in public – pda, pda, pda!

9. Wear shorts above the knee, tank tops or just go with your bathing suit when you’re not on the beach.

10. Show your outrage publicly when the service, personal comfort or convenience is not the same as at home!

Special bonus advice on how to best offend a Thai person (and hopefully others):

11. Make the already-cheap prices for a Westerner cheaper by taking advantage of the street vendor, server or other representatives of famous Thai hospitality and their non-confrontational personal approach, getting that tuk-tuk ride for $1.50 rather than $2.00 or that fried chicken wing for 30 cents rather than 45 cents…way to go, capitalist, be proud.

Pictures above:

1. A typical meal gathering in rural Thailand or many homes in the cities. Sitting on the floor increases the likelihood that you’ll break the “bottom of the feet” cultural rule – be extra careful.

2. Bugs, like these locusts, are “edible” and usually, um…well, crunchy.

3. Do yourself a favor and just don’t mess with drugs in Southeast Asia!

4. Buddha images are not only found in the many wats or temples, but also in various outdoor locations like this one in the middle of the commercial district of Bangkok – another likely place for visiting tourists to severely disrespect Thai culture simply out of ignorance.

5. Paige celebrated a birthday this past week, so we went to top floor of the Baiyoke Hotel for a buffet and view of Bangkok from Thailand’s tallest building and the 28th tallest in the world. Happy Birthday, Paige.

Monday, January 5, 2009

A Dark Side of Southeast Asia

Beyond the beaches, elephants, food, hospitality and tuk-tuks, there exists a sad reality in Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia.

One more consequence to the inexplicable lack of governmental leadership in this part of the world is the rampant human trafficking, usually women and children for sex, that thrives within the corruption-laden authorities and law enforcement entities from India to Vietnam. Worse, as any brief internet search indicates, human trafficking is not isolated to this region, but is a problem worldwide, including even North America and Europe.

An article recently written by a syndicated columnist in the U.S. is the latest attempt to shed light on a problem that hides in the dark corners of ignored parts of the world:


Please read to increase your own awareness of "modern day slavery" and if you are so moved, here is one of many resources to help stop human trafficking: