A model of religious harmony, Thailand still attracts tourists

Damnoen Saduak floating market – BENEDICT LOPEZ

Before the pandemic, Thailand was a tourist paradise.

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

In 2019, Thailand ranked eighth in the world, 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. Thailand’s tourism sector created 36 million jobs between 2014 and 2019.

As in most other countries, the pandemic plagued Thailand’s tourism sector in 2020 and 2021. By September 2021, tourist arrivals had plunged and international flights to Thailand were down 95% year-on-year. former. Hotel occupancy has dropped to just 9%.

Tourists flock to the country

Thailand’s tourism industry is rebounding from a disastrous phase. Since July 1, 2022, Thailand has fully reopened to foreign tourists.

In addition to presenting a passport or border pass on entry, vaccinated persons must present a vaccination certificate (taken at least 14 days before travel) on arrival, while unvaccinated travelers or partially vaccinated will need to show proof of a negative PCR test result or occupational antigen. test kit result taken within 72 hours of travel. Those arriving overland using a border pass will be allowed to stay for up to three days in specified areas only.

With relatively low airfares and reasonable hotel rates in Bangkok, I decided to spend five days in the “Land of Smiles”.

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

Floating markets

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

On a motorboat, travelers experience daily life on the backwaters of Bangkok’s canals up close (see photo above).

Outlet vendors here sell fresh produce and other foodstuffs, souvenirs, handicrafts and handmade sweets. Floating markets offer tourists a taste of popular Thai culture.

The pandemic has affected the livelihoods of many of these vendors, who depend on tourists for a stable monthly income. Fortunately, as tourists flock to the country again, their incomes will increase.

Bridge over the River Kwai

Bridge over the River Kwai, Kanchanaburi – BENEDICT LOPEZ

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

Built during the Japanese occupation, this railway was built to cross Burma to aid the Japanese invasion of India. I noticed the dexterity of execution as I walked along the stretch of railway crossing the River Kwai.

Stretching for 400 km, it was once called the Thailand-Burma Railway and earned the nickname “Death Railway” because more than one hundred thousand workers died during its 16-year construction period. month.

Some 13,000 POWs died and were buried along the railway. Around 80,000 to 100,000 civilians also died during the construction of the railway, including Malays, Indians and Malaysian Chinese.

Right next to the bridge is the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, which was the main POW cemetery for victims of Japanese imprisonment.

Fallen Soldiers: The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery – BENEDICT LOPEZ

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

As I walked along this well-maintained cemetery, I noticed that most of the fallen soldiers were between 20 and 30 years old. Words inscribed on the headstones paid somber homage to these fallen heroes.

It must have been heartbreaking for the families of these soldiers to know that their sons and brothers gave their lives for their country under such circumstances.

Exemplary religious harmony

Most Thais are Buddhists and some of the most renowned Buddhist temples are found throughout the country.

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

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

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

Upon entering the temple, I inquired with a Thai woman about these devotees.

She replied that it was quite common to see Thai Buddhists praying in this Hindu temple.

Even for a Catholic like me, the sight of faithful Buddhists and Hindus worshiping each other’s religions was moving, as it reflected the exemplary religious harmony that reigned there. Such types of worship bring out the best in humanity, and these believers dominate those who are narrow-minded and bigoted.

Despite being a predominantly Buddhist nation, Thailand is steeped in Hindu influence and many Thais have names of Indian origin. Their kings were called Rama IV, Rama XI, Prem, Anand and Supatra. In 2019, the coronation ceremony of King Vajiralongkorn of Thailand was punctuated by Hindu and Buddhist rituals.

Apart from its scenic sights and delicious cuisine, many tourists also enjoy shopping in the country. In the Sukhumvit area, more than a dozen tailoring shops cater to customers who want pants, shirts and blouses made within 24 hours. Almost 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 cuisine, 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 taste and budget.

Even during times of political uncertainty, such as the clashes between the yellow shirts and the red shirts some time ago, the influx of tourists to the country has remained unchanged. 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 vacation.

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