Bangkok's goopy pot of spiritual confusion

by Sophia Lee

Posted on Saturday, November 7, 2015, at 4:54 pm

WORLD reporter Sophia Lee is traveling through Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, and other Southeast Asian countries. She’s sending us regular reports of what she sees, feels, and does—Nellie Bly–style.

BANGKOK, Thailand—There’s a saying in Korean: “You can’t spit at a smiling face.” Here in Bangkok, I think if I spat at a smiling Thai face, that person would still be smiling.

Welcome to the city where the people are exceedingly polite and the food is exceedingly spicy. I’m staying at a studio apartment in Bang Na, a busy suburbia many kilometers from the city center. As a result, none of the street food stalls here cater to foreigners.

The first night I roamed the street, sucking in the beautiful aroma that emanates when garlic meets porky fat with a sizzle in a well-used wok, I hopped in agony because my stomach was growling but I couldn’t read the menu signs on the carts. Everything was in Thai, writings that look like rows of smiley faces and coiled ribbons, and none of the vendors could speak a word of English besides a quizzical, friendly, “Huh?” Quick hands exchanged bahts (Thai currency) and hot plastic packages of delicious-smelling noodly things, but all I could do was stare, trying to guess what kind of dishes are offered.

I was touched by the amount of unflappable effort these vendors gave in trying to understand and interact with me. Sometimes they even called their neighbors over and a small group soon surrounded me, grinning and trying to guess what I was trying to communicate through dramatic gestures and facial expressions. Some coached me on some Thai words. “Khao,” a woman repeated, nodding and smiling up at me, pointing at a bag of white rice.

Eventually I made do by pointing at somebody else’s order and nodding eagerly when the vendor rattled off a bunch of Thai questions back. Just smile and nod, smile and nod, because whatever dish I ended up with, it was always hot and fresh and scrumptious. The vendors all remembered me the next day, so eventually I stopped having to sing for my supper.

While the extreme niceness Thai people are famous for is great for tourists, missionaries and local Christians told me it creates some potholes for them in their ministries. Thais are so polite they’ll agreeably listen to your gospel, and then shelve it next to their personal reference of animism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and whatever else that sounds good to them. Somehow, Christianity has not quite “kicked off” here the way it did in other Asian countries such as Korea and China. “Mission work here takes long, very long, intentional relationship-building,” one Canadian missionary for YWAM told me. “It takes years and years for one person to accept Christ.”

Though almost 94 percent of Thais identify as Buddhists, the country is very tolerant of other religions, both by constitution and custom. The Thai people tend to think well of Christianity as one of many do-gooding religions but draw the line right where the actual gospel starts. King Mongkut, the inspiration behind The King and I,famously told his American missionary friends, “What you teach them to do is admirable, but what you teach them to believe is foolish.”

For most Thai people, religion is intertwined with cultural values and family heritage. Thai tolerance for other religions starts fraying when they realize the Christian gospel requires a complete rejection of other gods in order to have an exclusive relationship with the one and only God. Many Buddhist families who happily send their kids to Christian or Catholic schools erupt into rage when they find out their sons or daughters have converted, which is what happened to one Thai pastor I met in Bangkok.

Religion is also a means to an end, usually prosperity and peace for self and family. I spot ornate, gold-framed spirit houses outside residential yards and business establishments, including one in my apartment building complex. The bigger and more modernized the building, the nicer and grander the spirit house. You can’t miss them in Thailand—they’re everywhere, and they stick out high on top of tall white columns.

These spirit houses, crafted like Thai palaces and sometimes housing little animal and human figurines, are meant to appease and respect the countless celestial beings Thais believe may cause trouble for their business or home. People place tiny bowls of food and drinks, pots of incense, and sweet-smelling, color-popping flowers on the balcony surrounding the spirit houses. Most people even stick a straw into a packet of juice—apparently these spirits have lips to sip?

The Thai people have many other options to gain merit and blessings. Early in the morning, just as the sun starts peeking through the mist, solemn, detached-looking monks in ochre robes venture out on their daily morning alms rounds. They walk slowly through the streets, stopping only when people indicate an offering. Most people get down on their knees, and some even respectfully take their shoes off, and they hold their palms together in prayer below their chin as the monks recite something to them.

The almsgiving transaction takes place very quickly and ritualistically. There is no chitchat, no questions or requests from the almsgiver, no “How are you?” or “Thank you” or eye contact from the monks. I peeked into a boy monk’s open almsbowl and saw wafts of 20 baht notes, individual packages of curry and sticky rice, and some incense sticks. Next to the curry and fried fish stalls (for breakfast!), morning vendors also sell convenient “sets” that people can buy to give alms. Each “set” might contain a fistful of fresh rice, some flowers, and a juice packet, all arranged on a plastic plate or in a basket.

As I watched the people close their eyes with their heads dipped and gulp the monk’s sayings to earn their day’s blessings, I wondered what else they gain from almsgiving beyond temporal contentment in self-virtue and hope for blessings. The Thai people might smile a lot, but they also harbor a lot of fears and uncertainties, evidenced by their spirit houses and non-discriminatory mix of sometimes-conflicting religions. The nation is also rapidly modernizing, an extra addition to Thailand’s goopy pot of spiritual confusion. Here, spiritual oppression takes on a different form than that in Islamic Malaysia or Indonesia, but the root is the same: Someone powerful is keeping true answers and blessings from the people.

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband. Follow her on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

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