When visiting Angkor Wat, most foreign visitors come to see a magnificent monument / structure and the intricate details of the bas reliefs in the galleries of the main temple structure. One thing to note, however, is that Angkor Wat is still actively being used as a place of worship by the Cambodians. As such, I think it is important to have the proper respect and reference when coming to visit the place.
As we walked around the main temple building, we saw tourist groups accompanied by their guides visiting the galleries and looking at the details. When we reach certain parts inside the temple, however, we noticed that there were not as many foreign tourists there, but instead you see local Cambodians coming and setting up mats in front of statues of Buddha, and brought with them offerings to use for worship. In one of the guidebooks I read, it mentioned that during the Lunar New Year time, this was even more pronounced as the locals would come in numbers to worship, and this might be the time for tourists to yield to the locals and instead observe the use of the temple as it is intended to be rather than simply as a historic monument.
I think it’s also important that before coming to visit places like Angkor Wat that has special meanings to the locals to be reverent and pay the due respect to the traditions and culture. Often times you see visitors who come and think that because they’re the guests who paid their way to come and visit, they should be treated like royalty and they can do whatever they want. That’s very insensitive, and it’s what often times give certain group of people bad stereotypes from the locals.
The following photo was taken from a little distance when I saw the locals in the process of doing their worship ceremony. We watched silently from a bit of distance to ensure that our presence did not cause any distraction or interruption to the worship ceremony that was in progress.
When visiting Thailand, a very visible aspect of the culture that you will encounter is its main religion, Buddhism. Nearly 95% of Thailand’s population is Buddhist of the Theravada school (the oldest surviving school of Buddhism — conservative and close to the early Buddhism). The religion has been part of the Thai people since the beginning of its history, and it very much influences the culture. Just like you find churches everywhere in Rome, you will find Buddhist temples everywhere in Bangkok. You’re likely to see monks with their orange or red robes everywhere; that’s because becoming monks is considered as a rite of passage for young Thai men. When you interact with the Thais, you will notice their mannerisms that reflect the teachings of Buddha — gentle, respectful, and full of smile.
Before our visit to Bangkok, I learned about this aspect of the Thai culture from reading guidebooks and talking to my cousin Kristi who had some Thai friends and had been in Thailand before. I wondered if this might be somewhat ‘in your face’ and might make a visitor feel uncomfortable or out of place. On the contrary, I thought we had a good experience immersing ourselves in the culture, and it brought out an interest in me to learn more about the culture and appreciate its rich history. What’s sad is that many foreigners (‘farangs’ as the Thai would call them) come to Thailand to look for white sandy beaches or the party scene (or even the darker side — sex tourism) and leave the country completely ignorant of this wonderful aspect of the culture that is rooted in their beliefs.
The photo below was taken in front of a store near the Sao Ching Cha neighborhood of Bangkok. We walked to this neighborhood after visiting the Grand Palace. On the way there we passed a street lined with stores selling statues of Buddha, ranging from the small ones to life-size. I suppose people will purchase these statues for their homes.