Thailand is commonly well understood by the global audience that Buddhism is the major religion of the country. According to the statistical data by July 2018, the number of Buddhist temple nationwide amounts as high as 41,205. This large number unsurprisingly corresponds to the fact that approximately 95 percent of the population identifies themselves as Buddhist. In BC 307, Buddhism was first spread into Suvarnabhumi Kingdom, then became included in the areas of current Thailand. With the long history ever since, Buddhist faith and rituals have continued to influence all aspects of Thai people’s everyday life. Temples have become a central space where Thai people gather to nurture their spiritual realm and foster their community cohesiveness. Beyond the religious facets, Buddhism has, in a sense, been embedded in Thai cultures, traditions, and life philosophy.
When it comes to celebrating time, like New Year’s day, it is natural for many Thai citizens to visit community temples to pray for good merits. Instead of joining the New Year’s countdown at time square, many Thai people would pray overnight at the temple to bless and welcome their first day of the year. South Korea increasingly receives more Thai citizens (either for education, professions, or international marriage migration purposes). In 2016, the number of registered Thai people residing in Korea accounts for 29,292, which has increased by approximately 37 per cent over a decade. This is not a small size community. Therefore, a question is where do they actually go when they feel the need to practice religious rites or gather with friends from the same country in special occasions or festive time? Some visits local Buddhist temples in Korea. However, due to language barrier and different Buddhist sects (Mahayana and Theravada), the Thai residents may feel that they cannot be fully involved and participate in the religious practices in Korean temples.
So, is there any alternative where Thai people could feel more like home? There are actually a small number of Thai temples throughout South Korea. Among them, Wat Buddharangsee is the most well known among the Thai community, most likely because of its location in Seoul. The temple is located in Gyeonggi Province. The establishment of the Temple has been mainly to serve the growing Thai community residents living in Korea. In fact, other branches of the Temple had been built in other countries as well for the Thai communities abroad. The branches of Wat Buddharangsee are also located in big cities such as Sydney, Tokyo and Virginia.
On every Thai festive occasion and holiday, many Thai people come together at the temple and make merits together. Based on observations, a majority of the temple visitors are Thai laborers working in South Korea. Temple is their spiritual anchor, especially vital to their psychological support when they have to go through hard times abroad. There also provides a space for them to regularly socialize with the others from Thailand. The Temple is the physical space where Thai laborers who work in different geographical areas throughout South Korea come together for face-to-face communications and strengthen social capital. In addition, the function of the Temple’s social media platform also interestingly brings the online social network and provides connectivity to the Thai communities. In other words, either offline or online, temple persistently plays a central role to bond and connect Thai residents living in the foreign countries.
On New Year’s day, to welcome 2019 with good deeds and blessing, a number of Thai labor communities in Korea visited the temple. It is a tradition that visitors bring food along, offer it to monks, and share with others visitors. Furthermore, some participated in donations or fundraising campaign for renovating the building. Although the amount of fund each may be able to donate is humble, such kind action may incredibly alleviate their hardship and yield personal satisfaction.
South Korea is becoming increasingly internationalized. Due to the socio-demographic changes in the country, there persists a trend of rising number of foreign migrants, workers, and students. The cultural spaces, such as Thai Buddhist temples, that came along with this flow of Thai nationals into South Korea has flourished the country with multiculturalism. Such places, however, should not be confined to serve only Thai visitors or the foreign residents. So, let’s invite our Korean friends to be engaged in the next Thai festivals to be held at the Thai temples. Mutual understanding may be enhanced, and the boundary of ‘otherness’ among local and foreign residents is likely to get blurred.
(1) Many has misunderstood that Buddhism is assigned as an official or state religion of Thailand. Although more than 66 million people follow Buddhist religious belief, there exists no constitutional provision affirming Buddhism as ‘national religion’. This is way that the state has intention to uphold the freedom to religious choice and equal respect to different religions.
(3) See the results of socio-cultural survey in 2011 published by National Statistical Office of Thailand. http://service.nso.go.th/nso/nsopublish/themes/files/soc-culPocket.pdf