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Pandemic takes toll on Thai pilgrimages

Economic downturn means people are traveling less to Christian churches and Buddhist temples

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

Published: November 10, 2020 05:11 AM GMT
Pandemic takes toll on Thai pilgrimages

Ai Khai (Egg Boy) is believed to grant favors to people who petition his spirit with offerings. (Photo: YouTube)

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected spiritual pilgrimages and religious travel around Thailand, according to a government agency.

The commerce ministry’s trade policy and strategy office based this finding on a new poll of nearly 8,000 locals that asked them about their spending this year on religious visits and sacred items. 

Nearly 44 percent of 7,904 respondents said they had traveled less often to religious sites such as Christian churches and Buddhist temples, largely as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the severe economic downturn it has wrought in Thailand.

“The top reasons for visiting religious venues are to pay respect and gain spiritual support, followed by praying to holy objects and asking for blessings,” said Pimchanok Vonkorpon, director-general of the government office.   

“Over 70 percent of respondents said they spend less than 200 baht [US$6.50] on donations/merit-making on each trip to religious venues.

“People in this group are mostly students or unemployed, while those who spend more than 200 baht at religious venues are mostly civil servants and business owners.”

The government office estimates that Thais of various faiths spend nearly 11 billion baht ($360 million) on religious travel each year.

“Religious travel is an important economic activity that helps create revenue at the community level as Thailand has religious venues scattered in every province,” Pimchanok said.

However, not all of Thailand’s provinces have been equally affected by a downturn in religious tourism.

In recent months hundreds of thousands of Buddhists from around the country have been flocking to Wat Chedi in the southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat where the golden statue of a temple boy called Ai Khai (Egg Boy) is believed to grant favors to people who petition his spirit with votive offerings.

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“The miraculous power of Ai Khai has worked magic for the economy of this southern province battered by the protracted Covid-19 crisis,” the Bangkok Post reported.

“While most other parts of Thailand are still in the economic doldrums, tourists are streaming into this province hoping to be blessed by the gold-plated statue of the boy monk.”

Both hotels in the area and flights to the province have been overbooked for weeks as hundreds of thousands of Thais keep pouring into the province each month.

Most visitors to the temple are hoping to gain material benefits after propitiating the golden statue of Ai Khai, who is believed to have been a disciple of a revered Buddhist monk in the 17th century before the boy, aged around 10, drowned in a river. 

“About 400,000 tourists have visited the province in recent months, an astounding number given the weak state of the economy,” a Thai newspaper reported in September.

Since then, hundreds of thousands of other Thais have been to the southern province to visit the statue of Ai Khai, which is believed to house the spirit of the boy. Many of them are hoping to hit the jackpot on the lottery.

The sudden surge of religiously inspired zeal has brought windfalls for many businesses and private individuals in Nakhon Si Thammarat.

Some experts have said that the Ai Khai craze is being fueled in part by locals’ economic woes during the pandemic, with many people seeking financial assistance from supernatural sources.  

However, some Buddhists have warned that their coreligionists’ faith in the alleged miracle-working abilities of the statue is against the actual teachings of their religion’s founder.

“[A] temple should be a place where we can seek peace of mind and find a path to purify ourselves. It should never play a role in fueling an obsession with worldly materials,” a Bangkok-based columnist wrote.

“Even though Buddha never told us to say no to wealth, he taught us to believe in our potential to acquire it through decent means. It’s ridiculous that some of his disciples today instead encourage us to rely on the power of a boy’s spirit.”

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