As we so often found ourselves on this trip, we were bouncing in the back of a truk-truk somewhere between points A and B. Lena and our video crew had all fallen asleep, sunglasses and caps pulled low over drooped eyelids, arms and legs akimbo over our pile of bags. Meanwhile, I gazed out the back, admiring the cutesy helmets and scooter accessories in the puttering traffic behind us.
Suddenly, a billboard caught my eye.
“It is wrong to use Buddha as decoration or tattoo,” it read in a sobering sans-serif font. “Means no respect. Don’t buy or sell Buddha.”
I turned to the others. “Hey, did you guys see that?”
I heard snores in response.
Thailand is an extremely Buddhist country, as evidenced by its many jewelled wats and bald-shaven monks. Like its lese-majeste laws in which locals and travellers alike can be jailed for speaking ill of the royal family, the nation takes blasphemous acts very seriously. As the Thai constitution declares, “The state shall establish measures and mechanisms to prevent the desecration of Buddhism in any form and encourage the participation of all Buddhists in the application of such measures and mechanisms.”
While a lot of Westerners distance themselves from the fundamentals of the Abrahamic religions, there’s something about Buddhism that many consider—for lack of a better term—cool, even if they don’t ascribe to the spiritual beliefs. You see it in the proliferation of quoted-Buddhist memes and Buddha statues in trendy home décor.
Thai people are capitalizing on this fascination with tiny brass Buddha figurines that are nearly as ubiquitous in tourist markets as elephant-patterned harem pants (“elepants,” as we called them). There isn’t a bucket bar on Khao San Road without at least one backpacker sporting a sak yant tattoo. But, as the billboard explains, purchasing a Buddhist trinket or getting a Buddhist tattoo solely for aesthetic purposes is offensive to those who are truly religious.
Admittedly, I’m guilty. On a previous Thailand trip, I bought one of those brass figurines—not because I’m Buddhist but because it reminded me of the country itself. Now I think about my devout Catholic grandmother, and how she’d feel if a non-Christian bought a crucifix just because they thought it looked neat.
Although some (but not all!) consider Buddhism to be a philosophy as opposed to a religion, and it’s occasionally (but not always!) assumed to be more chilled out than the Abrahamic beliefs, in spiritually devout countries, it isn’t to be taken lightly. After all, you’d never see a T-shirt mocking Buddha in Thailand the way you’d see one mocking Jesus in the West.
So next time you’re souvenir shopping in Chiang Mai’s night market, stick with the elepants—but be sure to buy an extra pair because at five bucks a pair, you get what you pay for.