Faith and Beliefs in Thailand – Asian Multiculturalism

If you are planning to spend a holiday in Thailand and you would like a primer on the local culture to shield yourself from culture shock, the first thing you should keep in mind that Thailand is highly multicultural: Chinese-Thai make up a large percentage of the total population, as do Indian-Thai. While the religion of majority of the Kingdom of Siam is firmly Buddhism with nearly 95% of the population being Buddhists, there is more than a noticeable Islamic presence: about 4.6% of the country’s population is Muslims, the majority of which is concentrated in the southern region of Thailand, such as Yala, Songkhla Chumphon, Pattani and Narathiwat due mainly to the proximity to Malaysia, where the dominant faith is Islamic. As such, while the dominant ethnicity Thailand is present throughout most of the country, in the south there is a much more noticeable proportion of Thai of Middle Eastern origins, such that they are effectively the majority in this administrative division. In total, 2.3% of the populous is Arabic in heritage, culture, as well as religious practices.

Outside of the south, however, cultural integration is smoother and more laid-back. In northern and central Thailand, among others, the Chinese New Year is celebrated yearly and is considered just as official as the Thai New Year or any of the various Buddhist holy days and fairs. The Lunar Festival, again Chinese in origins, is likewise celebrated widely throughout the country: this reflects the demographic proportion in that at least 14% of the total citizens is made up of person of Chinese origins, generally third generation and upward. Several Indian dishes are integrated into the Thai cuisine, and the sight of roti stalls is common in any street in Chiang Mai or Bangkok. Japanese expatriates have chosen to live in several provinces in Thailand, particularly in the north, and the northeastern administrative division is home to a considerable Vietnamese minority, and the distinct cuisine of this region is ample evidence of this integration between two cultures.

It should be noted, furthermore, that outside of tension in the south, the general atmosphere is one of tolerance. The majority may be of Theravada Buddhism, but there is relatively little oppression and marginalization of religious minorities; certainly less than outright bigotry seen in the west, particularly in the post-World Trade Center incident America. Contrary to popular belief held by foreigners from the first world, the Thai culture of live-and-let-live has spared it from much of the raging political divide as seen in the west, and Buddhism itself is exceptionally liberal. Persons of non-normative sexuality or gender identity, particularly the transsexual-known in Thailand as katoey-can expect considerably less harassment in a Bangkok street than they might in New York or London, and much the same applies to workplace environments: though they are still excluded from the privileged enjoyed by the cisgendered majority (i.e. men and women born respectively in male and female bodies), they are not subjected to outright violence and gross discrimination.

Indeed, many schools take measures to ensure that katoey students do not feel erased and dehumanized, and bullying is carefully monitored in Thai schools. Much of this is thanks to the tenets of the dominant religion, which has very little to speak on oppressing, eliminating, enslaving and converting those from a different faith. It likewise makes no mention that katoey or homosexual persons are abominations destined for the fires of hell (as the Buddhist afterlife doesn’t actually include one). In fact, to a culturally aware traveler, one would be hard-pressed to find a religion more open-armed and easy-going than the teachings of Buddha, which the majority of Thais take to heart and practice as a matter of daily life.