I recently visited Thailand and was impressed by the richness of Thai popular religious traditions. We played a couple of Thai pop songs as part of this week’s segment. It was the first half of a double feature to mark the end of the segment!
Over 90% of people in Thailand are Buddhist, of the Theravada school. Theravada is ostensibly the type of Buddhism closest to that of the Buddha himself, but of course in reality, local traditions develop their own quirks and idiosyncrasies over the centuries. Thai Buddhism is no different. The monks may be strict traditionalists (they can’t even accept something a woman hands them, and are given separate sections to sit in at airports etc.) but among lay people, a myriad of other beliefs and practices proliferate. Spirit mediums, amulets, magic monks and other supernatural elements are abundant, often in contradiction to the rationalising and modernising attempts of the Thai monarchy.
A great example of those pop practices is Phumphuang Duangchan. She was an incredibly popular 1980s pop singer who died tragically in the early 90s. There was a massive outpouring of grief for her, which precipitated the emergence of a personality cult in her adoration. Throughout the 90s this grew and grew. The spirit of Phumphuang was credited with the power to bestow luck or material gain. Lotteries were very popular in the 1997/98 Thai economic crisis, and the phrase “Phumphuang gives luck” became widespread. Now she seems to have attained the status of a minor deity in Thai laypeople’s personal pantheons. There is a temple which is particularly associated with her worship, and people leave notes there, asking for luck and prosperity.
So some things can get added into Thai Buddhist practice later; other things existed before Buddhism came to Thailand, and got co-opted into it. One example of the latter is the festival of Loy Krathong, which may have originated with ancient river spirit offerings. People create little floral offerings with candles and incense and let them float on rivers. This is a very popular national festival. For some people, they are offerings for the river God; others treat them as Buddhist, seeing them as metaphors for letting one’s anger, pride, and other emotional attachments ‘float away’. We played a pop song which is associated with the festival, and is played everywhere in Thailand! Trust me, it gets on your nerves. “Li, like a tong…”
Check out the next post for the other half of today’s double feature: the religious nature of money and capitalism! Great stuff.