Skip to main content Accessibility help

Religious Others, Tourism, and Missionization: Buddhist ‘Monk Chats’ in Northern Thailand

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 July 2018

Department of Religious Studies, Rhodes College Email:
E-mail address:


Conjunctures of globalization and education have shaped the intersection of Buddhist monasticism and international tourism in the Northern Thai city, Chiang Mai. International tourism in Chiang Mai has been popular since the 1990s, while monks from all over Thailand and South and Southeast Asia have come to Chiang Mai in large numbers to pursue higher education in English since the 2000s. Focusing on Buddhist temples that contain a Monk Chat programme, where tourists and monks engage in conversation, this article analyses the responses of Buddhist monks towards a range of international tourists. Utilizing the perspectives of Buddhist monks through interviews reveals attitudes towards Western and Asian tourists as situated within broader discourses of Thai society. Investigating these attitudes and responses within the context of wider state, regional, and transnational influences, I argue that attitudes towards religious others are inextricably connected to missionization.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below.


* I would like to thank Ann Gleig, Elizabeth Williams-Oerberg, and the three anonymous reviewers of this article for their helpful suggestions and comments.


1 There are a series of articles in Thai media outlets concerning ‘Chinese behaving badly’, i.e. not following Thai etiquette. Here is one article elaborating on this situation: Khaosod English, ‘“Chinese Tourist” Filmed Kicking Chiang Mai Temple Bell’, KhaoSod English, 22 February 2015,, [accessed 15 March 2016].

2 This incident has also been widely covered: ‘Monk Calls on Govt to Burn Down 1 Mosque for 1 Dead Buddhist Monk’, Coconuts Bangkok, 2 November 2015,, [accessed 10 March 2016].

3 These interviews were all conducted between January and May of 2016. I have changed the names of the monks I reference and quote here because they are not public figures.

4 Along with Christianity and Islam, religious studies scholars have recognized Buddhism as one of the three missionary religions. I approach missionizing through the lens of how Buddhists themselves discuss this, through metaphors of ‘spreading out’, sharing, building compassion, and hoping to make Buddhism present in the world. Although Buddhism has been labelled as a missionary religion, it is rare for scholarship to analyse the category of mission as it applies to Buddhism. For example, there are only two recent works on this topic: Jonathan S. Walters, ‘Rethinking Buddhist Missions’, 2 vols, Ph.D. Dissertation (University of Chicago, 1992); Learman, Linda, ‘Introduction’, in Learman, Linda (ed.), Buddhist Missionaries in the Era of Globalization (University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, HI, 2005)Google Scholar.

5 Two authors have written concerning Buddhist and Muslim relations in Southern Thailand. See Jerryson, Michael K., Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand (Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and McCargo, Duncan, ‘The Politics of Buddhist Identity in Thailand's Deep South: The Demise of Civil Religion’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 40, no. 1 (February 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Movies such as 2004 Jod mai rak (The Letter) and 2010 Laddaland (Golden Land) depict Chiang Mai as a space that retains Thai culture and identity in contrast to Bangkok. For scholarship on this trope of urban versus natural lifestyles in Thailand, see Johnson, Andrew Alan, Ghosts of the New City: Spirits, Urbanity, and the Ruins of Progress in Chiang Mai (University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, HI, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Chapter One; and Knee, Adam, ‘Chiang Mai and the Cinematic Spaces of Thai Identity’, in Chee, Lilian and Lim, Edna (eds), Asian Cinema and the Use of Space: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Routledge, London and New York, 2015)Google Scholar.

7 Meyer, Birgit, ‘Introduction: From Imagined Communities to Aesthetic Formations: Religious Mediations, Sensational Forms, and Styles of Binding’, in Meyer, Birgit (ed.), Aesthetic Formations: Media, Religion and the Senses (Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2009), p. 1CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Ibid., p. 2.


9 Ibid., p. 10.


10 These two Buddhist monastic universities, Maha Chulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya and Mahamakut, represent the two sects of Thai Buddhism: Mahanikai and Thammayut, respectively.

11 Jackson calls this a paradox, as both of these modes of religiosity are present within modern Southeast Asia. Peter A. Jackson, ‘Ascendant Doctrine and Resurgent Magic in Capitalist Southeast Asia: Paradox and Polarisation as 21st Century Cultural Logic’, DORISEA Working Paper Series, No. 6 (2014), p. 4.

12 Ibid., p. 4.


13 Harris, Elizabeth, ‘Buddhism and the Religious Other’, in Cheetham, David, Pratt, Douglas, and Thomas, David (eds), Understanding Interreligious Relations (Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2013), p. 89Google Scholar.

14 Ibid., p. 93.


15 Ibid., p. 94.


16 Ibid., p. 102.


17 Chappell, David W., ‘Buddhist Responses to Religious Pluralism: What Are the Ethical Issues?’, in Fu, Charles Wei-hsun and Wawrytko, Sandra A. (eds), Buddhist Ethics and Modern Society: An International Symposium (Greenwood Press, Oxford and New York, 1990), pp. 443444Google Scholar.

18 Burton, David, ‘A Buddhist Perspective’, in Meister, Chad V. (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Religious Diversity (Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2010)Google Scholar; Elverskog, Johan, Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA, 2011)Google Scholar; Jayatilleke, K. N., The Buddhist Attitude to Other Religions (Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 1975)Google Scholar; Makransky, John, ‘Buddhist Perspectives on Truth in Other Religions: Past and Present’, Theological Studies 64, no. 1 (May 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Satha-Anand, Suwanna, ‘Buddhist Pluralism and Religious Tolerance in Democratizing Thailand’, in Cam, P. (ed.), Philosophy, Democracy and Education (The Korean National Commission for UNESCO, Seoul, 2003)Google Scholar; Winichakul, Thongchai, ‘Buddhist Apologetics and a Genealogy of Comparative Religion in Siam’, Numen 62 (2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 Kiblinger, Kristin Biese, Buddhist Inclusivism: Attitudes Towards Religious Others (Ashgate Publishing, England and Vermont, 2005)Google Scholar; Schmidt-Leukel, Perry (ed.), Buddhist Attitudes to Other Religions (EOS, St Ottilien, 2007)Google Scholar; Velez de Cea, Abraham J., The Buddha and Religious Diversity (Routledge, New York and London, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 Jerryson, Buddhist Fury.

21 Horstmann, Alexander, ‘Ethnohistorical Perspectives on Buddhist–Muslim Relations and Coexistence in Southern Thailand: From Shared Cosmos to the Emergence of Hatred?’, Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 19, no. 1 (April 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Horstmann, Alexander, ‘Living Together: The Transformation of Multi-Religious Coexistence in Southern Thailand’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 42, no. 3 (October 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Fleming, Kenneth, Buddhist–Christian Encounter in Contemporary Thailand (Peter Lang GmbH, Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften, Frankfurt, Germany, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Ashley, Sean, ‘Narrating Identity and Belonging: Buddhist Authenticity and Contested Ethnic Marginalization in the Mountains of Northern Thailand’, Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 28, no. 1 (March 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Keyes, Charles, ‘Why the Thai Are Not Christians: Buddhist and Christian Conversion in Thailand’, in Hefner, Robert W. (ed.), Conversion to Christianity: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives on a Great Transformation (University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1993)Google Scholar.

24 Holt, John, Spirits of the Place: Buddhism and Lao Religious Culture (University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, HI, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Chapter Four.

25 Holt finds some conflict between tourists and novices in Luang Phrabang. He writes that ‘some of the harshest critics of Luang Phrabang's samaneras (novices) are French expatriates with decidedly Western understandings of what it means to be Buddhist’, ibid., p. 191. During interviews with Luang Phrabang's novice monks, he found that most likely more than two-thirds of them regularly converse with tourists. One of their major reasons for doing this is in order to practise English: ‘“Chinese Tourist” Filmed Kicking Chiang Mai Temple Bell’, p. 206.

26 Pairat Temphairojana, ‘Thailand Expects Record Tourist Arrivals in 2016’, Reuters, 6 January 2016,, [accessed 29 November 2016].

27 Tourism Authority of Thailand Website,, [accessed 21 November 2016].

28 In Phra Saneh Dhammavaro's book about Monk Chat, he relates the purpose of Monk Chat. He writes that its aim is to ‘fulfill the aspiration of the foreigners whom approached [sic] monk at Wat Suandok with a lot of doubts and questions regarding Buddhism, Buddhist way of life, life of monk and meditation etc. So the main purpose of the Monk Chat Programe [sic] are 1) to provide and [sic] opportunity for the foreigners to chat with monks informally on general topics, 2) to provide and [sic] opportunity for the foreigners, monks and novices to learn, exchange and discuss the general ideas on Buddhism, Buddhist way of life and Thai culture, 3) to provide and [sic] forum for monks and novices to exchange ideas with people from different cultures, faiths and ways of life.’ Dhammavaro, Phra Saneh, Thai Buddhism Monk Chat (Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya Buddhist University, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2009)Google Scholar, Foreword.

29 As of 2017, the Monk Chat Wat Suan Dok has about 20 to 30 members who regularly participate. Wat Chedi Luang followed this trend next with their Monk Chat programme beginning in 2005, with about 100. Wat Srisuphan started their programme in 2008 and has about 20 Monk Chat participants.

30 During Monk Chat sessions, there are usually about ten monks having small group conversations with between 30 and 40 tourists seated at rectangular tables. Tourists learn about this programme through guidebooks and websites about tourism in Chiang Mai, or while touring the temples. I interviewed 20 monastic members of Monk Chat at Wat Suan Dok, Wat Srisuphan, and Wat Chedi Luang. These monks participate in Monk Chat almost every time it is open. The monks I spoke to have been attending Monk Chat for two or more years and more senior ones, who have participated for four or more years, estimated they have spoken to well over 500 people.

31 Phra Mong, Advisor to Monk Chat at Wat Suan Dok, confirmed through his calculations of the countries from their guest books from 2015 and 2016 that the top country groups they receive are America, Canada, Australia, and then European countries, especially England, Germany, and France.

32 Harrison, Rachel V., ‘Introduction: The Allure of Ambiguity: The “West” and the Making of Thai Identities’, in Harrison, Rachel V. and Jackson, Peter A. (eds), The Ambiguous Allure of the West: Traces of the Colonial in Thailand (Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong, 2010), p. 3CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 This relationship between Thailand and the West has been noted in Harrison and Jackson (eds), The Ambiguous Allure of the West. In the preface to this volume, Chakrabarty states that the farang, or white foreigner, was the most significant other to which the modern person evaluated himself; Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘Foreword: The Names and Repetitions of Colonial History’, in Harrison and Jackson (eds), The Ambiguous Allure of the West, p. ix.

34 Ibid., p. vii.


35 Ibid., p. viii.


36 Pattana Kitiarsa, ‘An Ambiguous Intimacy: Farang as Siamese Occidentalism’, in Harrison and Jackson (eds), The Ambiguous Allure of the West, p. 58.

37 Ibid., p. 58.


38 Ibid., p. 61.


39 We can see here some traces of the biases of modern Buddhism where some monks involved with Monk Chat will try to explain a kind of ‘original’ Buddhism to their audience, placing this above the particulars of Thai Buddhism. Modern Buddhism is a term that has been used most significantly by Lopez, Donald, ‘Introduction’, in Lopez, Donald S. (ed.), A Modern Buddhist Bible (Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 2002)Google Scholar, and the related term ‘Buddhist modernism’ used by McMahan, David, The Making of Buddhist Modernism (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008)Google Scholar. These terms can be defined by a kind of Buddhism that privileges a number of modern ideas and processes such as equality, democracy, demythologizing, and deritualizing, among others.

40 This term refers to Khmer-speakers in southern Vietnam.

41 The Three Defilements are considered, in Theravāda Buddhism, to be three afflictions that keep us from understanding reality. Buddhists regard the Three Marks of Existence as characteristics that all conditioned phenomena share and that describe the nature of experience.

42 The Five Precepts are the rules of moral conduct for lay followers of Buddhism. After taking these precepts, followers commit to training to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxication.

43 Askew discusses Singaporean and Malaysian tourists who visit Southern Thailand in order to seek out sacred monuments for the purpose of making merit; Askew, Marc, ‘Materializing Merit: The Symbolic Economy of Religious Monuments and Tourist-Pilgrimage in Contemporary Thailand’, in Kitiarsa, Pattana (ed.), Religious Commodifications in Asia: Marketing God (Routledge, London and New York, 2008)Google Scholar.

44 Marion Thibaut, ‘Chinese Tourists Boost Thai Economy but Stir Outrage’, Business Insider, 5 July 2015,, [accessed 24 May 2016].

45 Rebecca Iszatt, ‘From East to East: The Chinese Tourist Boom in Chiang Mai’, Citylife Chiang Mai Magazine, Issue 8, 2013,, [accessed 23 May 2016].

46 Shuan Sim, ‘Chinese Tourists Behaving Badly in Thailand: Police Hunting Bell-Kicking Culprit’, International Business Times, 23 February 2015,, [accessed 22 May 2016].

47 Thibaut, ‘Chinese Tourists Boost Thai Economy’.

48 James Austin Farrell, ‘Thailand Doesn't Have a Chinese Tourist Problem: The Problem Is Resentment, and Racism’, Asian Correspondent, 25 March 2015,, [accessed 23 May 2016].

49 Chinese have migrated to Thailand for over two centuries. Researchers have found that Thai Chinese have both assimilated and integrated into Thai society while also maintaining distinct cultural and language practices; Morita, Liang, ‘Discussing Assimilation and Language Shift among the Chinese in Thailand’, International Journal of the Sociology of Language 186 (August 2007)Google Scholar; Tong, Chee Kiong and Chan, Kwok Bun (eds), Alternate Identities: The Chinese of Contemporary Thailand (Times Academic Press and Brill, Singapore and Leiden, 2001)Google Scholar. In this article, I am not focusing on this group, but on Chinese tourists to Thailand coming from mainland China.

50 Iszatt, ‘From East to East’.

51 Askew, ‘Materializing Merit’, p. 97.

52 The Romanization system I use follows a simplified version of that used by the Library of Congress.

53 Within Theravāda Buddhism, the idea of the eventual decline of the Buddha's teachings is pervasive. It is thought that these teachings will eventually disappear, but it is also believed that the process can be slowed down. The exact time of this decline could be hastened or abated, depending on the ways in which individuals, countries, and institutions enact Buddhist religiosity in their behaviour and learning. Ways to slow this decline include studying the scriptures, maintaining proper monastic practices, rituals, and ordinations, but also teaching and spreading Buddhism beyond the boundaries of one's community.

54 Turner discusses this in the context of colonial Burma; Turner, Alicia, Saving Buddhism: The Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Burma (University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, HI, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Chapter 2.

55 A review of some of the most significant monastic sexual scandals can be found in Charles F. Keyes, ‘Sexy Monks: Sexual Scandals Involving Monks in Thailand’, Paper Presentation, EUROSEAS Conference (2007).

56 There has been an upsurge in violent Buddhist–Muslim interactions in Thailand and Myanmar. For a review of recent events in Myanmar, see Leider, Jacques, ‘Rohingya: The Name, the Movement, and the Quest for Identity’, in Nation Building in Myanmar (Myanmar Egress and the Myanmar Peace Center, 2014)Google Scholar; Juliane Schober, ‘Social Difference and the Buddhist Discourse of Violence in Myanmar’, Paper Presentation, 17th Congress of the International Association of Buddhist Studies (2014); Matthew J. Walton and Susan Hayward, ‘Contesting Buddhist Narratives: Democratization, Nationalism and Communal Violence in Myanmar’, Policy Studies 71 (East-West Center, Honolulu: Hawaii, 2014). Tensions within the south of Thailand have experienced resurgence since 2004. For an ethnographic account, see Jerryson, Buddhist Fury.

57 Michael K. Jerryson, ‘Buddhist Monks Militarize in South and Southeast Asia’, Lion's Roar, 23 August 2015,, [accessed 13 May 2016].

58 Kulabkaew Katewadee, ‘In Defense of Buddhism: Thai Sangha's Social Movement in the Twenty-First Century’, Ph.D. Dissertation (Waseda University, Thailand, 2013), p. 122.

59 Ibid., p. 126.


60 Ibid., p. 145.


61 Ibid., p. 172.


62 Ibid., p. 158.


63 Harris, ‘Buddhism and the Religious Other’, p. 97.

64 Jerryson, Buddhist Fury.

65 Jerryson, Michael K., ‘Buddhist Traditions and Violence’, in Juergensmeyer, Mark, Kitts, Margo, and Jerryson, Michael K. (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence (Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2013), p. 42CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

66 McCargo, ‘The Politics of Buddhist Identity in Thailand's Deep South’, p. 3.

67 van der Veer, Peter, ‘Introduction: Urban Theory, Asia, and Religion’, in van der Veer, Peter (ed.), Handbook of Religion and the Asian City: Aspiration and Urbanization in the Twenty-First Century (University of California Press, Oakland, CA, 2015), p. 4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

68 Vajiramedhi, W., Love Management, trans. Veohong, Nopamat (Amarin Publishing, Bangkok, Thailand, 2007), p. 94Google Scholar.

69 Vajiramedhi, W., The Miracle of Suffering, trans. Veohong, Nopamat (Amarin Publishing, Bangkok, Thailand, 2012), p. 21Google Scholar.

70 Ibid., p. 126.


71 Ibid., p. 176.


72 There is ample evidence of this in the Bangkok Post opinion pieces of Sanitsuda Ekachai. For a sample of her pieces, see her page in the Bangkok Post website:, [accessed 23 May 2016]. The writings of activist monk Phra Phaisan Visalo exemplify this position as well. For example, see ‘Buddhism for the Next Century’,, [accessed 23 May 2016). Lastly, the opinions of lay Buddhist activist Sulak Sivaraksa argue that Thai Buddhists are not focusing on the teachings of Buddhism. An example of this can be seen in his Facebook post from 2013,, [accessed 23 May 2016].

73 Kitiarsa, ‘An Ambiguous Intimacy’, p. 70.

Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Full text views reflects PDF downloads, PDFs sent to Google Drive, Dropbox and Kindle and HTML full text views.

Total number of HTML views: 442
Total number of PDF views: 225 *
View data table for this chart

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 16th July 2018 - 26th January 2021. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Hostname: page-component-898fc554b-wphb9 Total loading time: 0.348 Render date: 2021-01-26T03:58:51.962Z Query parameters: { "hasAccess": "0", "openAccess": "0", "isLogged": "0", "lang": "en" } Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": false, "newCiteModal": false }

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Religious Others, Tourism, and Missionization: Buddhist ‘Monk Chats’ in Northern Thailand
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

Religious Others, Tourism, and Missionization: Buddhist ‘Monk Chats’ in Northern Thailand
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

Religious Others, Tourism, and Missionization: Buddhist ‘Monk Chats’ in Northern Thailand
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Your details

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *