Buddhist Tourism Emerges in the Greater Mekong Sub-region

Culture, Buddhist tourism, ASEAN, Mekong sub-region, MTF

Buddha image inside the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

The recent hosting of the Mekong Tourism Forum in Nakhon Phanom gave an opportunity to highlight Buddhist Tourism for the entire region. Such a tourism product has opportunities to open new areas and communities to a sustainable tourism development.

Nakhon Phanom had been chosen for a special MTF session dedicated to Buddhist Tourism late June. The Thai city has actually been for many years an important centre for pilgrims and it was natural to integrate buddhist tourism into the emerging trends in travel.

The session was shared by Lim Kooi Fong, founder and owner of the Buddhist travel site buddhisttravel.com but also author of a report over Buddhist Circuits for the UNWTO. The report is due to be released soon; Mr. Malraj Kiriella, former CEO of Sri Lanka Tourism, a country where Buddhist Pilgrimages have been a permanent feature of tourism activities; Dr. Kanokrot Phalakornkul, Editor of Buddhism lifestyle and travel publication ‘5,000S Magazine’; and Nakhon Phanom Governor Somchai Vitdamrong.

Buddhism is indeed a common element shared by all the people living in the Mekong area. Buddhist religion is the second largest in Southeast Asia after Islam and is practiced by 190 to 205 million individuals. Southeast Asia represents 35% to 38% of the global Buddhist population. In ASEAN, Buddhism is the majority religion of five countries. This includes in the GMS Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Thailand. In Vietnam, Buddhism plays an influential role although the main religion is a blend of folk beliefs related to the worshiping of ancestors.

They are many sites in the Greater Mekong Sub-region, which could be the backbone for a Buddhist Heritage Trail according to Lim Kooi Fong. “Cambodia has for example over 1,000 temples, many being 1000 years old. They are temples also in most cities of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand,” said Lim Kooi Fong.

Some are already tourism and cultural icons with many being integrated into UNESCO World Heritage List. Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Ayutthaya and Sukhothai in Thailand, Wat Pho in Laos, Champa temples of My Son in Vietnam and Pyu Ancient Cities in Myanmar are UNESCO listed. Bagan in Myanmar is likely to follow.

Ayutthaya

Buddhist circuits will be help also tracking down some of the ancient civilisations of the Mekong region. Such as a heritage trail following sacred sites of the Khmer Empire. The Angkor civilisation was not only present in Angkor Wat but also in Preah Vihear at the border of Cambodia and Thailand, in Southern Laos (Wat Pho) and in today Thailand (Phnom Rung in Buriram, Phimai in Korat and Lopburi among others). It also influenced Champa civilisation in Central and Southern Vietnam.

The Buddhist Heritage Trail along old Khmer civilisations would be in line with the targets of GMS Ministries of Tourism, the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office as well as the Asia Development Bank to promote multi-country circuits around the Mekong. “Thailand is already actively promoting trans-national Buddhist circuits with India, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia,” highlighted Lim Kooi Fong.

Looking at Buddhism is also a way for tourists to get deep into the social and culture life of Mekong people. The ritual of following monks collecting alms in the morning in Luang Prabang has been at the centre of initiatives to make tourists not only taking pictures but understanding the spiritual values behind this sacred ritual.

In Angkor Wat or in Bagan, tourists visiting areas will also see that these huge sacred sites are still places where villagers perform centuries-old rituals and traditions. Villages and small hamlets are still integrated into temple complexes while many of the festivals are linked to Buddhism.

Spirituality is also to learn about the teaching of Buddhism. And from that point of view, Nakhon Phanom is seen by the Thai government as the centre of Buddhist tourism. The host city to MTF and neighbouring Tha Uthen district have eight relic-Pagodas worth visiting. The most famous are Wat Oakt Si Bua Ban, Wat Si Thep Pradittharam and What Mahathat, all located next to the Mekong River. Each temple is linked to a day of the week, bringing good fortune to worshippers.

“Nakhon Phanom has all the elements to make it the centre of spirituality for both Thais and Laotians across the Mekong but also for tourists curious to learn about the depth of our soul,” said Nakhon Phanom Governor Somchai Vitdamrong.

Buddhist tourism will also help highlighting second-tier destinations all across the region. Tourists can then discover not only architectural gems but also enjoy the serene pace of life revolving around temples. “Spirituality, compassion, communication with others are part of Buddhist life for thousands of years and are expressed in rituals and ceremonies. Visiting schools are a way to better understand how we preserve our way of life. And as we also learn to respect others and this is a great asset for developing a sustainable tourism activity in the region,” added Dr. Kanokrot Phalakornkul, Editor of ‘5,000S Magazine’.