Khin Maung Myint
As the country is rapidly opening up to the world, we are witnessing the influx of foreigners into the country today. Some come on business and most are on vacations. These are very welcoming: to have more and more tourists visiting our country. As the tourism industry could generate much income, they are good for our economy and would also create job opportunities. However, are we prepared to cope with the invasions—the invasion of cultures, the invasion of behaviours, invasion of the safety and security, etc?
A few days ago, while I was surfing the Facebook webpage, I came across a very disturbing photo of two tourists, a male a female, and on the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, clad in shorts with foot-wears on. That is a sacred place where such improper attires and foot wears are prohibited. Their mannerism, according to the written post was even more outrageous. The person who posted the photo wrote that, when she saw the offensive sight, she reported the matter to a member of the pagoda trustes. However, that person did not do anything. So the young lady took it upon herself to confront the offenders and told them of their inappropriate manners. The response from the tourists was hostile.
I’m not a religious extremist but a liberal Buddhist. However, in my opinion such disrespectful manners should not be tolerated. Such mannerism, shown by foreign nationals on our sacred grounds could be deemed as an act of provocation. It could be viewed as an insult not only to our religion but also to our people. Their actions could have resulted in unpleasantness. The trustees should have intervened.
Such undesirable incidents should be anticipated to become more frequent in future, with the surge in the number of tourist arrivals. Thus, it would be necessary for the departments concerned to provide clear informations, to every foreigner entering the country, concerning the rules, regulations and cultural and religious customs that need to be observed. The tour operators should be tasked to make their clients aware of the information concerning the “DOs” and “DON’Ts” in our country.
In some neighbouring countries, I had observed that such information0 are widely promulgated by mentioning them in the air lines’ inflight magazines, brochures or pamphlets distributed by the respective tourism departments. I believe our country too has such arrangements at present. However, more attentions should be given to get all the foreigners to know and understand and observe them.
Even with such systematic arrangements, Thailand is having much trouble with tourists from a certain country. The root cause, in my opinion, is the differences in social, religious and cultural customs and norms.
I would like to discuss my views on the prohibition of foot wears at sacred Buddhist shrines and temples. We should seriously consider the practicality of prohibiting foot wears on the premises of the said places. These prohibitions had caused controversies between the foreigners and the locals since the colonial days. In those days this issue had created quite a row as our peoples’ nationalistic spirits were high because of the animosity against the colonialists. Thus they opposed, ardently, the wearing of foot wears by the Europeans at Buddhist sacred places. So, it could not be wrong to assume that such prohibitions had nothing to do with religion or culture, but more related to political sentiments.
Most people may not agree with my assumptions. However, as they are based on my experiences gained while traveling to other Buddhist countries, I deemed it my duty to validate them. Once when I visited the Temple of the Buddha’s Sacred Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka, I was surprised to find that I could wear my shoes on the temple premises and needed to take them off only when entering the shrine hall where: the Sacred Tooth was kept. Also in Thailand, I had seen that foot wears are allowed on the premises of the temples and even cetis (pagodas), except inside the shrines. Foot wears are allowed right to the foot of the cetis and Bhudda images if they are in the open, with no roofs over them. At first, I was surprised to see such strange practices. However, I realized later that they are practical, when I went to a famous pagoda in Myanmar during the afternoon, while the concrete pavements were scorching hot. It was very difficult to walk over to the hot concrete pavements without getting the feet blistered.
Today at some monasteries in our country, the residing Sayadaws with practical and rational outlooks, permit foot-wearing on the temple grounds. Such thoughtfulness spared the visitors to those places, from the discomforts of having to tread bare-footed on the scorching concrete pavements or, in some cases, sharp-edged gravels strewn grounds. This fact led me to assume that the prohibitions of foot wears on the premises of the sacred places are just optional but not compulsory and have nothing to do with the religion.
Undoubtedly, the surge in the number of foreign visitors to the country would benefit many sectors, however, we should be wary of the negative impacts they could inflict. Especially, such incident as mentioned above could bring about conflicts that could result in undesirable consequences. To avoid them in future, we should make some adjustments to our outlooks on norms and values in regard to religion and culture. On the other hand, although we should encourage the growth of the tourism industry, care should be taken not to compromise the religion, culture and above all the security and safety of the citizens.