Buddhism and Other Religions in Phuket

Big Buddha image on a hill in Phuket

Thailand is overwhelmingly Buddhist, with more than 90 per cent following the Therevada sect of this ancient religion. Few people are aware, though, that much of southern Thailand is predominantly Muslim and this includes Phuket. There is also a significant community of Chinese descent who practice ancestral worship and all three beliefs peacefully co-exist on the island.

Although Phuket has less religious attractions than other parts of Thailand, a visit to one of the exquisite Buddhist temples during your stay could be an enlightening experience.

Buddhism in Phuket

It is difficult to separate Thai culture and Buddhism, for the two are intricately woven and the philosophy has been the motivation for cultural expression ever since it was widely encouraged during the Sukhothai period.

From the moment you step off the plane in Thailand you notice the temples and Buddha images everywhere; indeed, Thailand is the world’s largest Buddhist country. Phuket, with its long history of multicultural trading isn’t quite as soaked in religion, yet it still plays an important role in the lives of many of the island’s residents and temples are found all over the island.

The practice of Buddhism here has many cultural identities almost exclusively associated with Thailand and the Theravada (Hinyana: small wheel) sect of ‘old school’ Buddhism practiced in this country. Many of the mystical and mythical aspects of everyday Thai dhamma (Buddhist practice) have their roots in Hinduism, such as the symbolic characters and habits within the religion.

Thais, young and old, can frequently be seen offering a quick wai of respect to Buddhist symbols, such as chedis, Buddhas, monk statues and spirit houses. They demonstrate the widespread Thai belief in making merit with the many spirits that are intertwined with their Buddhist beliefs. Likewise, they place superstitious importance on wearing amulets acquired from revered temples.

Thai people across the nation make frequent temple visits, offering food, incense sticks, lotus flowers and money to make merit, support the temple and monks and receive fortuitous blessings for everything from a new motorbike to a business venture. It is traditional for all young men to spend a month, at least, in the temple as a novice monk, and monks are invited to preside over most ceremonies. Even the Thai calendar is reckoned from the time of Gautama Buddha; 543 years before Christ.

Buddhism: a quick introduction

With its locus in Asia, Buddhism was founded about 2,500 years ago upon the teachings of an Indian prince, Siddharta Gautama, otherwise known as the Buddha (enlightened one). After years of meditation and austere wandering in search of truth, he eventually achieved a state of ‘nirvana’ through strict emptying of his mind using meditation techniques. In such a state, one finally and wholly lets go of all desire and thus any suffering arising from it. Part of this truth was the concept of impermanence (annica), and Buddhists believe that their ‘souls’ are continually trapped in a cycle of re-incarnation or rebirth, which they strive to break.

Central to understanding Buddhist doctrine is the recognition of suffering (known as dukkha) and out of this arises the Four Noble Truths: 

That there is suffering
That suffering is impermanent and will eventually cease
That suffering is a consequence of desire, usually created by ourselves
That suffering can be brought to an end through practicing of the dhamma

The dhamma, or ‘Buddhist life’, encourages the Eightfold Path of right understanding, thought, speech, conduct, livelihood, effort, attention and concentration towards reducing or eliminating suffering. Unlike Christianity, Buddhism doesn’t focus entirely on a supreme creator, but rather places emphasis on living in the present moment and upholding a number of precepts which are quite similar to the Ten Commandments. In practice, many modern Thais tend to lose sight of the pure teachings and motivations of Buddhism and habitually follow the rituals.

‘Church’ isn’t attended weekly, but rather private trips are made to the temple regularly, as Thais place a lot of believe in merit-making and appeasing of spirits. However, as with other religions, the Temple plays an important role in the sangha (community), providing moral judgment, support and welfare, and sometimes even education and officialdom. Around about the time of Christ, there was a great schism in Buddhism, splitting the religion into two distinctive practices.

The Therevada Buddhism, which is largely practiced in Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia, belongs to the Hinyana (lesser wheel) sect, which observes the original, pure form. The Mahanyana (greater wheel) sect is a reformed style of Buddhism that has resulted in the Zen Buddhism practiced predominantly in Japan and the seven sects of Tibetan Buddhism, some of which are being popularised in the West.

Islam in Phuket and Thailand

There is also a significant portion of Thai Muslims living in Phuket and if you travel south towards the border provinces the population is almost entirely Islamic and Malay-speaking. Nonetheless, they remain essentially Thai in character and tend to be far less strict or pious than other Islamic groups in Asia. Muezzin calling to prayer are unlikely to rudely awaken Phuket’s guests in the early morning, pork is widely available on the island, and you certainly won’t have trouble finding alcoholic beverages.

However, in the face of global insecurities, this group do continue to take their religion seriously and there are many mosques scattered around the island. The tourist village of Koh Phan Yee – a small settlement of fishing families built on stilts in the nearby Phang Nga bay, for instance, is entirely Muslim and the distinctive mosque can be seen as you approach the ‘island’. They arrived here as sea gypsies from the Indonesia archipelago several centuries ago, yet few of the women cover their heads with scarves and tourists often scarcely notice the difference.

But in the three border provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, trouble has been brewing since 2003 as the Southern Muslim insurgents with self determination ideals have come up against insensitive governments. Heavy-handed tactics and incompetence in dealing with terrorist violence have caused more harm than good. Although tourists are advised to stay away from these provinces, religious-instigated unrest elsewhere in Thailand is very unlikely.

Thailand has been a member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (with observer status) since 1998. Small pockets of Moslem communities are found all over the Kingdom, including in the far north where Islamic Chinese immigrants arrived centuries ago. The country had more than 2,000 mosques in 38 Thai provinces; most belonging to the Sunni sect of Islam.

In the south, however, the majority are of Malay origin and their beliefs are influenced by the region, including Indonesia and Malaysia. like Buddhism, it had become integrated with many beliefs and practices not integral to Islam. The faith in Thailand is largely supervised by the National Council for Muslims, which includes some high ranking government officials among its followers. They have also left their mark culturally on Thailand with certain foods, festivals and folklore.

Chinese Ancestral Worship

The influence across Asia of the Chinese cannot be understated and although none of the powerful Chinese dynasties ever controlled any parts of Siam, the Chinese Diasporas of the 19th and 20th centuries brought significant numbers to the kingdom so that almost 10 per cent of the population today claims Chinese ancestry.

They have been completely assimilated into Thai culture but continue to maintain bloodlines and beliefs, including a curious mix of ancestral worship blended with Buddhists spiritual practices. Since many of these families occupy the wealthy class, the culture has been strongly maintained and this is particularly true on Phuket, which has a long history of Sino influence from its trading heyday.

There are a number of Chinese temples across the island, noted for their colourful appearance and adorned with dragons and other mythical creatures. Believers worship ancestral spirits at these temples and retain a strong belief in practices, such as feng shui. Many of the shops owned by traders of Chinese descent will have a small altar set aside in a corner of the shop for good fortune. In late January/early Feb’, the Chinese New Year celebrations are strongly supported in Phuket.

Christianity on Phuket

There is also a significant presence of Christians in Phuket, who enjoy modest support among the communities of the island. Missionaries have been in Thailand for well over two centuries, permitted to preach their beliefs since the latter Ayuthaya era, but it is only in the last 100 years that they have flourished. With its international legacy as a trading port, Phuket was one of the pioneering areas for Christianity to take hold and today there are several churches across the island, including Protestant, Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, and a number of small independent ministries supported by missionary volunteers.

Christianity is becoming increasingly popular among a small percentage of the Thai population in much the same way as Buddhism has been appealing in ‘the West’. Services take place on Saturdays and Sundays in both English and Thai, with all locals and visitors invited.