Sacred tourism and the state: paradoxes of cross-border religious patronage in Southern Thailand

by Jovan Maud

Working Papers WP 11-04
April 2011
ISSN 2192-2357 (MMG Working Papers Print)

Full text: pdf


Every year over a million Malaysian and Singaporean tourists travel to the south of Thailand. A large proportion of travellers are ethnic Chinese, and many of these seek out religious experiences during their stay; they take tours to sacred sites, participate in rituals, and purchase sacred objects. Aware of this interest, many local religious specialists, including Buddhist monks, adapt their practices to the ritual tastes of their guests or introduce Chinese religious forms. Given the close relationship between Theravada Buddhism and notions of Thai-ness, such foreign influences would seem to challenge the integrity of the nation state. However, this paper argues that in an unstable and problematic part of Thailand, which has long been the site of a Malay Muslim insurgency, the impact of religious tourism is complex and in some ways actually bolsters the material and symbolic presence of the Thai nation state. At the same time, this process is not without its tensions and the paper discusses several common strategies of dealing with the potentially unsettling presence of tourists. On this basis, it argues for the need to understand “the state” beyond its formal institutions and apparatuses, and highlights the diffuse, informal and open-ended dimensions of state formation.

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