I recall after university I was on a month long bender carousing through Spain when we happened upon Valencia. A fairly big city by any accounts, we were wandering around not knowing anything of the place or what we could do. There was a big church on a corner, and as part time tourists on our trip we decided an idea would be to take a look inside, because you know, churches are what tourists looked at.
At that time it made a pleasant change from the bars and street corners we’d been frequenting.
Inside its cool and dark stainglass lit air we took a moment to ourselves as we looked around. The place was empty, but you could feel the history. The mustiness of the place seemed to tickle some imaginative sixth sense in each of us. Perhaps some kind of proclamation by a priest at the pulpit, or who had sat at the knee worn pews in dreary early modern garb.
I won’t lie though, I think we’d left after five minutes and I won’t even bother to imagine what the name of this church may have been. It was though, and this may have been because of the circumstances, a memorable moment among many at the time.
It strikes me now, while I’m in Thailand, that tourism and religious buildings go hand in hand across the globe. Where is the connection between our interest in culture, which is what arguably is the main influence on the tourism I’m talking of here, and this universal fascination with old religious structures, some functioning, some not?
There are a few reasons.
Religious buildings are generally speaking awe inspiring. Not every building pars in comparison with European Gothic cathedrals of course, but take my small village in Ireland, Dunboyne. Without a doubt the most impressive structure is the Catholic church which flights to Dublin regularly use as a marker for lining up for their landing at the airport. Less dramatic but certainly steeped in more history is the Prodestant church and graveyard which has a history stretching back several hundreds of years. It is not large, but its quaint location nestled at the back of town and surrounded by trees is worth a wander around.
More importantly, religious structures are awe inspiring because they have absorbed so much wealth and concentration (not to mention lives, materials, and sacrifice) in their construction that they’re deservedly more impressive. Add to this the tests and twists of time which have worn many down to rustic impressions of their former glory.
Another thing to consider is that religion across the planet is a beacon of cultural identity. It is the outstanding feature, undoubtedly, of a people’s background and in many ways it offers an understanding of how society could possibly operate. After years of living in Korea, one of the first questions I still get asked about Korea (after confirming that it is indeed South Korea and not North Korea that I’ve lived in) is what is the main religion there. The answer is not necessarily important to this piece, but the asking is. It shows that people’s curiousity begins from the most obvious point, both from a spiritual (and indeed social) perspective, and a physical one in the shapes of the dominant buildings to be found in a town or city, which are invariably religious.
You can tie these two points in with people’s own natural inquisitiveness to find similarities or differences with their own homes. When we travel we look for things which are different, or how things are done differently. The phenomenon of a corner shop or an alley is an international one, so you do well to find one which is truly unique, but with particular buildings it is easy to notice either the similarities or the differences. Religious buildings, with their central location, wealth, ease of access, and the fact that the main ones are on every tourist map you are bound to find tend to receive more visitors than pagans like myself would prefer.
Of course the real fun about travel, for me at least, is finding the unusual in the usual. What I mean by this is that I prefer to explore the alleys and lanes which surround religious buildings, rather than the buildings themselves. Invariably I end up in these buildings, but there is as much to see surrounding places of worship, escpecially those which have been around for hundreds of years. Many have established markets, government buildings, public squares, and many more curiosities. These may not necessarily be pretty places, but then most of the world where people inhabit is not pretty.
Despite this, what I’ve called religious tourism isn’t necessarily an interest in faith or devotion, it is essentially satisfying our innate human curiousity. Curiousity is what drives us outside in the first place, it spurs our emotions, makes us think, act, respond, and learn. Even if you are not religious, you have to give to religion providing us with these opportunities for self development.
All photographs taken in Chiang Mai, January and February 2014. Words and photography © Conor O’Reilly 2014