Religious Tourism


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.

Phra Sing Eave on flickr

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?

Early Morning Prayer on flickr

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.

Waiting for a Prayer on flickr

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.

New Year Votives on flickr

All photographs taken in Chiang Mai, January and February 2014. Words and photography © Conor O’Reilly 2014

Opening Day


For the past month or there abouts we’ve been fondly eyeing the monstrosity that is MAYA on the corner. MAYA, to those unfamiliar, is a(nother) shopping mall/centre that has just been built in Chiang Mai, this on the corner of Nimmanhaemin and the Super Highway.  It’s a large cuboid buiding with a funky honeycomb-like wavy pattern snaking around its exterior, with a screen blasting colourful and flashing advertisements into the Chiang Mai sunlight. It certainly stands out from the competition, which is mostly two or three storey buidlings, and the odd tall apartment or hotel not far away.

The opening day, January 23rd had long been announced, and from speaking with the other long term residents in the condo complex we’re staying I got the impression that most people were looking forward to it. It’s a bit of black hole in terms of proximity to everything, the nearest real amenity is a 7-Eleven and street of funky little shops with over priced restaurants around the corner. I suppose most people though were looking forward to the Starbucks and the supermarket, because the one a five minute drive away was just too far.

Also in relation to the opening day, we pretty much saw little to no activity around what looked to be a shell of a building for days, until the week before it was due to open. All day and late into the night trucks and pickups were pulling in weighed down with all kinds of boxes, sacks, and shop fittings, desperately trying to get set up for the deadline. I was convinced it wasn’t going to happen and enjoyed explaining these doubts to Herself, but yesterday there was complete chaos on the corner where MAYA is situated, and I suppose they got their stuff done.

This morning we headed down to see what all the fuss was about. Opening was set for 11AM but we were there before 10, and fortunately it was going to be a long drawn out opening. Anyone familiar with Thailand will know that it’s a fairly religious country when it comes to it’s Buddhist faith. In fact it seems like for even the opening of a packet of crisps they need to bring a monk or two around to give it the go ahead and wishg it good luck, because it’s all about luck, as opposed to medieval practices like marketing and business strategy. Even as you walk down the streets you can see little shrines offering snacks and drinks to the spirits in the hope that it will bring them favour. Of course a certain amount of this probably has to do with keeping up appearances, but it’s still a fascinating display as many of the shrines are colourful and well serviced.

I liken much of this to Ireland’s necessity for bringing a priest around to bless whatever it is that’s opening. While not as common a sight these days (I think/hope/wonder), getting the Church’s seal of approval was an important part of any opening ceremony. Whether there were crucifixes or portraits of the Virgin Mary lying around afterwards depended on the proprietor of course.

Thailand though seems to do it with much more vigour. There were prayers by a gentleman dressed from head to toe in white, who then proceeded to toss colourful flower petals over people’s heads, and then there was a line of monks who sat covered from the sun in a white tent who chanted away for a short while. We, to be honest, were far from enamoured by this performance, so we went looking for breakfast.

By the time we came back we were just in time to catch the opening of the doors. We piled in with everyone else full of oohs an aaahs, looking up at the large skylight full of dancing silver balloons dangling from some invisible tread. Everything was nice and shiny, with the exception of the odd tile or two which had not received the appropriate amount of grout, as Herself discovered when she kicked a piece ten yards down a half empty make-up aisle.

To our disappointment the supermarket wasn’t open, so we went to check out the food options. While there is always an excellent variety here in Thailand, we have become increasingly concerned with the lack of high-chairs for +1. At this stage she is 100% wriggle and run, and anything we can do to save our arms and allow us to enjoy some aspects of our meal takes precedence. We have discovered however that Thailand, to it’s detriment, is not a baby chair place. Maybe they just don’t take their kids out or something…

Anyway.

It’s a fine place this MAYA. We only hung around a short while just to get a feel for it, but we’ll be back I suppose, many times I imagine. Having something like this so close to where you live always makes you feel like you’re living a better life. Still as I walk through there even just window shopping all I can hear is my wallet contorting in agony as I pass buy another thing I think would look great in my possession, or stomach.

For more photographs from the opening of MAYA please follow this link to my Flickr page

All writing and photographs © Conor O’Reilly January 2014

Home Sweet Home!


*Please note, this post has nothing to do with my last post*

In a week, this won’t matter any more…

I am happy to say that we are finally moving. For those of you who don’t know, our little apartment, while cosy…ish, is a bit of a disaster. Yes, we know better than to blame anyone else – we picked the place.

It’s brand new and not really that bad but since we’ve moved in there has been problem after problem after problem.

Allow me to digress.

To start with, the living room and bedroom windows look out onto this:


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