One of the largest culture differences of living in Thailand verse the United States is how religiously homogeneous the country is, with about 95% of the population being Buddhist. Even though the majority follow the same religion, it is very tolerant of other religions and welcoming to those of other faiths. The second most dominant religion is Islam, making up about 3% of the population. The farther south one goes, closer to Malaysia, more Muslim communities can be found.
This weekend I went with Pii Naa, a friend from my community, to visit her hometown in the province of Nakhon Si Thammarat, about 5 hours south of where I live. In the two days that I was there I got a good taste of the two religious communities that live together. Pii Naa and her family, like much of the community where she is from, are Muslim. When we first arrived at Pii Naa's family's house, rather than greet each other with the traditional Thai “wai” which is a bow, we softly placed our hands between one another and than raised our palms over our eyes. The house was a traditional wooden house raised over the ocean, and every few hours you could hear the gentle chanting swept along with the water as it flowed from the nearby Mosque. When we left to travel to the nearby city most people walking along the road or riding on motorcycles wore traditional Muslim clothing. Other than these few differences though, everything seemed pretty much the same as other parts of Thailand I've been to. Families were still riding on motorcycles 4-5 people at a time, people still seemed surprised to learn that I actually like spicy food, and to pass the time on a Sunday afternoon no one could resist a couple hours of shameless karaoke.
On the first day in Nakhon Si Thammarat Pii Naa took me to Wat Phra Maha Tart Woramaha Whan, probably the most famous landmark in the province. This temple is considered one of the most important temples in the South of Thailand because it is thought to contain one of Buddha's teeth. The Wat grounds contain a number of buildings and many old pagodas. The largest pagoda of all sits high above the rest and has a golden peak. Every year in October many Buddhists make a sort of pilgrimage to this temple to give merit to Buddha at this important site. They carry yellow fabric that they wrap around the base of the golden Pagoda. Lucky for me, this happened to take place the day I went.
The next day, after a day full of Buddhism, I was introduced to the Islam practices in the community. The community was celebrating Eid al-Adha, a day for celebrating Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son. Pii Naa's sisters helped dress me in appropriate clothing while the men went early to pray. When we arrived at the temple the women waited outside as the men prayed. There was a small screened area on the outside of the building for women to sit behind and pray, but you must cleanse yourself with water first which we did not do. So most of the women ended up just sitting outside. It seemed that to Pii Naa and her family the importance of this day was that it brings families and communities together. It is one of the only times everyone makes a point to get together. Living in a place where there are such large communities where everyone practices the same religion really shows how much unifying power there is in a religion. After returning from the mosque we all continued enjoying each other's company, eating lots of fresh mussels and crabs that her brothers had just caught and singing hours of Karaoke!