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Buddhist monks lead prayers to cleanse Thai beach

Channel News Asia (AFP), Jan 18, 2005

PATONG, Thailand -- Some 100 Budhhist monks led a mass cleansing ritual Tuesday at popular Patong beach on the resort island of Phuket to dispel fears among residents and Asian tourists that restless spirits of tsunami victims are haunting the area.

<< Reports of ghost sightings have terrorised locals here.

Many now carry Buddha amulets and avoid venturing out to the beach at night after the December 26 earthquake and giant waves killed more than 5,300 people in Thailand, roughly half of them Western tourists.

Hoteliers and tourism officials, hoping for a speedy recovery in business, fear such ghostly tales will scare away superstitious visitors from China, Hong Kong and other parts of Asia where belief in the spiritual realm is deep.

In windblown saffron robes, 99 barefoot monks holding silver urns walked along a three-kilometer street hugging the shoreline of Patong, collecting an array of food and money offerings from more than 1,000 residents giving merit to help the spirits.

According to Buddhist belief, once people die they can no longer make merit and the task is left to the living.

Only with sufficient merit can the dead break out of the cycle of Karma and reincarnation and reach Nirvana.

Thai women and men clasped their hands in respect before scooping steamed white rice or dropping money and packets of cooked dishes, canned food, drinks and other household items -- including toilet paper, soap and detergent -- into the monks' bowls.

A number of them knelt in silent prayer along the street, where many shops and restaurants were ravaged by the tsunamis.

Some foreigners living in Patong also handed out bags of food to seek blessings for their businesses here.

"Buddhists believe that when people die unexpectedly, their spirits are not at rest. They think they are still alive so they hang around here looking for their way home," said resident Yongsak Natpracha.

Drivers of three-wheel taxis known as tuk-tuks reportedly saw spirits of the dead flagging them down on the street, while others claimed they saw people swimming in the sea and singing on the beach at night, he said.

"That's why we give food offerings as merit to help their souls rest in peace, so that they won't go wandering around scaring people."

The four-hour ceremony closed with a mass prayer session at a large square on the beachfront where the chief monk, holding a microphone, led the group in chanting prayers of blessings under cloudy skies.

Phuket Tourism Association president Pattanapong Aikwanich said a series of such rituals have been held throughout Phuket to quell fears among locals and assure tourists especially from Asia that the island has been cleansed.

This is particularly crucial as the industry is hoping for a return of tourists from China, Hong Kong and Singapore during next month's Chinese Lunar New Year holidays, he told AFP.

A similar ceremony was held Tuesday in a slum outside the resort town of Khao Lak in neighboring Phang Nga province, where 100 people gathered for prayers dedicated to Myanmar migrants who died in the tsunami.

Two weeks earlier, some 20,000 people joined more than 1,000 monks in a huge ceremony in Phuket town centre, while similar prayers have also been held by Christian and Muslim religious leaders, said Pattanapong.

"Many Asians believe in the supernatural, so we have to hold prayers and take steps to assure them that the spirits of the tsunami victims are resting in peace, that they don't have to be afraid of ghosts," he said.

Pattanapong said hotel occupancy and room rates on the island have fallen since the calamity. Phuket's tourism revenue this year is expected to fall by at least 30 percent from around 75 billion baht (1.9 billion dollars) last year, he said.

The industry has mounted an aggressive campaign abroad, offering cheap air fares and hotel rooms and attractive tour packages to woo tourists.

It is confident of a recovery by the next peak season in November, he added.


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