The first time I became aware of the concept of merit making by Buddhists was thanks to a vendor at a sparsely visited temple who was making merit of a different kind by selling caged birds to touri to set free. This practice was not originally geared toward visitors but rather toward locals. It’s but one of hundreds of ways Buddhists earn brownie points for performing a good deed. But someone figured out touri were willing to drop a few baht to participate too and a new industry was born.
It is still practiced by locals, there is always a vendor with a stack of sparrows confined in brightly painted red cages at the entrance to the Erawan Shrine, a popular place of worship located near the Grand Hyatt Erawan in Bangkok. I don’t think many Thais patronize the vendor selling them at the entrance to the Bo Sang Umbrella Village in Chiang Mai where they are restrained in small woven baskets though. Whether a religious practice or an interactive touri experience, I’d always thought the custom was cool; friends visiting the Kingdom with me also always enjoyed the experience.
It wasn’t until a visit to Phnom Penh that I began to consider the birds’ side of the ritual. One evening as dusk approached I was visiting a small, rather popular shrine on Sisowath Quay, the pedestrian boulevard that runs along the Mekong. Several bird vendors were busy selling their feathered friends to the locals to set free. A great photo op, maneuvering for the best shot I ended up next to a dumpster and watched one of the vendors unceremoniously pulling dead birds out of his cage to throw into the dumpster. I don’t think the Buddha would have been pleased.
Up north on the same trip I began running into signs posted along the inside of temple grounds asking visitors to not patronize the bird sellers; a short explanation of why the wat’s monks frowned on the practice was included. You’d think the better option would be to not allow the vendors to conduct their business within the wat, but Thai culture tends to be non-confrontational, and I guess when it comes to racking up karma points it’s best to leave it to the individual on whether they are striving to reach enlightenment or setting themselves to come back as a cockroach the next time around.
Not being part of the Buddhist sect that refuses to even harm an earth worm, Thais don’t place a high value on animals’ lives. I doubt PETA has an active branch in Bangkok. I really can’t fault locals who release the caged birds as part of their religious beliefs – and I note the signs asking people not to that I’ve seen have all been in English only so perhaps the monks too are willing to cut the local populace some slack.
For touri, sometimes ignorance is bliss; knowing that by participating in the ritual (which has no religious connotations for you) you are encouraging the mistreatment of the birds is kind of a bummer. I’ve been with too many friends who have enjoyed the experience, and I’ll miss not doing so in the future. You’ll have to weigh the experience against the consequences yourself. And if you did consider participating in the practice as a way to earn merit, maybe you can off a barboy and let him fly free for the night instead.
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