Making religious merit high on Thais’ New Years list

More than 40 percent of Bangkok people surveyed said making merit at Buddhist temples would be their top priority over the New Year holiday, while another survey said the money spent by Thais returning home and shopping would push holiday spending to a 13-year high, helping to boost consumption, an important driver of the economy.

Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist country, and religion is central to the lives of many Thais. Religion, the monarchy and nationhood are considered the three pillars of Thai society. A key concept of Buddhism, and especially Thai Buddhism, is making merit – donating time, service, possessions or money, most often to Buddhist temples or to Buddhist monks. The belief is that by doing good deeds an individual’s karma will be improved, and he or she may eventually achieve enlightenment and be freed from the endless cycle of suffering.

Thailand has 40,717 Buddhist temples, according to the National Office of Buddhism. Many are awe-inspiring. They range from the spectacular Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok to tiny bare-bones structures in remote villages, to secluded houses of worship in forests. Temples are often the center of village life, and many temples, large and small, are socially engaged, providing help and services to the poor and anyone in need.

Thais balance the selflessness of Buddhism’s spirituality with a well-established worldly passion for shopping. That passion is proving good for the Kingdom’s economy. Spending on year-end celebrations was forecast to reach $4.8 billion by the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce (UTCC), the highest total since 2004.

Thanavath Phonvichai, the UTCC’s vice-president for research, said the robust spending may push 2017’s gross domestic product growth to 4 percent. The Ministry of Finance had recently increased its forecast for the year to 3.9 percent.

A holiday spending increase over last year had been expected after the end of the one-year mourning period for the last monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej whose passing in 2016 left Thais without a desire to celebrate the New Year. But the strongest spending in 13 years was a surprise for many economists.

That is good news for the country’s economic resurgence. Policymakers have long been trying to rebalance the economy to increase the role of consumption in gross domestic product growth. It also signals increased consumer confidence.

Holiday spending in the capital Bangkok will nearly equal that throughout the rest of the country, according to UTCC. Residents of the capital are expected to spend $1.95 billion, while people in the provinces will most likely spend $2.06 billion.