A new temple has been added to Bangkok’s stunning golden skyline, but its spires are not Buddhist.
This new sacred structure in the nation, nicknamed the “Land of Smiles,” belongs to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is opening to the public this week.
Exhilaration for their temple among the country’s 23,450 Latter-day Saints in more than 40 congregations is palpable.
“The members are so excited,” says Hannah Phanich, who returned in February to Salt Lake City from her 18-month mission there. “There is a hotel next to the temple site, and members have been going there for months taking photos of the construction from higher floors.”
Missionaries have been helping folks “get ready,” says Phanich, whose father is Thai. “Some members have been ‘called’ to do history and serve as ‘temple coordinators.’ They were very passionate about what they did and so good at getting people excited.”
Open house begins
Invited guests will be touring the Bangkok Temple through Thursday.
Starting on Friday and continuing through Sept. 16, the general public will be welcomed inside the multistory, 48,525-square-foot building with a central spire that soars some 250 feet.
“It’s a beautiful building in a remarkably beautiful city, but it’s much more than just a building,” said apostle Gerrit Gong, who is in Bangkok for the beginning of the open house, said in a news release Monday. “We offer the best we can to the Lord, and he offers the best he can for us. This is the place where heaven and earth connect.”
Fellow apostle Ronald Rasband is scheduled to dedicate the temple Oct. 22.
“I don’t think you can go to Thailand,” says Jacob Newman, who served mostly in Bangkok from 2009 to 2011, “and not be transformed by the sense of the sacred all around.”
Newman, a Millcreek resident who is already there for the open house, “grew to love the people so much,” he says. “When my stake [regional] president asked me, ‘Did you learn to love the people?’, I just cried.”
To Reed Haslam, a Sandy resident who served in Thailand from 1973 to 1975 and wrote a book titled “The Light Breaks on Southeast Asia,” the Thai people were “so kind and generous.”
More, he says, “than I could have imagined.”
There was a time, though, when Mormonism faced an unexpected international outcry that threatened to thwart its growth in the country — just as it was getting started.
Painful lesson in cultural sensitivity
Latter-day Saint apostle Gordon B. Hinckley (who would become the faith’s 15th president) dedicated Thailand for missionary work in 1966. Missionaries didn’t arrive until two years later, when six were sent from the Hong Kong Mission, which included Taiwan.
The Utah-based faith then began to expand in the country, with congregations emerging in Bangkok and surrounding areas.
In 1972, though, there was an unfortunate episode, which came to be known by some as the “Buddha desecration incident.”
Touring ancient sites with mission leaders, one young proselytizer spied a path behind a statue of the Buddha, and, without thinking, impulsively climbed up and sat on the head with his feet on the shoulders, while his “companion” (mission partner) snapped a photo. When the missionary took his picture to a film developer, an employee sent a copy to a newspaper in Bangkok. It soon was reprinted in scores of papers, triggering outrage in a nation where 95% of the populace is Buddhist.
Both missionaries were arrested for “insulting Buddhism,” “confessed” that they did it, were sentenced to six months in a Thai jail and ultimately deported. Intending no offense to the country, both young men paid a heavy price for their momentary lapse.
“It was not the actions of the elders that were on trial that day,” writes Haslam in his book, “rather it was The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that was on trial.”
Missionary baptisms dried up for months, but after about a year, he says, “the lasting impact seemed to be melting away.”
The church, meanwhile, built good diplomatic relations with the government officials, assuring them that any future missionaries would be sensitive to the culture.
The faith “learned from this incident that it was insufficient to just teach missionaries going to foreign countries the language,” Haslam says. “They had to teach them the culture of their assigned country as well.”
How to ‘hasten the work’
Alpine resident Mary Schnitker Gifford arrived in Thailand in 1975, possibly “the fourth or fifth proselytizing ‘sisters’ [women].”
At that time, the missionaries only had portions of the faith’s foundational scripture, the Book of Mormon, to use with their efforts. But a year later, the whole volume was published in Thai.
“We expected it would break the work wide open, but it didn’t,” Gifford recalls. “Things slogged along.”
Three major developments were needed, she says, to “hasten the work.”
• First, the mission needed a president who spoke Thai, and they didn’t get one until 1988.
• Second, the church had to solve “the visa problem,” which required missionaries to leave the country every 90 days to renew their visas. “It took up to five days and was very disruptive to the work,” Gifford says, “considering the few investigators we had.”
• Third, it would be best to have its own chapels, rather than meeting in homes.
“I’m amazed that the church has grown in Thailand,” Gifford says. " There are thriving units in towns that weren’t even open in 1977. We have many chapels. The visa problem is solved, and we have a supply of Thai-speaking mission presidents.”
And now there will be an even more visible presence: a temple.
Challenges of Buddhism
A common Thai response to Latter-day Saint conversion attempts was “well, every religion teaches you to be good.”
As innocuous and broad-minded as that sounds, “it was an extremely effective means of deflecting any attempts to discuss religion,” says Shane Strate, who was a missionary there from 1992 to 1994. “If all religions promoted moral behavior, then what was the point of converting to a foreign religion? Better to stay with the religion that promoted connections to family, society, nation and monarchy.”
Many Thais “were impressed with the Book of Mormon, believed [church founder] Joseph Smith to be called of God, and even accepted our claims that our church was ‘true,’” Strate says. “Yet when we invited them to accept baptism, they responded, ‘Oh no, I’m a Buddhist. That’s the correct religion for Thai people.’”
Plus, the concept of deity is “radically different” between the two faiths, says Strate, who teaches courses on Thailand and Southeast Asia at Ohio’s Kent State University.
During a lesson about the Latter-day Saint view of the afterlife with its three kingdoms, a potential convert looked pensive for a moment, then said, “Can I just go to the middle one?”
Strate tried to communicate that the Celestial Kingdom — the “highest” heaven — should be the goal in order to “reside with God.” The young man sat back and said, “No, I think that’s too much for me.”
The Buddhist pictured God the way Hindus conceived of Brahma or Shiva, or the ancient Greeks imagined Zeus or Athena, the former missionary says. “To reside with such a deity would be a precarious existence, since one risked invoking their wrath through some act of carelessness.”
Is it any wonder, Strate asks, he would prefer “the middle one”?
Almost all young Thai men were expected to enter a monastery and reside as a novice monk for a period of several weeks. This act, the history professor says, would generate “enormous quantities of spiritual merit necessary to ensure his parents achieved a satisfactory level of salvation.”
If they chose Latter-day Saint baptism instead, they would be viewed “as selfish and unfeeling, having deprived his parents of the merit necessary in the afterlife,” Strate says. “This would be a cause of great shame for his family within their community.”
Occasionally, he adds, the missionaries found young men who said they would accept baptism “once they had entered the monastery and fulfilled their filial obligation.”
But few did.
Early missionaries formed a singing group and toured the country, attracting large crowds and eventually performing for the king and queen, says Salt Lake City resident Steve Elliott, who was there in the 1970s.
Elliott, who became a professional golfer, played his sport as a missionary there, tapping into Thai interest in Latter-day Saint golfer Johnny Miller.
Street displays on the dangers of smoking and drinking attracted some, he says, as well as missionary basketball teams that played across the country.
St. Louis resident Dana King, who has a degree in Asian studies, and her husband, Daniel King, lived in Bangkok from 1992 to 1998, while he received his doctorate in Thai political parties. He was the president of the English-speaking Latter-day Saint branch (small congregation), while she ran the church’s “Journey to Bethlehem,” a Christmas program that attracted many people from the community.
“There was a lot of curiosity about Christianity,” King says. “We had large turnouts every year, filling up the parking lot.”
The church also has been involved in humanitarian projects in the Southeast Asian country for many years — providing wheelchairs, cataract surgical units, computers, clean water projects and cash donations through nonprofits. It offered major assistance after the 2011 tsunami.
Haslam, the author, says a Latter-day Saint temple in Thailand was a faraway dream during the struggles of past decades. “We couldn’t imagine it.”
And now he — and so many others — will be there to celebrate.