Lifestyle & Belief

Thailand reels at video of Buddhist monks' private jet journey


BANGKOK, Thailand — No dinner, no sneakers, no beer and no sex. An unthinkable sacrifice to the 21st century people, perhaps, but Buddhist monks must forsake them all.

And yet a YouTube clip currently captivating Thailand, where Buddhism reigns supreme, suggests that some monks can taste luxury beyond the average man's dreams.

The clip reveals a trio of monks draped in tangerine-colored robes. They are taxiing in a sleek private jet along a provincial Thai airport runway. Each wears flashy shades. Each has headphones plugged into his ears; one fiddles with a set that is wireless. The coup de grâce: a designer Louis Vuitton bag resting in a leather seat.

Misbehaving monks are not new to Thai newspapers. Their pages are filled with accounts of monks on meth, monks chasing prostitutes, monks ferried about in BMWs. But rarely are monks ensconced in so much luxury caught on video.

Exact figures on the number of monks in Thailand are sketchy: 200,000 is a common estimate though a senior monk recently confided to the New York Times that the figure may have dwindled down to 70,000.

Thai men drift in and out of the monkhood. Although many monks remain in robes for life, two-week stints for otherwise secular men are common. Many fail to shake worldly habits such as smoking or Angry Birds during their stay. The piety demanded by an ancient doctrine is increasingly hard to sustain.

Tradition forbids monks from handling cash but this is an almost impossible request in modern times. Monks toting mobile phones, taboo not so long ago, have become a common sight. But these are minor violations among monks who, for the most part, undergird their communities with acts of kindness and teachings of mercy.

But there also exists a class of well-paid celebrity monks whose lives are steeped in luxury.

The "private jet" monks scandalized on YouTube are connected to a temple in SriSaket, a province deep in Thai rice-farming country, according to Matichon, a Thai-language news service.

Much of the temple's web presence consists of glowing homage to a monk — strongly resembling a monk in the clip — who mixes Buddhist doctrine with claims of supernatural powers.

His personal site contends that he has walked upon water: He rose up and realized that his feet did not even touch the dust on the floor and stayed afloat when walking on the pond. And later in life, so goes the monk's lore, he meditated for three months inside a cave where a python would rest on his chest.

Such wild claims are common among high-profile monks who count politicians and business moguls among their benefactors. On his site, the same monk hawks coins made of "USA gold" bearing his image for $33. A gleaming statuette goes for the auspicious price of 99,999 Thai baht or $3,242.

According to Matichon, the private jet in the video actually belongs to Luang Pu Nenkham Chattigo, the abbot of a Buddhist temple. "There is also a helipad near the entrance of the temple," reported the Bangkok Post, and the abbot travels with a police escort.

Both excessive commercialism and "necromancy" are officially disapproved by Thailand's Office of National Buddhism. (Mission statement: "To promote Buddhist scruple and buoy up Thai society.") Its director general, Nopparat Benjawatananun, told the Associated Press that the overly flashy monks had been warned.

But he also offered a caveat regarding the modern monk's temptations: "When Lord Buddha was alive, there wasn't anything like this. There were no cars, smartphones or cameras so the rules were much simpler."