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Popular Thai temple falls victim to 'overtourism'

Hordes of unruly visitors descend on place of worship unmindful of local customs

A person at prayer inside the pagoda at Wat Paknam: The pagoda, featuring an emerald-green glass stupa and planetarium-like ceiling, has become a must see since 2012.  (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

BANGKOK -- Wat Paknam temple seems to be on the bucket list of every tourist to Thailand these days thanks to Instagram-like obsession over the breathtaking interior of its five-story pagoda.

But along with giving the local tourist industry a boost, the throngs of tourists are also creating headaches owing to their seeming indifference to the temple's primary purpose as a place of worship.

Wat Paknam was established during the mid-Ayutthaya Dynasty during the 15th to 17th centuries. The historically significant temple has residences for monks but remained largely off tourists' radar.

After construction in 2012 of the pagoda, however, Wat Paknam became a must see for both locals and foreigners, who shared their experiences at the temple via social media. The main attraction inside the 80-meter high pagoda is an emerald-green glass stupa, over which is poised a star-studded ceiling painting that depicts nirvana.

A Japanese college student on summer vacation said she wanted to visit it after seeing the interior so many times on the internet. She and her friend then began taking pictures.

And therein begins the rub. Though irresistibly photogenic, the temple is a place of worship, and photo-snapping foreigners are starting to annoy the locals. Somchai, a 60-something Thai visiting the temple, said he is glad to see foreign visitors but wants them to mind their manners.

He has a point. In addition to the endless procession of the selfie obsessed, many foreigners chat away loudly, oblivious to locals trying to pray. Some are seen taking pictures of others lying down indecorously in the pose of a reclining Buddha, or miming traditional Thai dancers. Hardly proper behavior in a place of worship.

The temple also asks people to refrain from hugging, kissing and jumping so as not to disturb worshippers.

But unless visitors learn how to behave, the situation is likely to worsen. The pagoda regularly graces the pages of tour magazines and websites, attracting a steady stream of camera-toting tourists, despite it being located outside Bangkok and a good 20- to 30-minute walk from the nearest train station.

Another of its attractions is that it is free to both locals and foreigners, unlike many other temples in Thailand that charge entrance fees to foreigners.

Thanks to social media, tourists are now discovering hidden gems around the globe. But if their behavior at Wat Paknam is any indication of future conduct, they may find themselves less than welcome by increasingly irked locals.

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