Pakistan hopes for Buddhist boost to tourism drought

By Guillaume Lavallee, AFP, March 24, 2013

Amid rising violence, the country is trying to revive travel to its northwest - rich in Buddhist history and significance - which could generate billions in revenue, but lies next to Taliban havens

TAKHT-i-BAHI, Pakistan -- Religious violence may be on the rise and the Taliban still a threat, but Pakistan is hoping a rich Buddhist heritage will help it boost international tourism to its troubled northwest.

<< Religious students sit on the premises of the Takht-i-Bahi Monastery in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province on Nov. 16 last year.
Photo: AFP

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, with its balmy climate in the mountains and its wealth of history on the border with Afghanistan, was once a playground for colonial adventurers and a favorite holiday destination for upper-crust Pakistanis.

Yet after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US ushered in war in Afghanistan and an insurgency against the Pakistani government, it has become synonymous with Pakistani Taliban and other Islamist militants who have killed thousands in recent years.

Wealthier Pakistanis and Westerners stopped visiting, scared away by attacks and the threat of being kidnapped, but the provincial government is now trying to lure thousands of visitors from wealthy Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea.

A group of about 20 Buddhist monks from South Korea made the journey to the monastery of Takht-i-Bahi, 170km from Islamabad, and close to the tribal areas that are a haven for Taliban and other Islamist militant groups.

“We really felt it is our hometown, it was a great feeling which it is not possible to describe in words,” Jeon Woon-deok, a senior South Korean monk, told reporters by e-mail of the visit last year. “We only regret that we waited so long to come here.”

The journey was no straightforward pilgrimage.

The monks defied appeals from Seoul to abandon their trip for safety reasons and were guarded by Pakistani security forces on their visit to the monastery, built of ocher colored stone and nestled on a mountainside.

From about 1000 BC until the seventh century AD, northern Pakistan and parts of modern Afghanistan formed the Gandhara Kingdom, where Greek and Buddhist customs mixed to create what became the Mahayana strand of the religion.

The monk Marananta set out from what is now northwest Pakistan to cross China and spread Buddhism on the Korean Peninsula during the fourth century.

The gardens of Takht-i-Bahi host picnicking families and daydreaming teenagers, as well as students from nearby Qoranic schools, but foreign visitors are rare.

“There used to be foreign tourists here in the past, but after the attacks there are hardly any,” local guide Iftikhar Ali said.
The flow of adventurous tourists from East Asia is no more than a trickle at the moment — Ali said he sees only one or two visitors a month on average.

“For them this place is like Mecca,” said Zulfiqar Rahim, the head of the Gandhara Art and Culture Association, which is dedicated to the promotion of Pakistan’s Buddhist heritage.

Last year, monks from Bhutan also came to visit, but the Pakistani government wants to boost numbers quickly.

“We are currently working to promote religious and archaeological Buddhist tourism,” Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Deputy Minister of Tourism Syed Jamaluddin Shah said.

The Pakistani authorities are even planning package tours for visitors from China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea, including trips to the Buddhist sites at Takht-i-Bahi, Swat, Peshawar and Taxila, near Islamabad.

“The tourism potential is enormous. If each person who comes spends US$1,200 with hotel costs and all the rest, and 1 million people come, that makes 1 billion dollars,” Rahim said, “And we’re not talking about 1 million people, but 50 million Mahayana Buddhists in Korea, China and Japan.”

However, there is a long way to go. It will be difficult to overcome huge security problems, poor tourist infrastructure and the challenges of getting a visa and permission to travel to high-risk areas.

Enormous floods in 2010 caused further damage, although the US has since provided US$5.4 million to help revive the local economy and rehabilitate tourism in the province’s Swat District.

For now, it is mostly local visitors who come to the remains of the Buddhist sites in Pakistan. Reflecting on his country’s woes, Sajjad, a teacher gazed at a statue of Buddha and sighed: “We need this calm so much.”

We Need Your Help to Train the
Buddhist AI Chat Bot
(Neural Operator for Responsible Buddhist Understanding)

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your name in the payment slip. Thank you.

Dear Friends in the Dharma,

We seek your generous support to help us train NORBU, the word's first Buddhist AI Chat Bot.

Here are some ways you can contribute to this noble cause:

One-time Donation or Loan: A single contribution, regardless of its size, will go a long way in helping us reach our goal and make the Buddhist LLM a beacon of wisdom for all.

How will your donation / loan be used? Download the NORBU White Paper for details.

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your purpose of payment (loan or donation) in the payment slip. Thank you.

Once payment is banked in, please send the payment slip via email to: Your donation/loan will be published and publicly acknowledged on the Buddhist Channel.

Spread the Word: Share this initiative with your friends, family and fellow Dharma enthusiasts. Join "Friends of Norbu" at: Together, we can build a stronger community and create a positive impact on a global scale.

Volunteer: If you possess expertise in AI, natural language processing, Dharma knowledge in terms of Buddhist sutras in various languages or related fields, and wish to lend your skills, please contact us. Your knowledge and passion could be invaluable to our project's success.

Your support is part of a collective effort to preserve and disseminate the profound teachings of Buddhism. By contributing to the NORBU, you become a "virtual Bodhisattva" to make Buddhist wisdom more accessible to seekers worldwide.

Thank you for helping to make NORBU a wise and compassionate Buddhist Chatbot!

May you be blessed with inner peace and wisdom,

With deepest gratitude,

Kooi F. Lim
On behalf of The Buddhist Channel Team

Note: To date, we have received the following contributions for NORBU:
US$ 75 from Gary Gach (Loan)
US$ 50 from Chong Sim Keong
MYR 300 from Wilson Tee
MYR 500 from Lim Yan Pok
MYR 50 from Oon Yeoh
MYR 200 from Ooi Poh Tin
MYR 300 from Lai Swee Pin
MYR 100 from Ong Hooi Sian
MYR 1,000 from Fam Sin Nin
MYR 500 from Oh teik Bin
MYR 300 from Yeoh Ai Guat
MYR 300 from Yong Lily
MYR 50 from Bandar Utama Buddhist Society
MYR 1,000 from Chiam Swee Ann
MYR 1,000 from Lye Veei Chiew
MYR 1,000 from Por Yong Tong
MYR 80 from Lee Wai Yee
MYR 500 from Pek Chee Hen
MYR 300 from Hor Tuck Loon
MYR 1,000 from Wise Payments Malaysia Sdn Bhd
MYR 200 from Teo Yen Hua
MYR 500 from Ng Wee Keat
MYR 10,000 from Chang Quai Hung, Jackie (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from K. C. Lim & Agnes (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from Juin & Jooky Tan (Loan)
MYR 100 from Poh Boon Fong (on behalf of SXI Buddhist Students Society)
MYR 10,000 from Fam Shan-Shan (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from John Fam (Loan)
MYR 500 from Phang Cheng Kar
MYR 100 from Lee Suat Yee
MYR 500 from Teo Chwee Hoon (on behalf of Lai Siow Kee)
MYR 200 from Mak Yuen Chau

We express our deep gratitude for the support and generosity.

If you have any enquiries, please write to: