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Advice to tourists: Don’t sport your Buddha tattoo in a Buddhist country

(AFP Photo/Ye Aung Thu)
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The skyline of Bagan, Burma (also known as Myanmar), is dotted with more than 2,200 Buddhist temples. Built largely in the 13th and 14th centuries, they’re beautiful — a dusty red sandstone or a glinting gold — with massive Buddha statues inside. People flock from Thailand, China, Japan, the United States and Europe to see the ancient city and often to practice Buddhism.

But Westerners approach Buddhism differently than locals. That was made obvious when Burmese officials were poised to deport a Spanish tourist with the Buddha tattooed on the back of his leg, as AFP reported

The Spaniard, identified by AOL Travel News as Cesar Hernandez, was with his wife when monks in Bagan started noticing the tattoo. Photos show that it covers nearly all of the back of his calf.

“Monks in Bagan saw a Buddha tattoo on his right leg because he was wearing shorts. They informed us as it’s not appropriate,” a police officer in Bagan told AFP anonymously.

Hernandez and his wife then got the boot from Bagan. They were placed in detention nearly 400 miles away in Rangoon, Burma’s largest city. An officer told the AFP that the country planned to deport the Spaniard to Bangkok. “We will send him back because he violated the rules as a tourist here,” he said.

But the regime had an about-face. Aung San Win, the minister of religious affairs and culture, said the couple were merely “advised” to leave the country, reported English-language media network Asian Correspondent.

“We have no reason to deport them,” Aung San Win said. “We’ll just ask them to take care for their safety because some people would view the tattoo on his leg as an insult to the religion.”

It’s not known if the Spaniards are still in the country. But it’s not the best region for Westerners who treat Buddhism casually. Tourists generally were banned in February from scaling Bagan’s pagodas, a practice that officials called “disgraceful.” A Canadian professor was deported two years ago because he, too, had a Buddha tattoo. That same year, Sri Lanka deported a British nurse who had inked the Buddha on her arm.

Both insisted that they tattooed the man on their bodies out of religious devotion, not lack of respect. They were told that they were violating the law, put into custody, then kicked out.

But having one’s vacation cut short is perhaps not the worst result. Last year, a bar manager from New Zealand was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison and hard labor in Burma because he advertised a cheap-drinks night with a psychedelic image of the Buddha sporting headphones. Judge Ye Lwin said Philip Blackwood, the manager, had “intentionally plotted to insult religious belief” when he uploaded the photo. Blackwood roundly denied that; he has since returned home after 13 months of sleeping on a wooden pallet in prison.

Buddhism has a surprising hold on Burma’s politics — and not always in positive ways. Radical monks were involved in passing laws that restrict the rights of religious minorities (particularly Muslims) and women last year in Burma, where their nationalist message is popular.