Thailand's new temptations

Western materialism has invaded a devout Buddhist nation. Tim McGirk reports on the murder of a tourist in search of spirituality

It was an impulsive decision which young British backpacker, Johanne Masheder, ended up paying for with her life. Sitting in her pounds 5-a-night guest house, near Thailand's infamous River Kwai, the vivacious Cheshire law graduate penned a last entry in her diary on 10 December: "I have two hours more before check-out time at noon. An English teacher friend, Naree, has suggested that I go and see this cave near the temple."

For centuries, the jagged hills which rise like a dragon's spine above the mist in Kanchanaburi, north-west Thailand, have been a retreat for monks. A place of tranquillity where great Buddhist saints once meditated in caves, Khao Poon temple has attracted many westerners seeking Buddhism's message of peace and compassion. It was in these caves that 23-year old Jo found her death.

Her badly decomposed body was found, three weeks later, at the bottom of a ravine where Buddhist monks from a nearby monastery in Kanchanaburi dumped their rubbish. Thai police said Jo was lured into the caves where she was murdered by a novice monk. Police said the suspect, Yodchart Suephoo, was an amphetamine addict who became a monk after serving two and a half years in a Thai prison for rape. In his confession, the monk told police: "She was alone. A very beautiful girl. I took her around the first cave and then offered to show her the caves nearby. She came with me. We were above a cave looking down and I suddenly said - 'look there!' She looked down and I pushed her, grabbing her bag and her camera. She fell 30 feet. I climbed down after her. The cave was just full of rubbish. I pushed her body to the side so she could not be seen from above and then climbed out. She had very little, just 500 baht [pounds 12] and a camera."

According to police, only three days before, the same monk had raped a young Austrian tourist, Inge Holece. On 13 December, the rape victim wrote in the Bangkok Post, "Please take this seriously. Violence was involved and I'm sure my life was endangered. I would not like anything like this to happen to anybody else." By the time her letter ran in the paper, it was too late. Jo had already been murdered and her parents, Stuart and Jackie Masheder, from Wincle, Cheshire, would not know she was missing until Christmas.

"The killing of a tourist by a bad guy hiding behind the yellow robe [worn by the Buddhist clergy] will have a tremendous impact on the reputation of the country," the Thai national police chief, Poj Bunyachinda, said. Another monk and a layman were also arrested in Kanchanaburi suspected of joining in Ms Masheder's murder.

The killing of the young backpacker has not only damaged Thailand's reputation as one of the safer tourist havens in Asia, it is just one in a long string of ghastly scandals that has rocked the Thais' faith in their once-revered Buddhist clergy. Intensely religious, Thais are reeling over how corrupt some of the country's 200,000 monks have become.

Buddhist monks take vows of celibacy. And it is against their faith to kill any living being. Buddhism is practised by 95 per cent of all Thais, and every male is expected to retreat from society for several months during his life, shave his head, beg for food and lead a simple life.

But Thailand, in its rush towards economic prosperity over the past 15 years, has become one of Asia's most acquisitive societies. Sex and materialistic temptations, inevitably, have penetrated into the Buddhist temples. Selling amulets to ward off evil has turned into a multi-million pound business for some monks, who travel in chauffeur-driven limousines. Crooks and gangsters take up vows simply to escape from the police for a few months. With heroin coming into Thailand from the Golden Triangle, drug addiction has also spread to the monasteries, and one of the country's first Aids victims was reportedly a monk. Police suspect that Miss Masheder's killer became a monk in a failed attempt to cure his amphetamine habit. Yodchart used the 500 baht from her stolen bag to buy drugs.

In Thailand until now, to criticise the Buddhist clergy was to reap bad karma. Few dared to do so until last year when the laughable sexual antics of Phra Yantra Amaro Bikku were exposed. Probably Thailand's best-known monk, Phra Yantra counted among his 150,000 devotees cabinet ministers, princesses and an MP who swore by the curative effects of drinking the monk's urine. But it emerged last year that when Phra Yantra was supposed to be meditating in the wilderness of New Zealand, he was sneaking off to the massage parlours of Auckland. The ladies there nicknamed him "Batman" since he refused to remove his monk's robes during sex. He also made one of his followers pregnant and made love to a nun on the icy deck of a ferry going to Finland.

After Phra Yantra was defrocked and disgraced last April by the country's religious leader, the Supreme Patriarch, it set off a chain reaction of scandals that tarnished Thai Buddhism's sanctity. A venerated abbot in a northern monastery was accused of raping six hill-tribe girls, aged between 12 and 16. Next came the grisly incident in which a monk was arrested for "barbecuing" a still-born baby to extract oil for love potions. Then, another monk was charged with raping a 14-year-old girl; during his first assault he recorded her cries and tried to use the tape to blackmail her into having sex with him again. Most recently, six monks were charged with murdering a fellow monk. Some Thais are repelled by the avidity with which the media has revealed the clergy's seamy side, while reformers claim that it is time to cleanse the monasteries.

Belatedly, the Thai Buddhist clergy is realising that monks can no longer stand aloof from samsara, the Buddhist term for worldly cravings. For centuries, the Buddhist laity in Thailand have pretended that monastic life was pure and simple, above reproach. But the proof otherwise cannot be ignored. Some monasteries have opened up drug detoxification centres. The Supreme Patriarch has also set up a new school at which senior abbots can be taught how to reform errant monks.

This has all come too late for the young Cheshire woman who went to Kanchanaburi's caves for a glimpse of Buddhism's gentle promise. When Miss Masheder did not return to Cheshire in time for Christmas, her parents, Stuart and Jackie, both 49, flew to Thailand to search for her. Desperate, they looked everywhere, stopping sun-bathers in the Thai beach resorts to show them a photograph of their missing daughter. Their last snapshot of her was taken a few days before she was murdered, while she was enjoying an elephant- trek in the jungles of Chiang Mai. The Masheders also placed photographs of Jo in the Thai newspapers, and the woman's friend - the English teacher she refers to in her diary - recognised it and called the police. They found her hired bicycle still parked at Yodchart's monastery. A search of the monastery's rooms and the temple grounds turned up her charred passport, diary and air ticket back home.

The warning letter written by the Austrian tourist may have been too late to save Ms Masheder, but it did help investigators track down her suspected killer. Going by the description she provided to the Bangkok Daily, police were able to identify the monk rapist.

For many Thais, the murder confession of the novice monk, heaped on all the tales of monastic depravity, is ample evidence that the Buddhist laity has become inescapably tainted by the sex and greed that engulfs modern Thai society.

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to US
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
News
i100
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voicesVicky Chandler: Zoella shows us that feminism can come in all forms
Life and Style
health
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    General Cover Teacher

    £120 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Luton: The Job:TEACHERS REQUIREDWe are...

    Year 6 Teacher

    £100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are currently...

    SEN Teaching Assistant

    £60 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Special Needs Teaching Assistant ...

    Year 4 Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education is urgently recruiting...

    Day In a Page

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?