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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 July 2006, 00:34 GMT 01:34 UK
Thai monks mix Buddha with Beckham
By Kate McGeown
BBC News, Bangkok

A Buddhist monk playing football
Thai monks are mad about the beautiful game
Like billions of other people around the world, 25-year-old Phra Prawit is avidly following the World Cup - and especially his favourite team, France.

On the other side of Bangkok, 28-year-old England fan Pramaha Preecha is equally addicted to the beautiful game.

But Prawit, Preecha and their football-mad friends have a problem: they are Buddhist monks and have to be awake at 5am every morning to collect alms from the local community.

Because of the six-hour time difference between Germany and Thailand, many matches do not start until the early hours of the morning, and since the World Cup began there have been reports of monks sleeping in, leaving local Buddhists waiting in vain with their morning offerings.

One report in the Nation newspaper cited an angry woman in the city of Chiang Mai who said her birthday celebrations had been ruined because she arrived at a temple with her carefully-prepared alms, only to find that most monks were still in bed.

See David Beckham's likeness in the Buddhist temple

But Prawit and Preecha know where their priorities lie. Despite their allegiance to the football, they rarely stay up past midnight.

"I watched some football the other night, but I fell asleep after 15 minutes," said Preecha. "I had to follow up what had happened the next morning."

His friend Phra Phitak has an established World Cup routine. "I get up early, meditate and collect alms. But as soon as I get back to the temple for breakfast, I turn on the TV or check the internet to find out the score from the previous night's match."

Football fever

The issue of whether monks should be allowed to watch football has been a topic of debate in Thailand over the last few weeks, with the subject featuring in newspaper reports and TV chat shows.

After all, Cambodian monks have apparently been asked to steer clear.

The chief monk in the capital, Phnom Penh, told the French news agency AFP that monks found watching the World Cup should be kicked out of their temples.

In Thailand, though, it appears the consensus of opinion is that monks should be able to follow Beckham as well as Buddha - as long as they don't take their passion for football to an excessive level.

One senior abbot I spoke to, Pramaha Grissana, said: "Some Thai Buddhists don't want monks to watch the football, as they think we should be separate from the lives of laymen. Personally, though, I think it's fine."

Brazil supporters in central Bangkok
Thai people will stay up all night to watch their favourite team
In any case, it is hard to prevent young Thai monks supporting a sport that the rest of Thailand is obsessed with.

Their country might not be in the competition, but that has not stopped Thais from following every free kick, red card and own goal of the 2006 World Cup.

Bars showing the football are packed to capacity whenever a match is on, and according to one research centre, Kasikorn, Thai people will wager up to $1bn on the tournament, despite the fact that gambling is illegal.

Average Thai citizens think nothing of watching into the small hours of the morning.

"I've seen every single match," said 32-year-old Brazil supporter Protpinan Buranayooyti proudly. "I've specially kept some of my holiday allowance, so I can take some days off work and not get too tired."

So it's not surprising that while temples may be places of sanctuary from the outside world, even they are not completely free of the all-pervasive love of football.

In Pariwas temple, where Phra Prawit lives, the monks have taken this one step further. A golden statue of David Beckham - forever immortalised with his late 90s-era floppy hairstyle - is nestled among the Buddha images.

Since it was created in 1998, the statue has become a tourist attraction, but the temple's monks are non-plussed by all the interest.

"Beckham's all right," said Brazil supporter Phra Phitak, busy washing bright orange robes outside the temple, "but personally I think Ronaldhino is a better player."

Red card on excitement

The one stipulation that senior Thai Buddhists agree on when it comes to the World Cup is that monks should not become too emotional when they watch their teams play.

Phra Prawit (r) and Phra Phitak (l) watching TV
Phra Prawit and Phra Phitak watch football whenever they can
"It's not good for monks to shout and get too excited," said abbot Pramaha Grissana.

"It's not the Buddhist way - we should be calm and take things slowly."

His colleague, Phra Pornchai, agreed. "I'm supporting Germany, but I've been a monk for a long time and I've learnt not to get emotional. If Germany win, I'll be happy, but if not I will accept it."

"I support my team in a quiet way," added Pramaha Suriya, "But it's difficult, because my temple is near Khao San Road [the main centre for foreign backpackers] and I can hear people yelling and shouting when the matches are on."

As the World Cup final approaches, there is little doubt that monks throughout Thailand will be glued to their screens.

But the question is - unlike the rest of the world's football fans - can they contain their emotions at the result?

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