JUST north of Bangkok, the Thai capital, stands an enormous golden stupa designed to last 1,000 years. Its gleaming exterior is made not from smooth tiles but from 300,000 tightly-packed statues of the Buddha; 700,000 more are hidden inside. Just as staggering is the vast apron surrounding the stupa, able to hold 1m worshippers. Worakate, a guide dressed in white, explains that followers of the Theravada school of Buddhism—dominant in Thailand and elsewhere in South-East Asia—have never had a gathering place as large as Mecca or the Vatican. She thinks the monument can be a meeting point for adherents from around the world.
The stupa is the centrepiece of a sprawling religious complex, not all of it quite so bling, inhabited by the Dhammakaya movement. An influential if controversial Buddhist sect, it was founded by a handful of monks in the 1970s and now claims more than 3m followers in some 30 countries. As many as 10,000 mainly middle-class Thais flock to its Sunday ceremonies. One of the temple’s senior monks, Phra Somchai Thannavuddho, says that slick modern management has helped. But a big draw, he says, is the purity and clarity of its...

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