BANGKOK (AFP) – The behaviour of Thailand's Buddhist clergy has been thrust under the spotlight after footage emerged of three monks flying in a private jet, wearing earphones and sunglasses and travelling with a Louis Vuitton luxury bag.
The video, which has been viewed nearly 200,000 times on YouTube, has prompted fevered debate in the Buddhist-dominated kingdom over monks' adherence to austere principles which include living without possessions, beyond a handful of robes.
According to one of the monks, who has since been "reprimanded", the jet was chartered by a devotee to fly them home to northeast Si Sa Ket from Bangkok after performing duties in November, said Nopparat Benjawattantnun, director of the National Office of Buddhism.
"His behaviour -- wearing sunglasses and carrying a Louis Vuitton handbag -- amounts to an ostentatious display that will provoke criticism from laymen," Nopparat said.
Virood Chaipanna, director of Si Sa Ket's Office of Buddhism, named the monk as Luang Pu Nenkham Chattigo, 34, from Wat Pa Khantitham.
"Yesterday I went to the temple but he was not there. They said he is in France," Virood said.
Buddhism is Thailand's state religion and around 95 percent of the population is believed to follow it -- the highest percentage in the world.
Figures last year from the National Office of Buddhism showed Thailand had more than 61,000 monks.
Their behaviour frequently falls under the spotlight with media reports uncovering cases of clergy taking drugs, drinking, gambling and visiting prostitutes.
"To be in the monkhood one should be isolated and content with what one has," said Pra Khru Vinaithorn Teerawit, of the Buddhism Protection Center of Thailand, adding complaints are most commonly made against newly ordained monks.
Referring to the video, he said the public reaction should depend on whether the monks chose to travel by private jet or if it was organised by followers.
"If monks chose to travel by jet then it's not suitable," he said.
The video can be viewed at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=sANFgwoJeic