Buddhist Temples, called wats in Thailand, are common throughout the country. Some are spectacular and well worth seeing. Learning a bit more about Buddhism and visiting a temple can be a great way to learn more about Thai culture. Read on to learn more about some of the best temples of Thailand: Wat Pho and Wat Arun in Bangkok , Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chiang Man in Chiang Mai and Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai.
As I do not really feel qualified to explain the principles of Buddhism, I will instead point you to this quick overview of Buddhism. If you would like to learn more about Buddhism, Buddhism Plain and Simple is a good start or Siddhartha, a novel based loosely on the story of Siddhartha Gautama, whose teachings form the basis of Buddhism.
The Dali Lama is the head monk of Tibetan Buddhism. You can learn more about the history of the Dalai Lama and Tibet here.
Don’t try and see every wat, this is like trying to visit every Cathedral or church in Europe. Just pick a few and enjoy your visit. Some are more spectacular or have special historical significance.
Here are a few of the best temples of Thailand.
Wat Pho – The Reclining Buddha
This is the largest reclining Buddha in Thailand at 46 meters long. And it’s covered in gold! The temple complex is large and there is much to see in addition to the reclining Buddha.
Wat Pho also has a well known traditional Thai medicine and massage school and you can take a Thai massage class here or receive a massage.
Wat Arun- The Khmer Temple
This wat, located almost directly across the Chao Phraya River from Wat Pho features a Khmer style temple. (It is also near the Royal Palace). If you are heading on to Cambodia you will see many Khmer temples, if not this is your chance. It’s commonly referred to as the Temple of Dawn, but it is a great place to take pictures at sunset.
Tips for Visiting Wat Pho and Wat Arun
Many of Bangkok’s famous sights, including the Royal Palace, Chinatown, Khao San Road, and many local markets, are all easily accessible from the ferry or the Chao Phraya Tourist Boat. It’s cheap, runs on a regular timetable all day long and you can hop on and off as many times as you want. Take the BTS Skytrain (public sky rail) to one on the docks, buy an all day pass and you’re set.
We went early in the morning while it was a bit cooler. Then in the heat of the day, we boarded the boat and did a complete circuit for a bit of a “river cruise”. This was the coolest activity we could think of to be out of the sun and relax for a bit. We finished our site seeing in the evening and stopped somewhere for dinner, then did another “cruise” as the sun was setting to get some pictures from the river.
Chiang Mai, known as “the Rose of the North”, was founded in 1296. It replaced Chiang Rai as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom. Chiang Mai translates to “new city”. At the time the city was built, a stone moat and wall was built to enclose the city. What remains of this wall encloses what is today known as the Old City.
Chiang Mai has over 300 Buddhist temples, many of which are located within the Old Town. Just have a wander around town and you will discover many of them.
Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chiang Man
Two of the best known are Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chiang Man.
- Wat Phra Singh was completed between 1385-1400. It has a Lanna temple in the back of the complex and features intricate murals depicting Lanna customs and daily life.
- Wat Chiang Man built in 1296, is one of the oldest temples. This houses a small crystal Buddha, which some believe has the power to make rain.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
This is the most famous of the temples at Chiang Mai and is located on a large hill overlooking the old city about 9 miles (15 kilometers) outside Chiang Mai.
It is a large temple complex, with several important statues including a very large golden Buddha.
To reach the temple itself you can either take a cable car or climb the 300 step staircase. The staircase has dragons on both sides of the stairs and is quite impressive.
To reach Doi Suthep from Chiang Mai you can take a taxi, catch a songtaew (public taxi, it is covered pick-up or utility truck with long benches inside) from outside the Changpuak Gate (northern gate). You can hike part of the way up and you can find a great overview of the hike here including how to find it. Heed the warnings if you decide to hike, it is very hot and humid, take plenty of water.
Wat Rong Khun
Unlike any other Buddhist temple in Thailand, or probably the world, Wat Rong Khun, known as the White Temple, is definitely unique. The temple, built by a Thai artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, combines traditional Buddhist art with more modern themes. Think cell phones, movies, cigarettes. Modern temptations that might lead you astray.
The temple is almost entirely white, decorated with small pieces of mirror and glass. It was designed to be viewed in the moonlight, although most people would visit during the day.
The murals inside the main temple building are amazing. Very intricate and colorful. Unfortunately you cannot take pictures inside this building, so you will have to visit to see them. There is a gift shop on the site where you can buy prints, books, t-shirts and other souvenirs which feature the murals.
The wat is located about 5 kilometers south of Chiang Rai. You can reach it from Chiang Rai by using a songtaew or private taxi.
Etiquette When Visiting a Temple
Temples are places of worship and should be treated with respect. Modest clothing is required. Generally this means covering up and no tight clothes. This is true for both men and women. No sleeveless shirts, no shorts or skirts above the knee and no tight leotards or leggings.
Most temples have people watching what you are wearing as you enter, and in many cases you will be directed to a booth and asked to “cover-up”. Sometimes the clothing is “loaned” to you and other times you need to provide a deposit which is returned upon return of the clothes.
Sometimes there is a line for this, so if you want to avoid delays, dress appropriately and/or bring your own cover-ups. Ladies this is often a long skirt you can slip on over shorts, a wrap or large scarf you can use to cover shoulders. Men, just wear short sleeves and long pants or shorts below your knee. It’s that simple.
You will need to take your shoes off to enter a temple so you may want to wear shoes easy to slip on/off. But note flip flops are not permitted. If you wear open shoes they need to have a heel or ankle strap.
Entering a Temple
There are a few rules for behavior when entering and once inside a temple. Remember these are places of worship.
- Remove your shoes, sunglasses and hat.
- Do not step on the wooden threshold to enter the temple, step over it.
- Speak quietly and respectfully.
- Do not touch sacred objects.
- Do not turn you back to Buddha (walk backward instead).
- Do not point at Buddha with your hands or feet. This includes sitting on the floor with your legs outstretched and the bottoms of your feet up. (Thais consider feet to be the lowest and dirtiest part of the body.) If you sit, sit with your feet underneath you or turned to the side. Watch what the locals do.
- Do not disturb people there to worship.
With a Monk
- If monks are worshiping in the temple, stand don’t sit.
- Women should never touch a monk or hand them anything. If you are female and need to give a monk something, give it to a male or place it on the ground or other place, where they can pick it up.
Other General Thai Etiquette
While we’re on the subject of etiquette in Thailand, a couple of other things to know:
- Do not touch people (even children) on the head. The head is considered sacred.
- Do not step over food or people on the sidewalk (again the feet are considered dirty).
- The traditional greeting is called a wai, place both hands together at chest height, flat palms, fingers up, and bow slightly.
- Do not disrespect the King or his image. It is illegal and you can be imprisoned for it.
- Eat with a spoon and fork. Thais do not typically use chopsticks, other than for noodles. They use a fork and spoon. The spoon is in your right hand and the fork is used to push the food onto the spoon, which goes to your mouth.
Thai food is usually chopped into bite-size pieces before cooking so no knife is required. If you would like to learn more about Asian food, you can find more in our Asian Cooking Essentials. It is helpful if you are visiting even if you are not cooking. You might also find our Guide to Thai Food for Travelers helpful.
That’s it. Follow these simple rules and show your appreciation for the Thai culture. Remember you are the guest in their country. You have a great opportunity to learn about their culture and cuisine. Make the most of it.