The Buddhist Temple of Thailand
Table of Contents
Short introduction to the Wat, the Buddhist temple
A Wat is a Buddhist temple complex. The word wat is a Thai word that comes from “vata” a word in Sanskrit, which means “enclosure”. A Wat is the place of worship for Buddhists, the followers of Buddhism. According to some sources a Wat has to have monks, a viharn, a chedi and a bell tower and a wall to be recognized as a wat.
Ruins of temples, such as at Wiang Kum Kam, are often also called “Wat”, even though they are not active temples. I will list the most common structures you will find in a wat. Some wats also have a school attached to it. Other wats, such as the silver temple Wat Srisuphan, have become centers of local handicraft industry.
Sometimes a wat has a museum. This can be a museum with Buddhist artifacts, a textile museum, a museum about the renovation of the wat or a community museum such as the museum at Wat Ket Karaam in Chiang Mai. There are an estimated 30,000 wats in Thailand.
The location of a Wat
Often people have constructed wats on hill tops. Sometimes you have to walk a long Naga staircase to reach the temple but don’t worry: they have constructed roads to almost all temples in Thailand. Some of these roads can be quite dangerous and narrow. In many cases there is a road to drive up and another road to drive down. Many temples have magnificent views over a city or over the countryside.
From Wat Phra That Doi Suthep you have a great view over Chiang Mai. Wat Phra That Pha Ngao offers a fantastic view over the Mekong River (see below picture). From the chedi on the mountain at Wat Phra Phutthabat Tak Pha you can observe both Doi Suthep and Doi Inthanon mountains on a clear day.
If you have some basic understanding of the meaning and function of some of the structures in a Buddhist temple, it will make your visit much more interesting. I hope I have made the ultimate guide to Buddhist Temples in Thailand.
The names of temples
Temples have names sometimes refer to mountains, to statues, to villages, to a particular chedi and so on. Wat Phra That Doi Kham and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep are temples that are named after a mountain. The name of Wat Phra That Hariphunchai refers to the Hariphunchai Kingdom. A Buddha image named Phra Singh gave Wat Phra Singh its name. The temple of the famous monk Kruba Srivichai is Wat Baan Pang, the temple of the village Baan Pang.
Wat Chedi Luang is the temple of the big chedi. “Luang” is the Thai word for “big”. The Wat Chamathewi aka Wat Kukut in Lamphun is named after the Queen Chamathewi. Wat Phra Phutthabat Tak Pha has an interesting story. It contains a “Phutthabat”, the footprint of the Buddha. When the Buddha passed this place he also hung his robe to dry (“tak pha”). The forest temple Wat Umong has been named after the tunnels under the hill with the main chedi.
Buddha images in temples
A Wat has usually one main Buddha image and several other statues. Some temples have a lot of images such as Wat Phra That Hariphunchai in Lamphun, which has several viharns and galleries of Buddha images. Most temples have a sitting Buddha image on an altar in the viharn, the assembly or sermon hall. This statue is usually surrounded by smaller Buddha images. There are exceptions such as at Wat Sri Chum in Phrae. This temple has two viharns next to each other. One viharn has a sitting Buddha image, the other a standing Buddha. Wat Phra Nang Din in Chiang Kham has a Buddha image that is not positioned on an altar but directly on the floor.
Some temples have several large Buddha images outside the viharn. A good example is Wat Phra That Doi Kham in Chiang Mai which has a tall standing Buddha statue that is visible from distance. This temple also has a sitting Buddha image and a reclining Buddha. This is a depiction of the unwell Buddha before his death on his way to the Parinirvana.
Buddhist monks and novices
At any given time there are about 300,00 Buddhist monks in Thailand. In the early morning many local people give offerings to monks who are collecting donations in the streets every day. Every man in the country is required to become a monk before the age of 20. The expected period of monkhood is three months but usually they stay about two weeks in the temple. Young men do this in order to receive good karma and merit for themselves and for their relatives. Before entering the monkhood they have their heads and eyebrows shaved.
During their stay in the temple they will have to abide to the many rules, wear an orange robe, only eat twice a day and go on their daily alms rounds in the streets. Many monks have been in the temple for years and stay their sometimes their entire life.
Allegedly a wat needs to have at least three residing monks to be recognized as a wat. The Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai has no residing monks and is technically speaking not a Buddhist temple.
The Viharn or Wiharn
The Ubosot or bot
The Ubosot or Bot is one of the most important buildings of a wat. It’s main entrance faces East. Here important temple rituals, such as ordination of monks, take place. Often it is difficult to see the difference between a viharn and a ubosot. Just look at the presence of the sacred boundary stones: the Sema. An Ubosot has eight, the viharn doesn’t have Sema. The Ubosot usually has its walls decorated with scenes from the life of the Buddha. Some ubosots are closed for the general public when there is nothing happening, such as the Ubosot of Wat Chiang Man.
The Chedi or StupaThe Chedi is the most sacred and therefor important structure of a wat. Other terms often used for the Chedi are Stupa or Pagoda. Some Chedis are supposed to contain a relic of the Buddha. A relic is a part of the body of a holy person. Often Chedis also contain the ashes of important monks or rulers. Most Chedis in Thailand have the shape of a bell. Some Chedis have niches in which there are Buddha images such as the Chedi of Wat Kukut in Lamphun.
The Ho Trai or Library
The Ho Trai is the library of the Wat. Here the Buddhist scriptures of the wat are kept. In the past it was a building on stilts, sometimes in the water, to protect the scriptures against insects. In the old days monks wrote on dried palm leafs and these were therefor potential food for insects. Heep Tham are boxes in which monks kept these palm leaf scriptures. Wat Sung Men in Phrae province has a unique collection of palm leaf scriptures. The boxes are on display in museums at Wat Phra That Hariphunchai and Wat Chedi Luang.
The most famous library of Chiang Mai is the one at Wat Phra Singh.
Sema or Sima stones and luuk nimitEight bai sema stones are used to form a boundary around the bot. A bot always has to be surrounded by eight sema stones, that are placed outside the bot in a rectangular shape. The stones mark the sacred area of the bot. A ninth sema stone is buried under the location of the main Buddha image inside the bot. Beneath the sema stones, buried in the ground are the luuk nimit. These are large iron balls that have to be ritually buried before the bot can be used. The sema stones can take on a variety of appearances. In many instances, they’re simply stones sticking out of the ground.
Naga and Naga Staircases
Naga staircases are beautiful and worth walking. The Naga is a large mythological snake sometimes with multiple heads. Most temples have Naga snakes as symbolic protection.The staircase has the head of the snake at the bottom. The body the snake extends along the balustrade, all the way to the top of the staircase. If the temple is not on a hilltop the head of the snake is at the gate in the wall and the body extends on the wall.
The story goes that the Buddha, having reached enlightenment, was sitting medidating under a bodhi tree. A violent storm with heavy rain broke out, upon which Mucalinda, the mighty king of snakes, appeared. With his hoods he sheltered the Buddha against the rain.
Walking up a Naga staircase can be challenging sometimes but for me it is part of the experience of visiting a Buddhist temple. Some of the most famous and beautiful Naga staircase are the ones of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and Wat Phra Phutthabat Tak Pha near Lamphun. I love Naga staircases and have devoted a page to them.
Chinthe or Mom
Sometimes temples have big statues of animals at the entrance. They are the guardians of the temple, known as Mom or “Chinthe. Sometimes they are part of the main gate such as at Wat Phra Singh or are in front of the main gate such as at Wat Phra That Hariphunchai. These creatures are supposed to resemble lions and can be very imposing.
The Bell Tower and bells
Many temples have a bell tower, a gong under a roof and many other bells. The purpose of the bell tower is to wake up the monks to start their praying ceremony. Bell tower structures come in lots of different designs. In some temples the bell is a huge gong. Other temples have rows of bells which are sometimes along the Naga stairway, such as at Wat Phra That Doi Tung. Visitors of temples often ring these bells or hit the gong. The sound of bells and gongs in temples is like music to my ears.
Kuti or living quarters of monks
Kuti are the living quarters for resident monks. In older temples, they may be a series of standalone bungalows, sometimes on stilts. At more modern temples, however, they appear more like dormitories or even apartment complexes. In any case, the kuti is generally off to the side and not something most visitors take note of.
The Sala is an open pavillion. The Sala is a multi-purpose building. Here visitors rest or give alms to monks. Traveling monks might spend the night here.
The Temples of North Thailand
Religion is very much alive in Thailand and temples play a central role in daily life. The concept of karma is central in Buddhism. It is a Sanskrit term that literally means “action” or “doing”. In Buddhism karma refers to intentional action which leads to future consequences. Good karma in this life leads to a better future but also determines the quality of one’s future lives. One way to build good karma is to donate to a temple. It is impossible to make an estimate of the amount of money Thai people donate yearly to temples. We are talking about a lot of money.
During the economic boom of the last two decades of the 20th century people donated an increasing amount of money to temples. This temple wealth led to the restoration of neglected temples and the construction of new ones. A good example is the Wat Tham Phra (Tham Ngow) in Mae Sariang District, Mae Hong Son province.
We have pages dedicated to the temples of Chiang Mai and the temples of Lampang. The Things to Do pages in the different destinations also contain information about Buddhist temples in North Thailand.
Too many temples?
Sometimes guests complain about the number of temples in their itinerary. Usually visitors start with visits to the Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Po in Bangkok and make their way up to Chiang Mai via Ayutthaya and/Sukhothai. By the time they arrive in Chiang Mai they are sometimes “templed out”. That would be a pity because Chiang Mai and North Thailand have some of the most stunning Buddhist temples of the country. Even though you might be a bit “templed out” we will do our best to make it interesting for you.