With its bright colours, rich ornamentation and sweeping, multi-tiered roofs, the temple and palace architecture of Thailand is immediately identifiable. Blending influences from Indian, Khmer, Burmese and Chinese architectural styles, but has evolved to become a distinct expression of Thai culture.
No visit to the country is complete without admiring the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew or wandering around the ancient ruins of the former Siam capitals of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai. Each exhibits the historical evolution of Thai architecture and its contemporary incarnations today.
The History of Thai Architecture
When the Sukhothai Kingdom was established by King Indraditya in 1780, its buildings were designed in shapes that were symbolically Buddhist. This continued to evolve throughout the Ayutthaya Period, with architecture regarded as one of its peak achievements and a graceful expression of Siam’s power and culture. The temple compound ruins which are visible in Ayutthaya today usually include a bot (ordination hall), a viharn (sermon hall) and a dome-shaped chedi where holy relics were housed. In temples exhibiting a Khmer influence, the chedi was replaced by an elongated prang, as seen in that of Wat Arun in Bangkok. Other structures in the temple complex included open-sided sala pavilions and quarters where monks resided. Temple columns were often shaped at the ends into lotus buds which symbolized the purity of Buddha’s thoughts, while eight stones were laid around the bot to keep away evil spirits. Roof peaks were often adorned with a curling, pointed extension known as a chofa and symbolic of the Garuda, a legendary bird which served as Vishnu’s vehicle and appears in both Buddhist and Hindu mythology.
Thai palaces also included many of these same symbolic motifs, as seen in Bangkok’s Grand Palace. This complex, however, was built by successive royals over a 200-year period and although it retains some traditional elements, it also exhibits eclectic, western styles favoured by each ruler. It was originally laid out in the same manner as the Royal Palace it replaced in Ayutthaya, divided into a series of courts, walls, gates and forts. Wat Phra Kaew or the “Temple of the Emerald Buddha” is one of its more traditional buildings, designed in the late 18th century in accordance with ancient traditions which date back to the establishment of the royal chapel of Wat Mahathat in Sukhothai. In contrast is the building of Phra Thinang Chakri Maha Prasat which illustrates 19th-century European styles which reflect the preference of King Rama V and the foreign architects he employed in its construction.
Other buildings in Thailand with distinctly European influences include the teak-built Vimanmek Mansion in Bangkok’s Dusit district, as well as the Italianate palace of Bang Pa-In which was built by King Chulalongkorn. Sino-Portuguese style shop houses also became popular in the 19th century throughout Thailand, with a ground floor shopfront and a second-floor living area. These narrow, two-story buildings were linked in rows and can still be seen at Thanon Thalang in Phuket and along the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok.
Thai architecture also exhibits distinct regional differences, with the northeast of the country once part of the Khmer empire. As a result, the temples of Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung and Prasat Khao Phra Viharn both display strong Khmer architectural elements. Others across the north have distinct Burmese influences, having been built during the occupation of what was then the Kingdom of Lanna.
Secular Thai Architecture
Aside from its religious architecture, Thailand is noted for its traditional houses on stilts, with many built alongside rivers and canals which are prone to flooding during the rainy season. The area beneath the house is often used for storage, to keep animals such as chickens or ducks and for relaxing during the day, while the upper level is for sleeping.
Both wood and bamboo are popular materials for the construction of stilt houses and they are often built simply using prefabricated wooden panels. Superstition plays an important role in the design of traditional Thai house construction, with taboos against rearranging a house once it has been built and about which plants can be placed on and around the terrace. Tradition also states that in sleeping areas the head does not point towards the west as that is the position bodies are placed prior to cremation.
Traditional Thai houses are built in accordance with three ancient principles: “material preparation, construction and dwelling”. “Material preparation” refers to the trees used in the house’s construction, the soil on which it is built and how the site is prepared, while the “construction” must be done mindfully. Rituals are performed when the first column is placed in the ground at a carefully calculated time and a guardian spirit house should be constructed to keep out evil. “Dwelling” refers to the proper behavior of the occupants once inside the completed house, with it necessary to follow certain beliefs and practices in relation to the spiritual world.
While these rules are being adhered to less and less in modern times, many Thais still believe in the idea of making domestic dwellings sacred and some of these rituals are being altered to suit modern lifestyles and beliefs.
Modern Thai Architecture
When arriving into the city of Bangkok today, it’s immediately apparent that Thailand has also embraced modern architectural styles. Soaring skyscrapers, large-scale shopping malls and cutting-edge designs make up the capital’s cityscape, with many of the buildings constructed during the building boom of the 1980s and 1990s. Silom’s MahaNakhon towers to 314 meters as the city’s tallest building, while the so-called “Elephant Building” in Chatuchak has been identified as one of the 20 most iconic skyscrapers in the world in its resemblance to Thailand’s national animal. The 90-story Baiyoke Tower II is also of note, with a revolving observation deck on its 84th floor where you can take in 360-degree views across this incredible urban landscape.
Despite the move towards modernization, there is also a renewed interest in the preservation of historic architecture and residences in Thailand, with some being lovingly restored into boutique hotels and museums. Cities such as Bangkok are therefore a fascinating mix of the old and new, showing influences from modern trends and technology, as well as captivating examples of Thai architectural traditions.