Thai temples, known as wats, are very distinctive. The word wat actually means a school, but is used only to refer to temple complexes. The Phutthawat is what we think of when we see the word temple. It is where all of the main religious buildings are contained. The Sanghawat is the living area for the monks.
With over 30,000 in the country and 400 in Bangkok alone there’s always a new one to discover. But understanding the meaning of their design and architecture helps to appreciate their beauty even more.
Buddhist temples usually feature steep, multi-tiered and richly ornamented roofs, with carved serpents, fierce-looking guardian statues, murals and a lot of course lots of gold. The temples are often compounds of buildings each with a specific function, and some are practically mini-cities, home to hundreds of monks. Here’s what to look out for:
Images of Buddha
The heart of any temple, you’ll find Buddha rendered in different artistic styles, poses and materials. The Emerald Buddha, a 66cm statue carved from green jade atop a gold altar in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok’s Grand Palace, is the most sacred shrine in Thailand. Carved in the 14th century, the statue is regarded as a key national symbol. It spent over 200 years in Laos, before being returned to Bangkok in triumph by King Rama I in 1784. It’s dressed in costumes for each season of the year.
Bangkok’s biggest and oldest temple, Wat Pho, is the home of the Reclining Buddha, a gold leaf-covered statue of Buddha lying on his side over 15 meters high and 46 meters long. Check out his feet, where panels depict 108 symbols of Buddha, from flowers and dancers to tigers. At Bangkok’s Wat Traimit, you’ll find the Golden Buddha, a three-meter high statue in solid gold, weighing over five tons. Hidden in plaster for protection, the 700-year-old statue was only revealed to be made of gold in 1957, when an accident cracked its shell.
Vihara This is the part of the temple where important Buddha images are housed.
A chedi, or stupa, is a conical or bell-shaped structure adorned with gold but usually made from stucco-topped brick or laterite underneath. It will usually contain either a relic believed to be from the Buddha, like a bone, or the ashes of deceased royalty or monks. Temples always have at least one chedi as a homage to Buddha, but often they have many.
Chedi come in many styles, ranging from domes—a style borrowed from Sri Lanka—to square or octagonal shapes in northern Thailand, to corn-cob shapes called prang, typical of Cambodia’s Khmer temples like Angkor Wat. A 73-meter four-sided prang at Bangkok’s Temple of the Dawn, Wat Arun, is covered with a mosaic of Chinese pottery fragments with decorative motifs.
Nagas are mythical serpents that guarded Buddha during his meditation in the forest in northern India, and often appear on handrails at temple entrances. You’ll also see nagas decorating temple roofs, the tail at the roof peak and the body winding down to the head, rising at the roof edge.
Giant warrior guardians that ward off evil spirits, these ferocious-looking statues have faces painted in wild colors, with fangs, wide-open eyes, and bodies that are a riot of decoration. The yakshas at Wat Big Buddha are certainly worth seeing with great photo opportunities.
A symbol of religious perfection and transcendence, the lotus flower most often appears as the throne Buddha sits on, meditating in the lotus position. The lotus often adorns temple gates and posts, veranda columns and chedi spires built in the 13th century, when Sukhothai was Thailand’s capital. The heart of every person is like an unopened lotus, which blooms after reaching enlightenment, according to Buddhism.
The holiest prayer room in the temple, where monks are ordained. It’s not connected to other buildings, and is marked off by eight stones with a similarity to bodhi leaves (Buddha achieved enlightenment under a bodhi tree).