A visit to one of Thailand’s spectacular places of worship can provide an intriguing insight into the country’s spiritual side
Thanks to its lofty vantage point, Phuket’s Big Buddha Statue can be seen from as far away as Karon Beach
Despite the country’s reputation for commerce and tourism, Thailand retains a deeply spiritual culture, with over 90 percent of the nation’s population following Buddhist teachings. The Kingdom’s array of gleaming golden wats (temples) and shrines have become a symbol of the country, and the temple itself still plays an important role in the day-to-day life of the local community. Visitors will regularly see local people making their way to the temple to make merit or give alms, and religious festivals are celebrated in earnest, even in the main tourist centres.
Thailand’s shining shrines form a central hub of spiritual activity throughout the year, as well as being an important destination for family events like weddings and funerals. Of course, temples have become popular destinations with visitors keen to immerse themselves in Thai culture by learning more about Buddhist rituals and beliefs. Thanks to their their stunning designs, many of Thailand’s traditional temples also form the jewel in the crown of local architecture, another factor that makes them so popular with visitors form around the world.
We take a look at some of the Kingdom’s most revered spiritual monuments, all of which are highlights well worth factoring into your holiday itinerary.
Wat Pho’s 45m-long Reclining Buddha statue is particularly impressive
Bangkok’s awe-inspiring temples form the spiritual heart of an otherwise bustling urban landscape, and a trip to the city would be incomplete without fitting at least one or two temple visits into your holiday itinerary. It’s wise to arrive early in the morning before it gets too hot, as this is also when the temple is most active.
Perched on the bank of the Chao Phraya River, Wat Arun – more famously known as Temple of the Dawn – is one of Thailand’s most iconic temples. Built in the Khmer architectural style, this colossal, majestic shrine is unlike many of the other religious buildings you’ll see during your trip to Thailand. The main spire stands tall at an impressive height of 70m, and is intricately decorated with miniscule pieces of glass and Chinese porcelain. Despite being known as the Temple of the Dawn, the spectacular edifice is also particularly beautiful at sunset – especially when viewed from the other side of the Chao Phraya River.
If you’re visiting Wat Arun, why not tie in a trip to Wat Pho? The two temples are directly opposite each other, so factoring them both into your morning itinerary makes a lot of sense. Wat Pho is known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, due to the mighty 46m-long gold-leaf-covered statue of the Lord Buddha that lies inside – even statue’s feet are 5m long. The temple complex offers up a treasure trove rich with visual allure, and four of the chapels within the site contain no less than 394 gilded images of the Buddha. Long lines of gleaming golden Buddha statues, all seated in the lotus position, also add to Wat Pho’s wow factor. If you really want to immerse yourself in the local Buddhist culture by learning more about the history and symbolism of the temple, you’ll be able to hire an English-speaking Thai guide for around THB200-400 (US$6-12).
Phuket’s sacred sights
The Grand Pagoda that dominates the central area of Wat Chalong houses a splintered piece of the Buddha’s bone
Phuket boasts a splendid array of 29 temples, many of which are worth factoring into your holiday itinerary. Thanks to the large number of Chinese people that came to settle on the island over a period of hundreds of years, there are also a great number of Chinese Taoist shrines.
Wat Chalong is one of Phuket’s most striking Buddhist temples, and it’s a popular destination for visitors keen to learn more about Buddhism in Thailand. The Golden Pagoda that dominates the central area of the temple is one of the key highlights. Decorated with wall paintings depicting Buddha’s life, the structure also houses a splinter of the Buddha’s bone. Wat Chalong houses an array of celebrated statues, including Poh Than Jao Wat in the western old hall. There’s also a statues of a local elderly man who won the lottery after many visits to the Poh Than Jao Wat statue!
Situated atop the Nakkerd Hills between Chalong and Kata, the Big Buddha is another of Phuket’s most revered spiritual shrines. Thanks to its lofty position, the striking white statue can be seen from as far away as Karon Beach. In addition to panoramic vistas of the island, visitors can enjoy the relaxing atmosphere of prayer. Built from reinforced concrete, the statue is a colossal 25m wide. A layered finish of Burmese white jade marble makes the shrine truly awe-inspiring as it gleams in the sun. There is also a smaller Buddha statue next to the main one, made of brass. The site has become a become busy with local Buddhists and those that travel from afar to pray and write messages of prayer on one of the marble slabs.
Shrines on Samui
This gleaming golden shrine is one of Koh Samui’s most famous landmarks
Koh Samui is home to its fair share of temples and shrines – although the first settlers to set foot on the island were Chinese traders and Muslims. For this reason, the island is also home to a selection of Chinese shrines and even a mosque.
Situated on a craggy outcrop of land in north-eastern Samui, Wat Phra Yai – more famously known as ‘Big Buddha Temple’ – is one of the island’s most popular attractions. Sitting tall at 12m high, the gleaming golden edifice in the centre of the temple was built in 1972, and is often the first landmark people can catch a glimpse of when they arrive on Samui by air. Thai people visit the statue daily to make offerings of fruit and flowers at its base, or they light incense sticks and say a prayer. The statue of Lord Buddha itself is seated in a posture that represents steadfastness, purity and enlightenment. The statue represents a time during the Buddha’s journey when he overcame all of the dangers thrown at him by Mara, a devil-like figure. The courtyard at the base of the shrine is home to a selection of stalls, where visitors can purchase amulets and a range of other religious artefacts.
Wat Plai Laem is also located in the north-eastern part of the island, close to the Bug Buddha temple, so it’s well worth visiting if you’re already making the journey to Samui’s most famous religious landmark. Visitors, from both near and afar, flock to the second temple every day to pay homage to Guanyin, the goddess of mercy and compassion. An 18-arm depiction of Guanyin forms one of the visual highlights of Wat Plai Laem. The giant statue of Guanyin forms the focal point of the temple structure, but the two long halls that flank the statue are filled with vivid murals and frescoes depicting scenes from the Lord Buddha’s life. The temple complex itself is encircled by a placid lake, which adds to the overall feeling of spiritual serenity.
Bathing the image of the Buddha at the local temple is a key part of the Songkran festival
Thailand’s temples play an important role in religious festivals throughout the year, including Songkran, Loy Krathong and Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival. Usually, at such times, shrines become crowded with local people who come to make merit for good luck. There’s often an array of food and market stalls set up in the vicinity as part of the celebration, too. One day during which temples become especially busy is the second day of Songkran in April, when families wake up early to give alms to the monks. They also bathe the image of the Lord Buddha, both at home and at local shrines, by pouring fragrant water on statues made in his image.
It’s important to read up on etiquette before visiting any of Thailand’s temples, to ensure you know how to remain respectful at all times in these stunning spiritual places.
- Do not stand over or position yourself higher than any Buddha images. Every image of the Lord Buddha is seen as sacred.
- Despite the warm weather, it’s inappropriate to wear clothes that show off your shoulders, chest, stomach or legs while visiting a temple.
- Bear in mind that you will be asked to take off your shoes before entering some of the buildings within a temple complex, including the sermon hall and the chedi.
- Pointing is considered extremely rude in Thailand – particularly if you do so with your foot. Make sure the soles of your feet never face any altars around a temple.