Traveling through Thailand, it’s easy to get the impression that just about every tourist attraction is some kind of temple. There are, after all, over 30,000 of them. But if you haven’t grown up in the culture, it can be difficult to tell exactly what you’re looking at when visiting a wat complex. Thai temples can vary greatly from region to region, or even within the same city, depending on when they were built. All temples, however, share a few key elements in common.
Whether you’re on a quest to see as many Thai temples as you can or only have time to visit the most famous ones, this guide is meant to help you better appreciate the experience. Ever wondered what those bell-shaped chedis are for, or what the difference is between a viharn and an ubosot? All of that and more will be answered down below.
Chedis, also known as stupas or pagodas, are tall cone-shaped structures which enshrine important relics. The relics inside may be bones or hairs of the Buddha himself or highly significant Buddha statues. Sometimes, the ashes of royalty are also enshrined in chedis. The relics are always enclosed within the chedi and aren’t visible from the outside.
Chedis are often the most sacred part of a wat. They also commonly determine the placement of the other temple structures. Some Thai temples feature a multitude of chedis, though the most important one will stand out as the tallest.
The chedis we see today were inspired by the original stupas of temples in India, which often resembled mounds. Chedis eventually evolved into steeper towers that more closely resemble mountains than they do mounds. In fact, most styles of chedis are meant to represent the mythical Mt. Meru, the abode of the gods in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology. (Just like the meru towers of Bali, for example).
Along with Mt. Meru, tall chedis also represent the three worlds: the underworld, our present human reality, and the heavenly realm where the gods live. This concept of the three worlds repeats itself time and time again in both Buddhist and Hindu architecture as well as art.
Below, we’ll go over the most common types of chedis. Keep in mind, however, that not every chedi you’ll come across in Thailand fits into a distinct category. It seems as if temple architects have generally been allowed to express their creativity if they so desired.
Sri Lanka Style Chedis
The Sri Lankan type of chedi is also referred to as the ‘bell shape,’ and it’s by far the most common type of chedi seen throughout Thailand today. Aside from being shaped like a bell, they’re also characterized by their narrow ringed spires.
In Sri Lanka itself, the chedis are usually broader and shorter, a bit more akin to the mound-like stupas of ancient India. While mainly influenced by Sri Lanka, the bell shaped chedis seen in Thailand may have also taken inspiration from cultures like Burma and the former Srivijaya Empire.
One of Thailand’s most iconic Sri Lanka-style chedis is the massive stupa of Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai. Though the top was destroyed by an earthquake in the 16th century, it was said to have reached as high as 85 meters when it was completed. Today, nobody is quite sure how it originally looked, so local authorities eventually decided against trying to rebuild the top.
Suwana Style Chedis
These chedis are synonymous with the ancient civilization of Haripunchai (modern-day Lamphun), the dominant kingdom in northern Thailand before the foundation of Lanna. Though rare, a number of these chedis can still be spotted around Lamphun as well as neighboring Chiang Mai.
Suwana chedis usually consist of five tiers that are all square-shaped. Each tier then contains a series of three niches for standing Buddha images.
Sukhothai Style Chedis
As the name suggests, the Sukhothai style of chedi was innovated by the Sukhothai Kingdom, which was at its most powerful in the 13th and 14th centuries. These chedis are nicknamed ‘lotus bud’ chedis. They’re known for their tall and narrow shape with a thin and long spire at the top.
This type of chedi stopped being built after the Sukhothai Kingdom’s fall from power, but they can still be seen at the old temple ruins of places like Sukhothai, Kamphaeng Phet, Si Satchanalai and Phitsanulok.
Another common tower structure in a Thai wat is known as a prang. These gradually evolved over time, and similar to many styles of chedis, they also have foreign origins.
Prangs were adapted from the prasat of Khmer temples. The design of the prasats were likely inspired by temples in Java, which were in turn inspired by ancient Indian temples.
Even if you’ve never been to Cambodia, you are surely familiar with Angkor Wat. That temple features a set of five prasats, with one central tower surrounded by four smaller ones of equal height in a quincunx. Other popular prasat layouts consisted of three towers lines in a row, with the tallest in the middle, referred to as the trimurti. Occasionally, very small temples consisted of nothing but a single prasat.
You don’t need to visit Cambodia to see original Khmer prasats, as the Khmer Empire controlled much of what makes up modern-day Thailand for hundreds of years. Temples like Phnom Rung and Phimai (pictured above) can be visited in the northeastern Isaan region, and they even rival many of the more elaborate temples of Angkor. Smaller Khmer temples can also be found in places like Lopburi and Si Satchanalai, to name a few.
After Siamese kingdoms such as Sukhothai and Ayutthaya asserted their independence from the Khmer, they still remained greatly inspired by their architecture. They adapted and slightly modified the shape of the prasat towers, which we now refer to as prangs.
Prangs are a common staple of Ayutthaya architecture. As opposed to the older prasat tower, the prangs were built as narrower structures which many people liken to corncobs or cacti. The Thais also began topping the prangs with the vajra, the god Indra’s main weapon.
Many Ayutthaya temples also used the traditional Khmer quincunx layout, though oftentimes just a single prang towered over the rest of the wat.
In the Rattanakosin period of early Bangkok, prangs grew even more skinny and narrow. The most famous use of prangs today is Wat Arun which even makes use of the classic quincunx layout. Nowadays, however, this layout has become quite rare in Thailand. In Bangkok and some other cities, it’s fairly common to see a prang coming out the top of a wooden structure such as a mondop or viharn.
A viharn is generally translated as “Assembly Hall.” It might also be alternately spelled vihana or wihan. The viharn is generally a place where both monks and ordinary people will gather for Buddhist ceremonies. It may often house a temple’s primary Buddha image, though sometimes that honor belongs to the ubosot (more below).
The viharn is usually left open for visitors to come and place offerings to the Buddha statues, or to simply sit down on the carpet and meditate. At some temples, however, the viharn might normally remain locked except for special holidays.
While temples will always have a primary viharn near the center of the complex, there may also be any number of smaller viharns built specifically to house certain images.
Stepping inside a viharn, you’ll see a primary Buddha image at the center of the altar, which will often have a number of smaller statues next to or below it. Depending on the temple, you may also come across murals or intricate carvings on the interior walls.
In some cases, the viharn may be a temple’s most prominent and elaborate wooden structure, while in other situations this may be the ubosot.
The ubosot (sometimes pronounced bot) is often similar in appearance to a viharn, though its primary function is to act as an ordination hall for new monks. Other important ceremonies for the monastic order may take place here as well.
As from the outside, there’s little to distinguish an ubosot from a viharn by looking at the interior. You’ll typically find an altar with Buddha images along with artwork such as murals or stained glass.
There’s one sure way to distinguish between an ubosot and a viharn, however.
Bai sema, or sema stones, are special stones surrounding the ubosot. There are always eight of them, and they designate the structure’s sacred space. Before construction of an ubosot, large metal balls called luuk nimit are buried underground, with the sema stones then placed above them at surface level.
The sema stones can take on a variety of appearances. In many instances, they’re simply stones sticking out of the ground. But in other cases, such as at Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew, they’re ornately detailed in the shape of a bodhi tree leaf and housed in their own mondops.
Below: A place called Phu Phra Bat Historical Park in Udon Thani province is abound with otherworldy natural rock formations. One of the first Buddhist cultures to inhabit the land, the Dvaravati, clearly took an interest in these strange rocks and decided to build temples there. While little remains of the temples themselves, we can still find ancient sema stones sticking out of the ground.
Generally speaking, mondops are structures specifically designed to house certain relics. These could be things like Buddha statues or ‘Buddha Footprints.’ As in the case of Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew, a small mondop may even contain the bai sema just outside of the ubosot. That same temple’s primary mondop is also unique in that it doubles as a ho trai.
The ho trai is also known as a scripture library. It’s where the local copies of important Buddhist texts, such as the tripitaka, are kept. Many of these were written down on dried palm leaves. Other palm leaf documents might be chronicles detailing the history of that region.
The ho trai is often built on either an elevated platform or stilts. The reason is to prevent insects from harming the important documents.
In many larger temples, and outer gallery surrounds the main structures in the center. They typically contain a series of similar-looking Buddha statues, oftentimes gold in color. In addition to statues, galleries also commonly feature mural paintings on the walls. In the case of Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew, the massive outer gallery contains no statues, but it’s entirely covered in scenes from the Ramakien, or the Thai Ramayana.
A ho rakang is a bell tower used to summon monks to prayer, both in the morning and evening. For that reason, it’s often situated near the monks’ living quarters, though not always. Depending on the temple, these bell towers can greatly vary in size and style.
Salas are open pavilions used for a variety of purposes. They may be used as a place for monks to receive alms, or simply as a place for visitors to rest and escape the hot sun. In old times, traveling pilgrims would sometimes spend the night under one. Some salas may even be located outside of a wat.
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. Interestingly, special temples such as Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok do not have any resident monks and therefore no kuti.
Crematoriums, as the name suggests, are where dead bodies get cremated. These are typically tall structures that have a long chimney sticking out the back. Most use modern ovens nowadays, though old rural temples may still use wood and charcoal.
Before being burned, the body is usually left in a coffin for a week so that relatives and friends can come and pay their respects. During the cremation, monks will gather to perform the necessary rites, with the entire process usually lasting a couple of days.
Other Elements of Thai Temples
When visiting a temple in Thailand, one of the first scenes to greet you is a pair of ferocious looking naga serpents at either end of a staircase. As intimidating as they might appear, nagas are actually beloved creatures in Thailand. In Buddhist mythology, a multi-headed naga serpent helped shield the Buddha from heavy rain during one of his meditation sessions.
Nagas originated in Hindu mythology and there are countless myths and legends about them in both Hindu and Buddhist lore. They can also be seen at temple entrances in places like Angkor and Bali, and they are considered to be protectors of the temples.
Chofa and Hang Hong
The edges of temple roof gables feature what are known as chofas, which symbolize Garuda, and hang hong, which represent nagas. (Both can be seen in the picture to the right).
Garuda is a half-man, half-eagle creature who acts as the vehicle of Vishnu. In Thailand, Garuda also represents the current Chakri Dynasty. In Hindu lore, Garuda and nagas are commonly portrayed as adversaries. However, the interplay between them could be interpreted as the relationship between air and earth elements. Eastern thought emphasizes the transcendence of such dualities in order to reach Enlightenment.
Many temples have colorful murals somewhere around the complex. These could be inside the viharn or ubosot or along an entire outer gallery. The topic of these murals can vary, though some common themes include the Jataka tales, or the stories of Buddha’s previous lives, and the Ramakien, or the Thai Ramayana.
Other murals may contain scenes of everyday local life, while temples containing particularly famous Buddha statues might have murals on display showing that image’s history.
Various Other Statues
Aside from nagas, there are a whole bunch of statues you’ll likely come across when exploring any given temple compound. Chinthes (pictured left) are lion-like creatures that act as temple guardians and are a popular sight throughout Southeast Asia. Other common guardian beings are yakshas (giant ogres) and kinnaras (half man, half birds).
Sometimes you’ll even see statues from traditions that aren’t Theravada Buddhism, such as Chinese Mahayana Buddhism or Hinduism.
While beings like the nagas are revered in both Hinduism and Buddhism, the elephant god Ganesha plays little role in Buddhist lore. Yet, Ganesha statues are wildly popular at Buddhist temples in Thailand, along with depictions of Vishnu, Indra and Shiva.
Some temple grounds contain special trees that have been growing there for hundreds of years. One of the more popular is the bodhi tree, as that’s the species of tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. In fact, many bodhi trees throughout Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries are said to be related to this exact bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India.
While often confused with the bodhi tree, the banyan tree is a separate species of tree, but is also very common at Thai temples. These old trees often have to have their long branches propped up with sticks. You might also come across other special trees, such as the towering yang tree at Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai, which is said to contain the city’s guardian spirit.
What's in a Name?
Visiting temples throughout the country, you may notice that many of them have very similar names. The words ‘Mahathat’ and ‘Pra That’ for example, is common in the titles of some of the most prominent Thai temples. This implies that the holy relics enshrined in the chedi are those of the Buddha himself, such as a bone, tooth or a strand of hair.
Other major temples that have been founded by royalty often have words beginning with ‘Rat-‘ or ‘Racha-‘ in the names. That’s another reason why you’ll come across so many similarly-named temples when touring through the ancient royal capitals.
Sometimes, temples are named after significant Buddha statues, even if that statue is no longer there. For example, there are multiple ‘Wat Phra Kaew’s throughout the country, which insinuates that the Emerald Buddha was once, or currently is, kept there. There are also a couple of ‘Wat Phra Singh’s, named after the Sihing Buddha image.
Often times, a temple may take its name after its most prominent or spiritually significant architectural feature (i.e. Wat Chedi Luang). Or it may just be named after the mountain or town in which it’s located.
Thai Temple Etiquette
Thai temples are very accepting of all visitors who want to come and visit, though there are a few important points you need to keep in mind before entering a wat. The first is dress code. As a general rule, you should make sure to keep both your shoulders and knees covered. It’s not always easy to dress this way in the stifling heat, of course. That’s why you might want to bring an extra pair of light pants in your bag to put on over your shorts before visiting a wat.
Sometimes a temple might have long pants or sarongs available for visitors to borrow, but this isn’t always the case. Men can often get by with shorts that come down to their knees (with the exception of the Grand Palace in Bangkok where long pants are required.) Generally speaking, the dress code is going to be more strictly enforced for women that it will be for men.
But sometimes you’ll visit a temple and see both local men and women wearing short shorts with no issues. What gives? The reality is that the rules are not always enforced, though you can’t really know in advance how strict things will be. Sometimes the monks or other staff may just be too polite to say anything.
Another important point is that when you enter a viharn or ubosot, you need to remove your shoes. This will be obvious by the loads of shoes left outside the entrance. When sitting down on the floor, be sure to sit cross legged and don’t point your feet toward the Buddha statue, as this is a sign of disrespect.
Taking selfies inside a temple is supposedly frowned upon, though local Thai visitors do it all the time, even in front of Buddha statues. In practice, this seems to be more of a gray area. General photography in most areas of a temple is fine, except when there’s a sign specifically telling you it’s forbidden.