A visit to a faraway land shocks the senses with scents of unfamiliar spices, sights of unusually shaped architecture along with the musical inflections of a foreign language. Thailand is no exception, and much of what makes this land feel so exotic are its temples. There are stupas covered in gold, giant Buddha statues with bejeweled protectors along with orange clad monks inviting you into a world very different from your own. From Bangkok, to Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai you will find amazing examples of these temples to explore.
Buddhism is a belief system based on the teaching of Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian noble who forsook earthly comfort to gain enlightenment. He is also known to his followers as the Lord Buddha or the enlightened one. He is believed to have lived in the 5th century BCE. Siddhartha preached a “middle way” between asceticism and indulgence as the path to enlightenment.
Buddhism is the 5th largest religion in the world and is concerned with the dharma, or way of the universe. It consists of the four noble truths and the eightfold path, all of which work to free oneself from the endless cycle of craving leading to constant death and rebirth. It is only by achieving enlightenment through meditation which enables one to escape from this cycle of karma and reincarnation to be in Nirvana. The virtues embraced are non-attachment, compassion and understanding.
The form of Buddhism practiced in Thailand is Theravada Buddhism. It is also known as southern Buddhism and is considered the closest to the original form which originated in India. The Theravadic branch spread to Southeast Asia including Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. Mahayana Buddhism is a looser form which spread north to China, Tibet, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Mongolia and adopted more of those local customs.
Wat Pho / Temple of the Reclining Buddha, Bangkok
A first stop for many tourists in Bangkok, this temple was originally built in the 16th century and is the oldest one in the city. It holds an impressively large reclining statue of the Buddha as well as almost 700 Buddha statues from around Thailand. The reclining Buddha statue is over 150 feet long and almost 50 feet high. It is constructed of brick and stucco and covered in gold leaf. It represents the Buddha in the last moments before death when he entered Nirvana.
Known as the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha will amaze you with its ornate decor, gilded artifacts and mini skyline of stupas, chedi’s and prangs. It’s a must see on a trip to Bangkok – a royal temple associated with the Grand Palace. There will be so much to see it will be hard to take it all in, much less understand the symbolism of what you are seeing. A guided tour or book is recommended.
The green buddha inside is made of jade, not emeralds. The bling around the outside of the building will amaze with it’s reflective mosaics and gilding. The emerald Buddha has been in Bangkok since 1784 after changing hands in earlier wars. There are three seasonal costumes for this Buddha – winter, rainy season and summer – with ceremonies to change them three times per year. Other buildings of note are the library and the gold stupa housing Buddha’s relic.
The Grand Palace, a home for royalty is equally impressive with its many roofs, gold gilding and elaborate topiary. It’s so amazing it makes you want to refer to the country by its old name – the Kingdom of Siam. It is accessible from the temple area.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai
I call this the misty mountain temple because on the day we visited from Chiang Mai it was shrouded in mist. I was initially disappointed by the lack of blue sky and city view, only to be excited by the feel of mystery that would definitely not be there on a clear day – a happy accident. Doi Suthep is the name of the mountain the temple is on, the temple name is Wat Phra That.
The founding legend of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is that a sacred white elephant wandered in the jungle until it died on the spot of the current temple, seen as a good omen. The golden stupa in the middle of the courtyard contains a relic of the Buddha. There is a funicular for anyone who can’t climb or descend the many steps to the temple.
Wat Rong Khun / The White Temple in Chiang Rai
The White Temple is a private art exhibit owned by local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat and was made from a temple which had fallen into disrepair. It is part Dr Suess, part Disney ice princess villain abode, and it will blow your mind. Upon entering you will see the upreaching hands symbolizing unrestrained desire and also a disturbing mural on 9/11 on the inside wall of the temple. There are also unexpected references to Michael Jackson, the Matrix, Freddy Krueger and Harry Potter, among others. These are the expressions of the artist. The temple is intended to be finished in 2070.
Tips and Practical Information for Visiting Temples in Thailand
Shoulders and knees must be covered with modest dress. No low or high cut items for females and even males must wear shorts to the knees and no tank tops. Because of this, you might want to visit Thailand in its official tourist season, November through March. We visited in May and it was quite warm, so warm that the thought of wearing long skirts seemed unbearable. Elephant pants, skirts and wrap skirts are lightweight, cheap clothing that can be purchased for these purposes nearby, but keep in mind that they tear easily.