For any visitor wishing to get a quick feel for the Thai people and culture, there's no better place to go than a temple. The temple or monastery, colloquially known as 'wat' is where much of Thailand's traditional culture originated. It's still the best place to go to see typical Thai Buddhist traditions.
Temples can be spotted everywhere in Thailand. They have a distinctive architectural style, quite unlike residential buildings. Particularly unique are the roof structures, decorated with hornlike projections called 'cho fa' on the roof ridge and tooth-like ridges on the sloping edges of the gables, which also glitter with gold. The large compound of a wat is made up of several such buildings, which serve particular purposes.
The temple is a sacred religious place important to the Thai Buddhist, in a similar way that churches are important to Christians. Every community needs to have at least one temple. Since ancient times, the temple has played a significant role as a social, educational and spiritual center for community members. Currently, there are more than 30,000 Buddhist temples all over Thailand. They are home to more than 300,000 monks.
Amidst the vast changes taking place in modern society today, the temple remains important as a spiritual center for Thai people from all walks of life. Important religious ceremonies such as funeral rites are still conducted at the temples. In addition, on Buddhist holy days, temples are crowded with people making merit and paying respect to the Buddha images.
However, the temple's role in education has gradually diminished since the western-style educational system was introduced to Thailand. But we can still see that some temples are attached to schools bearing the same name as the temple. In more remote provinces, where the modern educational system has not yet reached the community, the temple still retains its role in education.
More recently, the temple has adopted a new role in tourism. Thailand's temples showcase much of the country's artistic and cultural prowess. Whether you are interested in architecture, sculpture, paintings, decorative arts or even crafts, you will be amazed at the wealth of culture to be found in the temple.
The most frequented and best-known temples that now play a vital role in tourism include Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), Wat Phra Chutupon or Wat Pho, Wat Arun, Wat Sutat and Wat Benchamabophit, to name but a few. These temples showcase the cream of Thailand's fine arts, and are masterpieces in their own right. You won't find such masterful work in every temple.
Visiting a Buddhist Temple.
Usually, there are two types of Thai Buddhist temple, defined by function: those for religious ceremonies, and those that serve only as residential quarters for monks (monasteries).
Temples can also be categorized as royal or common temples. Royal temples are registered under royal patronage. Members of other social groups support common temples.
Royal temples are further sub-divided into first, second and third class, and are usually identified by the prefixes: Racha or Vora. The temples in each class are further graded by yet another ranking order based on a hierarchical system.
Currently, about 180-200 temples are under royal patronage. However, for the highest grade of the first-class royal temples, there are only six temples. Four in Bangkok include Wat Phra Chetupon, Wat Mahathat, Wat Sutat, and Wat Arun. The two in the provinces include Wat Phra Pathom Chedi in Nakhon Pathom province and Wat Phra Phutthabat in Saraburi.
Whatever the classification, most temples conform to a similar layout. In general, the temple compound is divided into two segments: the 'Phutthawat' area and the 'Sangkhawat' area.
Phutthawat is the area where sacred Buddhist buildings are located. They include the 'bot' (ordination hall), 'viharn' (assembly hall), 'chedi' (pagoda) or 'prang' and other buildings such as gallery (cloister), 'sala karn parian' (a study hall), 'ho trai' (a library used to house the Tripitaka) and belfry.
Sangkhawat area, on the other hand, is the living quarters of the monastic community. Some temples restrict the entry of women in this area.
As a tourist, you are allowed to tour only around the 'Phutthawat' area of the temple. Dress properly when visiting Buddhist temples: wear long trousers or sarongs, and remove your shoes when entering the temple buildings.
Things to see in the temple.
Not every temple is of similar structure and architecture, but on a whole, they share many similarities. The ornate decoration around the temple contains many symbolic Buddhist meanings.
To make your temple visit more meaningful, it helps if you know where to concentrate your attention. Many Thai art forms are showcased in the temple. Architecture, sculpture, decorative arts and mural paintings are the most important art forms that will impress and amaze the visitor to Thailand.