Visiting Thailand Temples: What You Need To Know

Thai Temples are religious buildings where Buddhists go to worship. Nearly all of the people in Thailand are Buddhists. Although there are different Buddhist schools, Buddhism in Thailand is mostly of the Theravada school.

Buddhism is a religion growing out of the teaching that the suffering is inherent and that the one can be liberated from it by practicing wisdom, meditation, and virtue. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was a man born in a royal family in 623 B.C. in Nepal (present day). Buddhism appeared as a result of his spiritual journey and the teachings from it. Buddhists seek to reach a state of nirvana following his path of Enlightenment. They believe that nothing lasts forever and they do not believe in a personal God. Buddhists can worship at home in front of a Buddha image or in temples. They will sit on the floor facing a Buddha statue with their bare feet behind the body.

*Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and the current king (2016-2019) of Thailand is Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun.

There are more than 33,000 Buddhist temples currently in use in Thailand with a wide variety of styles and decorations of the buildings. So, if planning on going anytime soon to Thailand you’ll probably visit more than one. A Buddhist temple in Thailand is called a wat. You’ll notice that the names of the temples start with this word. In Bangkok only, you’ll find 400 temples or wats, of which, the three of most popular and a must- visit are: Wat Phra Kaew, commonly known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Wat Arun or the Temple of The Dawn, and Wat Pho or Temple of the Reclining Buddha, which is the largest monastery complex in Bangkok.

Thailand temple has two parts: an area dedicated to Buddha or the Phutthawat. There is a group of religious buildings in this area, of which the Ubosot or Bot is the most sacred and important place of the wat. It’s one of the largest buildings in the complex where the primary image of the Buddha is placed. The bot is often for the monks only while the area open to the public, where other visitors go to pray or see Buddha statues is called the viharn; monks live in an area within the temples called Sangkhawat.

Buddhist temples in Thailand are tourist attractions, but as well religious buildings where people come to worship. We, as visitors should show the highest respect and act accordingly to the culture, customs, and rules when visiting any. Here is what you need to know and do when visiting temples in Thailand:

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How to behave in Thai temples? 

  1. Remove shoes before you enter a temple

    Thai remove their shoes when they enter homes and temples. If you’re unsure, whether you should take them off or not when visiting some building, look if there are any shoes already placed outside. Or you can always ask someone before you enter whether you need to take them off.

    Everyone should be barefoot inside the temples. So, when entering a temple in Thailand make sure to remove your shoes. Look for shoe racks near the entrance to leave those or you can as well carry them with you. When going into the temple and inside move along the right side.

    Feet are considered to be the lowest and filthiest part of the body. That’s why when you sit down in the temples you should be careful not to point your feet to anyone and especially not towards a Buddha sculpture or image. When you sit on the floor, inside the temple, your feet should be behind you. Always make sure you’re not pointing them in the wrong direction. Pointing your toes to a Buddha is a violation of what is regarded as something so sacred. If you can’t cross your legs you shouldn’t sit down in front of a Buddha image at all.

    While feet are considered the lowest and filthiest part of the body the head is the most sacred. So, raising your feet higher than someone’s head or simply putting your feet on a desk or a chair is also extremely rude. Also, never touch someone’s hair or head and that includes children too.

  2. Monks should be treated with the highest respect

    Monks live in the monastery complexes. Be respectful to the monks in and out of the temples. You can easily recognize them dressed in their saffron-colored robes. When you see one, the same respect is expected to be given as in temples. So, when you pass a monk always lower your body. You should always keep your head below the level of Buddha statues, and monks. And always stand up when a monk enters a room. They use public transport as well, such as buses or trains. Don’t sit on the bus or train seats reserved for monks. 

    Women are not allowed to touch the monks. When females are close to monks they need to make enough room around them for monks to be able to move more freely. If you need to give something to a monk never hand it over directly. Instead, place it on the table or on the floor from where he can pick it up without making any physical contact with you or touch you. Usually, the monk will offer you to put the item on a piece of cloth. The monk will then drag the cloth to him before picking the item up. 

  3. How should you dress when visiting Thai temples?

    Buddhism has the main influence on most of the customs and traditions in Thailand. Thus conservative and modest dressing is appreciated in Thailand. Expressing your sexuality by wearing tight clothes and sleeveless tops is not a good idea at all.

    Thai temples are sacred places, so make sure to dress properly or you won’t be allowed to go in. The basic rule for Thai temples is: cover your shoulders and knees.

    Knees and shoulders should be covered for both sexes. So, women should wear longer skirts on the bottom while men longer shorts or pants. On the top wear any shirt that completely covers your shoulders, like t-shirts, but avoid tank tops. Shirts with sleeves are also a good idea or bring a scarf with you that can cover your top. For women, short skirts or pants won’t be allowed in the temples. If you are not dressed to the customs you can still borrow clothes from the temples. That is if you don’t mind that they were already worn by other people before you.

  4. Most of the temples in Thailand allow taking photos

    And if they don’t you’ll certainly see signs for that in front of the temple. If photography is allowed, don’t turn your back on a Buddha image for the sake of a selfie. And never touch nor climb on a Buddha statue. Also, make sure to always be lower than Buddha image. In general, you should make a distance from a Buddha statue before you turn your back and leave the temple.

  5. Entrance fees

    Big and popular temples in Thailand have entrance fees. But in most of the cases, you won’t need to pay anything. Majority of Thai temples have free admissions. You’ll also notice coin boxes into the temples for small donations. 

  6. The best time for a visit 

    Thai Temples are less crowded in the morning hours. Keep in mind that most of them are closed after 6 p.m.

Other cultural manners to be aware of as a visitor in Thailand

Thais do not shake hands instead they Wai

Respect should be given to the older people and those of higher social status expressed in the Wai greeting. It is a traditional form of greeting in Thailand. To give a Wai you should put your hands in a prayer position towards your body, touching your chest with the thumbs and bowing your head slightly.

As a visitor, you may find it confusing where to offer or return a Wai. If you want to express the highest level of respect to a Buddha, monk or the king your thumbs should touch your forehead. The higher the hands are raised – the greater the respect is being shown. To return a Wai when it’s offered to you is considered polite. But, you don’t need to return it to people offering you some kind of service, like sellers in shops or waitresses in restaurants.

The meaning of ‘losing face’ in Thailand

In Thai culture, it’s very important one not to lose face. People in Thailand tend to solve their problems and misunderstandings in a peaceful and calm way. Losing temper in public places and expressing anger or shouting is a sure way to lose the respect you gained from the people of your surroundings and society. The concept of saving face is related to the pride of people. When you lose face your reputation is lost and you embarrass yourself and the rest of the people.

If you disagree with something try not to raise your voice in Thailand like never ever.  Avoid arguments and conflicts, instead, keep your cool and smile. Creating or participating in conflicts is losing face for yourself or to the others involved.

Avoid pointing out someone’s mistakes openly in front of other people and make sure to give sincere compliments whenever you can. 

Cultural dos and don’ts in public places

Make an effort to show some respect by lowering your voice when talking whenever you enter shops, restaurants or buses. Showing too much affection in public places or in temples like kissing and hugging is not a good idea either. And it will probably encounter looks of disapproval by the Thai people. Holding hands is something that is quite acceptable and fine.

Pointing out with your index finger is also very rude in Thailand. If you do want to point out something you can do it with your whole hand and fingers put together with your palm faced upwards and pointed in the desired direction. But, never point at a monk or Buddha statue, either with fingers or feet.

In general, the weather in Thailand is hot and tropical so wear clothes made of lightweight natural fabrics, and light slip-on shoes or sandals. 

If you leave the beach and enter closed areas like shops and restaurants, or you are simply out on the street near or far of the beach don’t go without covering your body first. Make sure you wear something on your feet too and avoid walking around barefoot as soon as you’re off that beautiful sandy beach. It’s not appropriate nor acceptable. It’s also very disrespectful to Thai’s people and culture.

Clothes determine social status in Thailand. Nice and suitable dressing for every occasion and place is very important to Thai people. That said, for men polo shirts or button shirts are quite acceptable and a good choice. Men should definitely avoid wearing beach clothes in the cities and on the streets. Like flip-flops and unbuttoned shirts or even worse to be naked on the top. If the weather is hot and humid that doesn’t mean we should walk naked in the cities, I suppose.

Instead, put some smart but lightweight clothing suitable for the environment and the occasion. Women should wear tops with covered shoulders and cleavage, avoiding tank tops. Somehow it’s always good to have a scarf with you or a beach cover-up. If you want to explore and walk, comfortable slip-on and flat footwear are what you’ll need in Thailand.

Probably nobody will say anything to you, because you are a tourist and it’s up to you how will you choose to dress. However, it’s good to know what Thai people prefer if you want to gain their respect. 

Finally, Thailand is known as a land of smile so don’t forget to smile. And if you do want to do that more often, then Thailand is the place where you should be or visit at least once in your life.