Visiting a Thailand temple for the first time is an unforgettable experience. Thai temples -- known as wats -- are literally everywhere; many are beautiful and possess extraordinary historical and cultural significance.
No trip to Thailand is complete without visiting a select handful of famous temples; just beware: trying to see too many temples in one week is a sure way to become burned out! Take time to absorb what you've seen in a temple before rushing to visit the next one.
First, go read about etiquette in Thailand for the basics, then read on to learn how to visit a Thailand temple confidently without worry of doing something taboo.
Don't expect the Hollywood version of Buddhism in a Thailand temple or you may leave disappointed. Monks are surprisingly friendly and many may practice English with you or even offer to exchange email addresses with you. Don't panic! Enjoy the interaction and be friendly while still showing respect. The rules are slightly relaxed in Thailand; monks may eat meat and you may even find some smoking or using mobile phones!
When thanking a monk for his time before saying goodbye, give them a higher wai than usual; they are not expected to return the gesture. Read about the prayer-like gesture known as the wai and how to say hello in Southeast Asia.
- Rather than believe movie stereotypes, go read about real Buddhism to enhance your Thailand temple visit.
The Worship Area
Thai temples are typically comprised of a courtyard with housing and small worship areas scattered around. The sheltered areas that contain Buddha statues are known as Bots. These areas are more sacred than other places in the temple, and a few rules of etiquette should be followed.
- Remove your shoes before entering if you haven't already.
- Don't get in the way of local people who are actually there to worship.
- Back away from the Buddha statue rather than turning your back.
- Don't touch sacred objects in the worship area.
- Do not raise yourself higher than the image of Buddha (e.g., sitting on the raised platform for a photo).
The proper way to sit in a Bot is to have legs tucked underneath of you as the worshipers do. You are not a monk's equal, so you should not sit as they do. While sitting, avoid pointing your feet at the image of Buddha or other people. If monks come into the Bot to worship, stand up until they finish their prostrations.
When ready to leave, don't raise yourself higher than the Buddha statue and do not turn your back to it; back away instead.
Dos While Visiting a Thailand Temple
- Remove hats, sunglasses, and shoes when entering a worship area.
- Turn off your mobile phone, remove headphones, and lower your voice.
- Show respect; now is not the time to share the latest joke you just heard.
- Step over the wooden threshold to the temple rather than on top of it.
- If you are sitting, stand up when monks or nuns enter the Bot.
- Always use your right hand when giving or receiving something from monk.
The #1 rule of etiquette for visiting Thai temples is to dress modestly! Would you wear swim shorts and a tank top to church at home? While many wats in tourist areas have relaxed their standards due to the hordes of visitors, be different; show some respect. Both men and women should not wear sleeveless tops; your shorts or pants should cover your knees. Read more about responsible travel.
Don'ts While Visiting a Thailand Temple
- Never point at a monk or Buddha statue, either with your fingers or feet.
- Touch or turn your back to an image of Buddha.
- Smoke, spit, chew gum, or eat snack foods.
- Photograph or disturb monks or others who are worshiping.
Women in Thai Temples
Women may never touch a monk or his robes -- including his own mother. Even doing so on accident (i.e., brushing against the robes in a crowded place) requires the monk to perform a lengthy cleansing process. Dress modestly; cover your knees and shoulders when visiting Thailand temples.
If you must hand a monk something, hand it to a male first or place the object on the ground.
Giving Donations in Thai Temples
Pretty much every temple in Thailand has one or more metal donation boxes. Donations are neither required nor expected, but if you took photos and enjoyed your visit, why not drop 20 baht in the box on your way out?
Visiting temples is not only cultural and educational, it's one of the great free things to do in Thailand!
Some Thai temples, particularly in Chiang Mai, have scheduled "Monk Chat" times when tourists are allowed to meet with English-speaking monks for free. You can ask questions about Buddhism or just general inquiries about daily life in the temple. Don't worry, the monks won't try to convert you to Buddhist on the spot.
If you sit in a group to talk to the monk, never sit higher than him and sit with your feet beneath of you to show proper respect. Allow the monk to finish talking before you interrupt with a question or comment.