(This is an excerpt from my newest book, an Introduction to Thailand. More on that in a minute.)
No introduction to Thailand would be complete without a quick word on Buddhist temples, or wat. Typically walled off from the outside world, all temples will feature a bot, the central sacred hall that is typically closed to the public, and a Bo tree, under which the Buddha received his enlightenment (so don’t climb it!). All but the smallest temples will have a viharn / wiharn, which both protects the temple’s main Buddha image while being open to laypeople, and a chedi, an upside-down cone-shaped building that may dwarf the temple’s other buildings.
Historically, the wat was the center of a neighborhood or community – beyond simply being a place to pray, it was a gathering place where everyone went. Even today, you’ll see temples used as night markets, places to learn about candidates when an election is near, and of course people praying in their own time. Worship or prayer time in Buddhism is very much an individual thing, so you won’t see too many large groups entering or exiting the temple. Do keep a quiet, reverent mindset while on temple grounds, as though you were walking through a church.
While many tourists walk around a temple’s grounds and gawk at the sparkles, opt to sit in silence for a few moments in front of the Buddha’s image. You’ll notice a certain seating posture in common – start with your knees facing the Buddha, keeping your feet pointed away from the Buddha. Lean on your opposite arm – this is not the world’s most comfortable position to find yourself seated in, but it is the proper one. To sit cross-legged might imply you were somehow equal to the Buddha or the monk!
Monks are clearly identified through their orange robes, and may be seen praying, giving words of wisdom, or doing manual labor on the grounds. Regardless of your religion, be respectful of these men – for every story of a monk caught stealing or giving monks a bad name, there are a thousand doing untold amounts of good in the world. If looking to sit, take care to avoid sitting on a chair reserved for monks, or otherwise allowing your head to be above his. Beyond their vows of poverty and chastity, they have vowed to follow 227 precepts, whereas a layperson is expected to follow a mere five (do not take life, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not lie, and refrain from intoxication).
Women, do everything you can to avoid touching a monk. A monk’s vow of celibacy prohibits even accidental touches or brushes, and they would be expected to undergo a lengthy purification ceremony afterwards. If you are offering something to the monks, follow the lead of the locals and place it directly into his alms bowl, or elsewhere for him to pick it up. If he’s tying a sacred thread onto your wrist, keep it still. When a monk rides the bus, he sets his coins down on the empty seat for the female attendant, who then sets the ticket and change in the same place. This might sound roundabout, but it’s how things work.
Do I have to take off my shoes?
When entering a bot, a viharn, or any building with a polished floor, yes. These are sacred buildings, and shoes suffer even a lower status than one’s feet. Not every temple has signs that cater to tourists, but two visual cues should be obvious enough:
- A shoe rack, or pairs of shoes by a door
- A very clean-looking or well-swept floor inside
Also, if you’re a hat-wearing sort, take it off and hang it somewhere or carry it – don’t simply place them on top of your shoes or on the back of a chair.
Can I take pictures of the temple?
Yes – they’re gorgeous places that often make great mementos. A few things to avoid, however:
- Avoid taking pictures of monks without their permission. It’s generally fine if they’re in the distance or otherwise not the focus of the picture, but for portraits, permission goes a long way.
- Do not climb or touch any of the statues, images, or buildings. A few tourists have been detained by police for this kind of insulting behavior, while others are simply given a look of revulsion.
- If inside a temple building, pretend you’re a ninja. Take great care to walk softly and avoid disrupting people in prayer. Few things are more disruptive to quiet meditation than a conversation carried on in your ‘outdoor voice’. If your camera has a ‘quiet mode’ or the shutter sound can be muted, use it.
Presenting an Introduction to Thailand, version 2.0:
Reader, meet Thailand – get introduced and arrive several steps ahead of other tourists.
One Weird Globe introductions are your way to leapfrog other tourists and know what’s really going on. They’re written to be read quickly (like on the plane!) and be a reference guide once you’ve arrived
Revamped and updated for 2016!
Buy now and start exploring the awesome side of Thailand.
A few highlights:
- Can you get a visa on arrival? Learn which visa is right for you
- Get a SIM and stay connected to the internet
- Food, glorious food! Where to go and what to try
- The unwritten rules of temple etiquette
- Drinking, the nightlife, the markets, staying safe, and plenty more.
About One Weird Globe introductions
One Weird Globe introductions offer an unbiased look at a city or area/province. You get a great general overview of a country, followed by recommendations of places to go. See also One Weird Globe itineraries (great if you prefer having things planned out for you) and guidebooks (comprehensive looks at a country).
About the author
Chris Backe is the blogger behind One Weird Globe, a popular blog about offbeat destinations and life as an expat. His mission in life is to make travel awesome, and to set you up to succeed while traveling. He’s lived in Korea, Thailand, Colombia, and traveled to weird destinations across Europe. He’s also the founder of the Choose a Way series, the interactive travel guidebooks that put you in charge. He’s been seen in Atlas Obscura, io9, Fark, Mental Floss, Groove Magazine, and many other publications. When not traveling or writing, he enjoys swing dancing and a good game of Cards Against Humanity.