Even if you’re not religious, a visit to a Buddhist temple (wat) can be a rewarding cultural experience. With around 95% of the Thai population identifying as Buddhist, the local wat plays an important role in Thai society.
There are an estimated 34,000 Buddhist temples in Thailand which function not only as a place of worship and contemplation, but also as community centres, especially in rural areas. If you’re visiting Thailand for the first time, don’t be surprised to see schools within the temple grounds and youngsters playing football. Although the atmosphere at some Thai temples can sometimes appear informal, there are still rules of etiquette that all visitors should keep in mind. Key points to note are:
- Dress politely
- Take off your shoes
- Keep you head lower than the Buddha images and monks
- Don’t point your feet at Buddha images or monks
- Don’t sit on the platform or seats reserved for monks
- Talk quietly
- No public displays of affection
- No smoking
- No alcohol
Please dress respectfully when you visit any temple in Thailand. Make sure your shoulders are covered (no vests, tank-tops or spaghetti straps) and although skirts or shorts are acceptable at many temples, they should be smart and at least knee-length. Dress regulations are stricter at Thailand’s more important temples and those with royal connections such as Wat Phra Kaew at the Grand Palace, Bangkok. At high profile venues like this, visitors should dress extra conservatively with long trousers for men, and a below the knee skirt/dress or trousers for women.
If you’re out for the day sightseeing, a sarong is a practical solution. It’s lightweight, takes up no room or weight in your bag, and for any impromptu temple visits can be pulled out to wrap around the shoulders or waist.
Take off your shoes before entering the temple buildings. If you are wearing a hat, that should also be removed before going inside and either kept in your hand or, better still, place it in your bag. Shoes are normally left on a shelf or near the steps outside the wat, but at some popular Bangkok temples you may be advised to place them inside your bag.
Inside the wat, keep your head lower than Buddha images and monks. You should also sit with the soles of your feet pointing away from Buddha images and monks. If you observe Thai people inside the temple you will notice that they sit on the floor with their feet tucked behind them.
Don’t sit on the platform or chairs reserved for monks. Monks are prohibited from touching women and women should never hand anything directly to a monk.
Keep your voice down in and around the temple and smoking, vaping, and alcohol are not allowed inside temple grounds.
Respect Thai culture
In Thai culture, all Buddha images are regarded as sacred no matter how old they are or if they are in a state of disrepair. At locations where there are ancient ruins like Ayutthaya or Sukhothai, do not touch, climb or sit on any of the Buddha statues.
It’s believed that the guardian spirit resides in the raised threshold of homes and temples. Stepping on it is not polite and is also thought to bring bad luck, so if you see a raised threshold, step over it and not on it.
At some locations, especially in North Thailand, local culture prohibits women from entering specific areas of the temple which are regarded as particularly holy or auspicious. Signs in Thai and English will let you know if anywhere is off limits. While it may seem unfair, old traditions and superstitions play an important role in day to day life in Thailand.
Take photos respectfully
Although you are allowed to take photos inside most Thai temples, please do so respectfully. Take photos discreetly from a kneeling position and don’t use a flash.
Entry to many Thai temples is free, but there are some which charge non-Thais a small entrance fee. Thai Buddhists will usually leave a small donation to make merit when they visit a temple, so you can consider the entrance fee as your way of earning good karma and helping with the running costs of the temple. At temples where entrance is free you’re not obliged to leave a donation, but if you’ve enjoyed your time there and have been taking photographs, you can put some money (20 Baht is reasonable) inside one of the collection boxes.