How complicated is Thailand temple etiquette? All first-time travelers feel a little nervous when entering one of Thailand's many Buddhist temples for the first time.
Is it OK to take photographs of the Buddha image? Should you scurry out quickly when monks enter the room to worship?
Unless you're a Buddhist — and putting on a few bracelets as you travel through Southeast Asia doesn't count — the whole scene can be a bit confusing. Just when you've begun to feel at ease, an old monk starts banging a gong loudly and sends you scrambling in a fight-or-flight panic for your shoes outside.
No one wants to be the rude tourist who accidentally bring chaos to such an otherwise serene place. Fortunately, the dos and don'ts of temple etiquette are simple enough to follow.
Thailand's temples, known as wats, are literally everywhere. Over 90 percent of Thailand's population follows the Theravada school of Buddhism. Some temples are ancient and mystifying. Others, such as the White Temple in Chiang Rai, have Batman and Kung Fu Panda painted on the walls. Regardless, most temples in Thailand are beautiful and possess extraordinary historical and cultural significance.
These are not the places to act like an obnoxious tourist and mess up a good thing.
Visiting Thailand Temples
No trip to Thailand is complete without visiting a select handful of famous temples. Just beware of a condition that plagues many travelers in Thailand: "wat burnout."
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. Ideally, look up details (age, purpose, significance, etc) before visiting a temple — you'll appreciate the experience even more.
Each temple has something that makes it unique. For instance, reclining Buddha statues aren't meant to depict Buddha being lazy — his earthly body is dying from an illness, potentially food poisoning. Wat Naphrameru in Ayutthaya contains an ancient statue depicting Buddha as a prince in worldly attire before enlightenment — such images are increasingly rare.
There are a few exceptions, but visiting temples is usually a free thing to do in Thailand. Just don't burn yourself out too early!
Unless you're visiting the bizarre White Temple in Chiang Rai, don't expect the Hollywood version of Buddhism in Thailand's temples. You definitely won't see any monks practicing kung fu.
Temples aren't always remote, mystical places situated atop mountains. The famous Erawan Shrine in Bangkok is literally in the middle of a busy sidewalk. Wat Lan Khuat in Isaan is constructed entirely out of recycled beer bottles!
Going in with a preconceived image could cause you to leave disappointed.
Monks in Thailand
Monks in Thailand are often spotted on cell phones, smoking, or coming out of internet cafes after checking email and playing games!
An estimated 200,000 – 30,000 monks are walking the streets of Thailand at any given time. Serving as a monk is regarded as part of a young man's development, however, only a handful remain monks. After serving a set term (often three months) most will come back to society, start careers, and get married.
Monks are usually very friendly. They don't eat tourists. Ones who aren't too shy may ask to practice English with you. Attending a Monk Chat session in Chiang Mai could mean swapping email addresses with a monk. Don't panic! Take advantage of the interaction while still showing respect. This is your chance to ask about daily life, Buddhism, or anything else that interests you.
Respect Tip: When greeting or thanking a monk for his time, give them a higher wai — Thailand's famous prayer-like gesture with slight bow — than usual. Monks aren't expected to return the gesture.
The Temple Worship Area
Thailand temples typically have peaceful grounds in a courtyard that house an ordination hall (bot), prayer hall (viharn), stupas (chedi), living residences (kuti), a kitchen, and perhaps even classrooms or administrative buildings.
The primary area for monks that contains a Buddha statue is known as a bot. The bot is often for monks only, while visitors — tourists included — go to the viharn (prayer hall) to pray or see images of Buddha. The problem is that the monk-only area and the layman area often look very similar in decor and architecture.
In a quiet temple, to make sure you're entering the place open for the public (the viharn), just look for these things:
- Signs in English (e.g., asking you to remove your shoes) is a good indicator.
- Donation boxes
- Other worshipers who aren't monks
Traditionally, the monk-only bots are surrounded by eight sema stones outside in a rectangular shape. If you see large, decorative stones in a square around a prayer hall, that probably isn't the one for you.
How to Act Near Buddha Images
These areas are obviously more sacred than other places in the temple. A few rules of temple etiquette should be followed as you enter the main worship area:
- Remove your shoes before entering the viharn unless already directed to leave them outside.
- Don't step or stand on the threshold going inside.
- Walk around sacred objects in only a clockwise manner.
- Don't get in the way of local people who are actually there to worship.
- Try to back away from the Buddha statue a short distance before turning your back.
- Don't turn your back while near the Buddha statues to snap a selfie!
- Don't touch sacred objects in the worship area.
- Don't be loud, goof off, or crack jokes.
- Don't point at images of Buddha.
- Do not raise yourself higher than the image of Buddha (e.g., sitting on the raised platform for a photo).
- Take rowdy or unhappy children out of the worship area.
If you want to hang out — monks really don't mind if you do — the proper way to sit in front of a Buddha image is to have legs tucked underneath of you as the worshipers do. While sitting, avoid pointing your feet at the image of Buddha or other people. If monks come into the hall, stand up until they finish their prostrations.
When ready to leave, don't raise yourself higher than the Buddha statue and try not to turn your back to it; back away instead.
Taking Photos Inside Temples
For travelers, the most common offense is to pose for a photo or selfie with back turned to a Buddha image.
Unlike in Japan where taking photos of Buddha statues or the worship area is typically frowned upon, doing so is fine in Thailand — unless a sign indicates you shouldn't. Try not to take photos of other worshipers while they are praying.
Yes, monks in Thailand are brilliantly photogenic, but snapping photos without asking isn't nice. You're in their home and place of work.
Dos While Visiting a Thailand Temple
- Do remove hats, sunglasses, and shoes when entering a worship area.
- Do silence your mobile phone, remove headphones, and lower your voice.
- Do show respect; now is not the time to share the latest joke you just heard.
- Do step over the wooden threshold to the temple rather than on top of it.
- Do stand up when monks or nuns enter the room.
The #1 rule of etiquette for visiting Thai temples is to dress modestly! Save the swim shorts and tank top for the beach.
Although many wats in tourist areas have relaxed their standards due to the high volume of visitors, be different! Show respect. Now is not the time to wear that sleeveless Full Moon Party shirt still stained with glow paint and bodily fluids. Shorts or pants are supposed to cover the knees. Tight stretch pants and clingy tops may also be considered a little too "sexy."
Really Important: Much of the popular "Sure" and "No Time" brands of clothing sold to backpackers in Thailand depict themes from Buddhism and Hinduism. One shirt even shows Buddha smoking a blunt. You can imagine how monks feel about this fashion.
Don'ts While Visiting a Thailand Temple
- Don't point at a monk or Buddha statue, either with fingers or feet.
- Don't touch or turn your back to an image of Buddha.
- Don't smoke, spit, chew gum, or snack while walking around. Many Theravada monks do not eat after noon.
- Don't disturb monks or anyone else who came to worship — this includes photographing them.
Women in Thai Temples
Women may never touch a monk or his robes. Even hugs from his own mother are off limits while he is in monkhood. Touching a monk on accident (i.e., brushing against the robes in a crowded place) requires the monk to perform a lengthy cleansing process (if he acknowledges the contact).
If you must hand a monk something (e.g., money while paying for a trinket), put the object down and allow the monk to pick it up. Use your right hand.
Giving Donations in Thai Temples
Pretty much every temple in Thailand has one or more metal donation boxes. Donations are neither required nor expected. No one will shame you for not donating. But if you took photos and enjoyed your visit, why not drop 10 – 20 baht in the box on the way out?
Some temples sell trinkets and such to raise money. Although buying small Buddha statues is legal in Thailand, taking them out of the country is technically illegal. Assuming you didn't purchase a special relic or antique, you probably won't get any hassle. Just in case, don't show them off to immigration officials as you're stamped out of 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 what it's like to live in a temple.
Don't worry, the monks won't try to convert you to Buddhism on the spot. The experience can be cultural and memorable, particularly if you ask some questions.
If you sit in a group to talk to the monk, never sit higher than him. Try to 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.