Thailand Temple Etiquette: Dos and Don'ts

Wat Arun, a temple in Bangkok, Thailand

Sutthipong Kongtrakool / Getty Images

 

All new travelers feel some jitters when entering one of Thailand's many Buddhist temples for the first time. Knowing a little Thailand temple etiquette will help you feel more at ease so you can enjoy the unique experience to its fullest.

Is it OK to take photographs of the Buddha image? What should you do when monks enter? Some travelers scurry out quickly rather than risk some grave faux pas in a sacred space.

Unless you're a Buddhist, and putting on a few beaded 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 a serene, sacred place. Fortunately, the dos and don'ts of temple etiquette are simple enough to follow.

Temple Etiquette for Your Trip to Thailand
Hugo Lin / © TripSavvy 2018 

Visiting Thailand Temples

Thailand's temples, known as wats, are literally everywhere in the country. At last count, there were over 41,000 temples and nearly 34,000 were in use!

Some temples, such as the ones in Ayutthaya and Sukothai, are ancient and mystifying. Others, such as the White Temple in Chiang Rai, have Batman and Kung Fu Panda painted on the walls. Seriously. Regardless, most temples in Thailand are beautiful and possess extraordinary historical and cultural significance.

All temples and images of Buddha are considered sacred. Temples are not the places to act like an obnoxious tourist and mess up a good thing. Over 94 percent of Thailand's population follows the Theravada school of Buddhism.

Each temple has something that makes it unique. For instance, reclining Buddha statues such as the large one at Wat Pho in Bangkok aren't meant to depict Buddha being lazy. His earthly body is dying from an illness; many believe it was food poisoning. Wat Naphrameru in Ayutthaya contains an ancient statue depicting Buddha as a prince in worldly attire before enlightenment—such images are exceptionally rare.

Avoid Wat Burnout

No trip to Thailand is complete without visiting a handful of temples. Just beware of a condition that plagues many travelers in Thailand known as "wat burnout."

Trying to see too many temples in one week is a sure way to become burned out! Even attempting to visit all of the top temples in Bangkok is a big endeavor. 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.

If you feel that you're approaching wat burnout, try mixing it up. Consider hiring a guide at one temple to explain the lore, then wander the next temple independently on your own. Linger long enough to catch small details.

Grab a book or Google the temples you visit. You'll be surprised to learn some of the history. For instance, the Golden Buddha statue at Wat Traimit in Chinatown, Bangkok, is made of 12,000 pounds of gold. It was wisely covered with stucco by someone to look like the other statues and remained hidden in plain sight for close to 200 years!

The Setting

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 as some do at China's Shaolin Temple.

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 at the corner of a huge mall. Wat Lan Khuat in Isaan is constructed entirely out of recycled beer bottles!

Going in with preconceived expectations could cause you to leave disappointed.

Monks in Thailand

Monks in Thailand are often spotted on cell phones or coming out of internet cafes after checking email and playing online games!

An estimated 250,000–300,000 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 choose to remain monks. After serving a set term (often three months) most will come back to society, start careers, and get married.

Monks are usually friendly to 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 or Facebook with a monk. Don't panic! Take advantage of the interaction while still showing respect. This is your chance to ask about daily life in a temple, Buddhism, or anything else that interests you.

When greeting or thanking a monk for his time, give them a higher wai, Thailand's famous prayer-like gesture with slight bow and don't maintain eye contact. The higher the wai, the more respect shown. 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 monk-only area and the layman area often look very similar in decor and architecture, but fortunately there are some ways to tell the difference.

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 place for you to enter.

How to Act Near Buddha Images

Any area that contains a Buddha statue or image is obviously more sacred than other places in the temple. Most temples have more than one image of Buddha on site. Some have dozens!

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 door threshold going inside.
  • 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 there are pillars or statues in the middle of the room, walk around sacred objects in only a clockwise manner.

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. Sit off to the side so that you won't interfere with others who only have a few minutes to worship.

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. Try not to turn your back to it; back away instead.

Taking Photos Inside Temples

For travelers, the most common offense committed inside of temples 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. Assuming they aren't busy or worshipping, some will be fine with you taking a photo. Be polite and ask first.

Dress Modestly

The #1 rule of etiquette for visiting Thai temples is to dress modestly! Save the swim shorts and sleeveless Chang T-shirt for the beach.

Although many wats in tourist areas have relaxed their standards due to the high volume of visitors, be different! Show respect. Wear something other than that Full Moon Party shirt still stained with glow paint and bodily fluids. Shorts or pants are supposed to cover the knees. Tight stretch pants, some athletic wear, and clingy tops may also be considered a little too revealing.

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.

If you have any religious tattoos, especially ones with Buddhist images, they should be covered.

Dos for 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.

Don'ts for Visiting a Thailand Temple

  • Don't point at a monk or Buddha statue, either with fingers, feet, or something in your hands.
  • 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.

Women in Thai Temples

Women may never touch a monk or his robes. Even hugs from a monk's own mother are off limits while he is in monkhood. Touching a monk on accident (e.g., brushing against the robes in a crowded place) requires the monk to perform a lengthy cleansing process, assuming 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. Put the money on the counter rather than handing it over. 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, bracelets, and items 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 rare 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.

Attending a Monk Chat Session

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. Curiosity is welcomed.

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.

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