Although it’s hard to verify this figure, apparently there are around 41,000 Buddhist temples (in Thai, wat) in Thailand. Now, I don’t know if that’s a lot in terms of population or compared to the number of religious buildings in other countries, but it does sound like a lot.
For a first-time visitor, it is hard to escape the novelty and attraction of Thai Buddhist temples. The stylized, multi-tiered roofs, the chedis (as stupas -or pagodas- are called in Thailand), the myriad Buddha statues in different poses, the gold leaf and yellow fabric ornaments everywhere… It’s all beautiful, colourful and shiny. And many of the ruins are striking.
And yet, most travellers in Thailand, or indeed in Southeast Asia, end up feeling “templed out” sooner or later. There just comes a point when you feel like you don’t need to see yet another Buddhist temple, because they all start to look the same. Which, in a way, they do. I’m assuming non-Western visitors to countries like Spain or Italy must also feel “churched out” after a while. Does anybody know?
Despite all that, in Thailand you don’t need to look very closely to notice a rather large variety of styles corresponding to different historic periods and mixed external influences.
While some people will have seen enough temples for almost a lifetime after a few days in Thailand, chances are you’ll be like me. Yes, there will come a time when you’ll feel “templed out”; but with such an impressive array of striking temples in Thailand, every now and then you will come across one that will leave you speechless.
Here are just a few of the temples you might enjoy in Thailand, bearing in mind that choosing just one photo per temple does not do them justice:
Wat Mahathat (Sukhothai)
Since we’re at the first of the list, let’s get something out of the way. Many of these ruins correspond to temples which, obviously, once had walls and ceilings. While there is an undeniable beauty to how they look now, it’s worth remembering that the temples would have had a very different aspect back at the time.
Built between late 12th and early 13th century, Wat Mahathat (“Temple of the great relic”) is the most important temple in Sukhothai, the capital of the oldest great kingdom in Siam (modern Thailand).
The Wat Mahathat complex is located right after the east entrance to the Sukhothai Historical Park, a protected area of about 70 square kilometers with several dozen temple ruins scattered all over.
The entrance fee to the historical park is 100 thai baht (€2.5-$2), and I recommended you rent a bicycle at the gates (30 baht, plus a 10 baht supplement to get the bike into the park) and spend one full day exploring the grounds.
The park is a few miles from downtown Sukhothai (called the “new city”, as opposed to the old city ruins), and with the heat I wouldn’t recommend at all riding a bicycle to get there. Instead, you can either rent a scooter in town and then use it to explore the park too, or just hail one of the songthaews (the typical Thai pick-up vans) that shuttle back and forth all day long for 30 baht.
Wat Si Chum (Sukhothai)
There are many other temple ruins worth visiting in the historical park, but here I’ll just mention a couple more. Wat Si Chum, located north of the old city walls, is famous for its 15-metre high sitting Buddha statue that seems to peak out the main archway.
There really is not much more to this temple that I can remember, but the big Buddha statue alone was definitely worth the visit, and of all the temples I visited in Sukhothai, this is the one where I saw more locals, so it may have a special significance to them.
Wat Chang Lom (Sukhothai)
This is one temple where you want to go in Sukhothai if you want to enjoy some ruins on your own. Wat Chang Lom is in a rather hidden location off the main road to the east of the historical park. For that reason, very few people seem to ever go there. I had to ask around to several locals before one of them understood what I was looking for.
The impressive main chedi rests on a platform surrounded by elephant statues. To the east lie the ruins of a prayer hall, with plenty of columns, and some smaller stupas.
The ruins are actually very close to a resort, but if you are lucky as I was, all you will hear as you walk around are the sounds of your own steps, the jungle and the wind. A very peaceful and rewarding experience.
Wat Yai Chai Mongkol (Ayutthaya)
The old kingdom of Sukhothai was defeated and absorbed in the 15th century by the much vaster and more powerful kingdom of Ayutthaya, located in the south. Ayutthaya is another one of Thailand’s hotspots for historic monuments and ruins. Many people visit Ayutthaya in a day trip from nearby Bangkok, but I’d recommend to spend one night if possible.
Although I personally connected much more with the ruins in Sukhothai, there is also a lot to discover and enjoy in Ayutthaya. Here, most of the interesting ruins and temples are in town but, again, renting a bicycle or an e-bike seems essential due to the relatively large area to cover and the scorching heat.
Some of the temples are further away from the city centre, and are best reached by tuk-tuk, like Wat Yai Chai Mongkol, although you can definitely get there by bicycle as I did. This temple and monastery was turned in its heyday into a centre of learning. Its big central chedi was erected by King Naraesuan the Great to commemorate Ayutthaya’s success in repelling an invading Burmese army in 1592.
Wat Chiang Man (Chiang Mai)
Chiang Mai, capital of the former Lanna kingdoms in today’s northern Thailand, is the city to visit in this country if you want to satisfy your appetite for Buddhist temples at one single location. Think Rome or Florence for churches and you’ll get the idea. I’ve read somewhere that there are about 200 temples in and around Chiang Mai, and I have no difficulty believing it.
Most of the main temples in Chiang Mai are withing easy walking distance, and some of them are incredibly beautiful. If you are on a tight budget, you’ll be happy to learn that entrance is usually free or costs as little as 20-30 baht (less than 1 euro/US dollar).
Wat Chiang Man is the oldest temple in town, founded in 1296 by King Mengrai. Among its many interesting features, I was particularly impressed by the amazing chedi resting on elephant statues, similar to the one in Wat Chang Lom I mentioned above. It would appear that this use of elephant figures came into mainland SE Asia from Sri Lanka, possibly via Sukhothai, and there is something about it that I find quite fetching.
Of note, the elephant has been for centuries an important cultural icon of Thailand, representing history, traditions and royal power. Elephants appear in Thai coins, stamps, flags and other symbols, and it is not by chance that one of Thailand’s most popular beers is named Chang (meaning “elephant” in Thai). Me, I liked Singha or Leo much better, not just because of their superior taste, but also because one single large bottle of Chang, with its whopping 6.4% alcohol, was enough to get me halfway drunk no matter what.
Wat Chedi Luang (Chiang Mai)
Built between the 14th and 15th century, Wat Chedi Luang has a lot of eye-catching features, not least of them its massive chedi, which was originally 84 metres high, but was partially destroyed by an earthquake in the 16th century and never rebuilt since.
Take your time in this temple, and wander around the site grounds to see a rather large (though not the largest you can find in Thailand, by any means) reclining Buddha, and see the statue of a monk with such good looks that he “changed himself into a fat, ugly looking monk” so as not to cause trouble to others by his beauty.
While I was at this temple, I was approached by three very smiling but shy college girls who wanted to interview me for their English class. This is something that happened to me quite a few times in SE Asia, where English students in high school or college classes are often sent on assignments to talk to Westerners and record the conversation to improve their language skills.
I always obliged, as they would invariably look so genuinely happy to be able to communicate with someone in English. They also seemed to care a little too much, in my view, about how good I thought their English was, given that they knew I was Spanish (their first questions always were ‘What is your name?” and “Where are you from?”). I suppose to some of them Spanish and English must seem kind of close; which is fair enough, considering the much larger distance between their mother tongues and any Western language.
In the end, I think in these conversations I always learnt at least as much as the students did (it was a perfect occasion to learn a few expressions in the local language), and they never failed to put a smile on my face.
Related to this, one intriguing activity you can try at Wat Chedi Luang (and some other temples in Chiang Mai) is chatting with a monk. I say intriguing because I thought about giving it a go several times, but didn’t do it in the end. I was kind of afraid to unwittingly cause offense to the monk with my very Western, debate-oriented, rational mindset (after all, I used to be a scientist).
On retrospect, I’m sure any monk worth their salt would have been more than capable of dealing with the likes of me, even though I think it’s mainly rather young monks (novices?) who engage in this sort of activity. Oh well; maybe next time.
Wat Phan Tao (Chiang Mai)
Very near Wat Chedi Luang you will find the small and charming Wat Phan Tao. This unassuming little temple has undergone many renovations over the centuries, and what can be seen today was built in the 19th century.
Still, its main chapel (viharn), made of teak wood panels and pillars makes it stand out amongst all the other temples in Chiang Mai.
Wat Rong Khun (Chiang Rai)
It is impossible to overstate how odd Wat Rong Khun is. This temple, still under construction since 1997, is the work of Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, who is investing his own money to fund the project.
Seen from afar Wat Rong Khun looks like some sort of weird, giant, baroque meringue. Its blindingly white colour, contorted statues at the front and wacky mural paintings on the inside (the Twin Towers, Harry Potter and Batman, among others) make for a strange and unique experience, only marred by the big crowds swarming all over the place.
I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to visit this temple, but once you’re there, it’s impossible not to marvel at its strange beauty and craziness.
From Chiang Rai, hop on a shared red songthaew, or catch a bus from platform 7 or 8 at the old bus station (the one in the city centre) that’ll drop you at Wat Rong Khun for 20 baht. Admission to the temple is free, but as always donations are welcome.
If you’d like to see more of this and other temples in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, check out this video I posted a few weeks ago.
Wat Arun (Bangkok)
I should have some bad memories of Wat Arun (“Temple of Dawn”), since it was right after visiting this temple one morning that I realized in horror that my wallet, containing a not insignificant amount of Thai baht and euros as well as one of my bank cards, was missing from my back pocket. To this day, I still don’t know if I was pickpocketed (which would be a first for me) when I got off the boat right across the river, or if the wallet fell off while I was running to catch the departing boat, or into the water during the very short boat ride.
At any rate, I’d only been in Thailand for less than three days, so this was a terrible start to my journey.
This incident was followed by a most urgent and very expensive phone call to my bank in Spain in order to cancel my card, and a sense of anger and guilt that lasted well into that evening, even though I had a backup card. By the way, don’t you ever travel abroad with just one credit card; I’m amazed to find that some people still do.
However, it is really hard to keep a bad memory of Wat Arun. At over 80 metres of height, the astonishing central prang (a Khmer-style pagoda) of this temple towers over the west bank of the Chao Phraya river like a beacon of beauty.
The prang is a representation of Mount Meru, the sacred mountain that constitutes the centre of the universe for Hindus and Buddhists, and is characteristic of Khmer and Ayutthaya religious architecture.
Wat Arun was in fact built during Ayutthaya’s period of dominance, well before Bangkok became the capital. But the main prang and the four smaller ones around it were built much later, in the 19th century. Apparently, Chinese boats coming to Bangkok during that period used Chinaware as ballast, so it was decided to use those large amounts of discarded pieces of porcelain to decorate the prang. It’s a very creative use of “waste”, and it looks great both up-close and from afar.
When I visited Wat Arun, restoration works were underway, and the prang was partially covered in scaffolding on the side not facing the river. I could still climb the steep stairs to the highest level (if I remember correctly) and get some nice views of Bangkok, including the stunning Wat Pho juts across the river. Since last February it is no longer possible to climb the prang, until renovations are finished.
Even so, you can still enjoy the best views of Wat Arun from the opposite river bank at sunset. You can choose to enjoy the views for free, sitting on a sort of viewing spot just off Maha Rat Rd by the river.
Or you can do what I did and splash out on a couple of drinks on the terrace of one of several bars and restaurants located just opposite Wat Arun. Prices are almost “European”, but the views were well worth it even with the scaffolding as it was back then.
However, it seems that the prang is now fully covered (see this picture recently posted by someone on TA) and doesn’t look anything like on the photo above, so try to do some research beforehand to avoid being disappointed.
So there you have it. Just a sample of the many striking Buddhist temples you can visit in Thailand. Have you been to any of them? If so, let me know how you found them in the comments section.