Did you know that 94.6% of the population in Thailand are Theravada Buddhists? Yes, Buddhism has played and still plays a prominent role in forming not only the religious practices of Thailand but also the cultural text of the nation. This is why knowing about Buddhism could be extremely helpful in you deciphering many aspects of the country during your trip to Thailand.
History of Buddhism in Thailand
It is still unknown how Buddhism began in Thailand. However, the most widely-believed theory is that in the 3rd century BC, Emperor Ashoka of the Maurya Empire sent Buddhist missionaries to Thailand to spread the religion. One of the schools of Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, especially rose to dominance. Finally, in the 13th century, Theravada Buddhism officially became the state religion of the Sukhothai Kingdom, the first Siamese Kingdom. Since then, many Siamese (Thai) have continued to follow the practices of Theravada Buddhism.
Buddhist Temples (Wat) in Thailand
1. Wat Mahathat, Ayutthaya
Theravada Buddhism continued to be the state religion through the Ayutthaya Kingdom, the kingdom that succeeded Sukhothai. The remains of the temples from this era still exist today and have contributed to UNESCO’s acknowledgment of Ayutthaya as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Out of many religious attractions in Ayutthaya, Wat Mahathat is possibly the most well-known temple. It is especially famous for a distinct phenomenon of a tree trunk wrapping a Buddha’s head. It is important to note that this temple was used for royal ceremonies, which exhibits the importance of religion during this era.
- See the famous Buddha’s head for yourself on the Ayutthaya Tour by Grand Pearl Cruise – from Bangkok!
2. Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok
Also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Wat Phra Kaew is the most sacred temple in Thailand. It is also the home to the palladium of Thailand, which is a small Buddha statue made of jade. The Buddha statue wears a garment that corresponds to one of the three seasons of Thailand: hot, cool, and rainy. The King of Thailand is the sole person who can change the garment at the end of each season or even touch the statue itself. Located in the Grand Palace complex, Wat Phra Kaew is both a major pilgrimage and tourist site in Thailand.
3. Wat Arun, Bangkok
Wat Arun is a temple located on the west bank of Chao Phraya River that has a design distinct from other temples in Thailand. It is also commonly known as the Temple of Dawn. Regarded as one of the most beautiful temples in Thailand, Wat Arun prides itself on its ability to blend in perfectly with the temple’s surroundings, especially with the river. Wat Arun’s central spire (prang) decorated in colorful porcelain that stretches over 70 meters high is the main feature of the temple.
4. Wat Pho, Bangkok
Wat Pho is also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha as it houses a 46m long reclining Buddha statue. It is also home to the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand. Apart from its religious significance, Wat Pho has immensely impacted the culture of Thailand. Wat Pho is believed to have been the first place where a Thai massage was practiced. Furthermore, this temple is considered as the first public university in Thailand where students learned about religion, science, and literature. Wat Pho is located behind the Wat Phra Kaew, in the Grand Palace complex.
- Visit Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Arun, and Wat Pho all in one day with the Bangkok Private Walking Tour: Old City Highlights! Book here!
5. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is often just referred to as Doi Suthep, the mountain the temple is located on. The legend of Doi Suthep states that an elephant had carried a bone of Buddha up to the Doi Suthep mountain, where it stopped, trumpeted three times before suddenly passing away. Claiming this event as an omen, the villagers built the Doi Suthep temple at the site of the elephant’s death. Since then, Doi Suthep has been considered one of the most sacred temples in Thailand and has attracted an enormous number of Buddhists on a pilgrimage.
- Get a step closer to the sacred Doi Suthep Temple by booking Doi Suthep Temple & Bhubing Palace Tour in Chiang Mai here!
6. Wat Rong Khun (White Temple), Chiang Rai
Wat Rong Khun, better known for its English name of White Temple is an unconventional temple. This temple is peculiar in many ways – the first peculiarity you might come across is the bridge to the ubosot, the principal building of the temple. The bridge is built over hundreds of hands reaching upward, which represents uncontrolled desire.
After crossing the bridge and entering the ubosot, you’ll be more surprised to see the inside of the actual temple. The temple mural is filled with contemporary figures such as Michael Jackson, the Terminator, and Hello Kitty juxtaposed by traditional symbols of Buddhism. The White Temple is truly a one-of-a-kind temple that allows visitors to think deeply and interpret each aspect of the temple.
- This exceptional temple is not to be missed out on. Book the Chiang Rai White Temple + Black House + Blue Temple 1 Day Tour – from Chiang Mai here!
Buddhist Festival and Holidays in Thailand
1. Makha Bucha: On the full moon of the third lunar month (Feb/Mar) This holiday marks the gathering of Buddha and 1,250 enlightened disciples who came together without being summoned. These disciples were ordained by Buddha himself.
2. Vishakha Bucha: On the full moon of the sixth lunar month (May/June) This holiday commemorates the birth, the enlightenment, and the death of Buddha. Note that on this day, the sale of alcohol is banned.
3. Asanha Bucha: On the full moon of the eighth lunar month (July) This holiday celebrates Buddha’s first sermon to his disciples after attaining enlightenment.
4. Loi Krathong: On the full moon of the twelfth lunar month (November) This holiday is known for the magnificent scene of floating leaf cups drifting down the water. As the Thais send their leaf cups, they also send away bad luck and wish for prosperity and happiness. In Chiang Mai, a similar celebration happens on the same day. The festival is called Yi Peng and rather than floating leaf cups on water, the people of Chiang Mai release lit paper lanterns into the sky. Both festivals are known for extraordinary views that are hard to come by anywhere else in the world.
How to Be Respectful Towards Buddhism
When you are visiting any temple in Thailand, it is extremely important to be respectful of Buddhism as well as other visitors. Remember that although these temples are often seen as a tourist site, they are more importantly a sacred place of worship.
Before visiting the temple: Make sure to wear appropriate clothes. For men, this means short shorts or tank tops. For women, this means pants or skirts that cover your knees. Flip flops or backless shoes are not allowed. For stricter temples like the Wat Phra Kaew, wearing short sleeves, torn pants, or tight pants might restrict you from entering the temple.
At the temple: The first and most obvious rule is to be quiet. Do not disturb other guests, especially those who come to the temples to worship. When entering the temple, it is required to take shoes off. Shoes are considered dirty and are meant to be left outside.
After entering, you might see an extraordinary Buddha statue. Even so, you should not point your index finger at the statue. Your feet should also not point towards Buddha, so make sure to be aware of your feet’s direction when you’re sitting down. Furthermore, your back must not never face Buddha, especially not for a selfie. When you are ready to leave the temple, slowly walk back until you are near the exit. Then turn to leave the temple.
If you encounter a monk, greet them with a wai to pay respect (Learn how to wai here). Females should avoid touching or sitting next to a monk.
Buddhism has played an immense role in defining Thailand, which is why to truly discover Thailand, knowing about Buddhism in Thailand is crucial. For more ideas on your next trip to Thailand, visit Trazy.com for great deals on various attractions!