A Wat (Temple) is the Buddhist compound for religious functions. Ordination of monks, housing important relics, performing everyday ceremonies, holding festivals – all these happen in the wat. All villages have at least one temple; towns and cities have several. Bangkok has more than 500 temples. Wats are open to all visitors. Most are closed on holidays and during important temple ceremonies such as ordination.
Entrance is usually free; the most famous ones charge a small fee to certain areas. Additionally, there may be another small charge for parking on the temple grounds. Donations are always appreciated. There are different ways of donating money: using a donation box or buying candles/golden leaves/lotus flowers and other ceremonial objects. The larger wats also have Buddha images and amulets for “rent” (for sale).
Inside the compound
Unlike chruches and mosques, which usually house everything in one building, a Buddhist temple consists of multiple buildings in one compound. Each building or construction fulfills a unique function: The Bot (Ubosot) serves as the ordination hall where novice monks get ordained into the order. This is also the building where Buddha’s teaching are recited. This place is considered sacred.
Viharns are chapels where monks assemble and lay-people gather for Buddhist rituals, meritmaking, sermons etc. Bots and Viharns are structurally and stylistically very similar; one major architectural difference is that the former has sema (boundary stones) that separate the consecrated area from the outer world.
The purpose of many wats is to house an important Buddha relic, for which they build a chedi (relic chamber), a bell-shaped, golden or white structure. This used to be the most prominent feautre of the wat, but its significance declined in the late Ayutthaya period and early Rattanakosin period. Stupas perform the same function, but are less circular shaped and are more intricately carved. Many types of stupa are of Khmer origin, and appear only with the most important religious buildings. Mondop, Prang (corn-shaped stupas), Po Rakang (bell tower), kuti (monks’ dwellings), scripture halls and crematoriums are characteristic structures of a typical Thai Buddhist temple ground.
Dress code and respectful behavior
Like religious buildings of other cultures, the Buddhist temples of Thailand have a set of strictly enforced rules for correct dress code and behavior on the sacred grounds. Tank-tops, short-sleeved shirts, shorts, open-heeled sandals are considered improper wear; visitors dressed in such manner will be prohibited from entering the wat. Temples that are frequented by tourists may have proper clothes and footwear for rent, but smaller temples may not.
Sitting and climbing on Buddha statues is prohibited (should be obvious, but it isn’t). All statues of Buddha must be treated with reverence, no matter how weathered or ruined they may appear. Women cannot touch monks. If you choose to participate in Buddhist ceremonies, you are welcome to do so in most cases. As a rule of thumb, observe what Thais do around you, and follow them. Do not sit cross-legged on the floor! Buddha and the monks may do it, but laypeople don’t.
Obey the signs! If photography is prohibited, don’t “sneak” a few pictures in. Eating and drinking are other prohibited activities.