Did you know there are over 40,000 temples in Thailand, of which some 37,000 are in current use welcoming devotees and visitors? Bangkok alone has around 400 temples, according to the Office of National Buddhism.
While it is impossible to see them all on holiday, here are some of the most remarkable temples worth visiting for their exceptional architecture and style.
One of the most iconic temples of the capital city and indeed the whole country, Wat Arun or the Temple of Dawn sits majestically alongside the Chao Phraya River and is probably the best-known temple with its famous silhouette being a top photo spot for tourists.
Also not-to-be-missed is Wat Pho which is famed for its giant 46 metre long, 15 metre high reclining Buddha that is covered in gold leaf and as being what many consider the leading school of traditional massage in Thailand.
Wat Phra Kaeo, commonly referred to as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is located within the Grand Palace compound and is regarded as Thailand’s most important Buddhist temple. Enshrined within the temple is the Emerald Buddha, a highly revered Buddha image carved from a single block of jade.
Wat Benjamabophit is renowned for the use of Carrara marble imported from Italy in its construction and as being the temple depicted on the 5 Baht coin, while Wat Saket or the Golden Mount temple sits atop a hill in the old city area and as such offers spectacular 360 degree views of Bangkok, which are especially captivating at sunset when the city turns gold and orange.
In the North, a most amazing temple is certainly Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai. The temple is an ancient structure, which was taken over at the end of the 1990s by local Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat.
Chalermchai spent over one billion Baht to transform the temple of which the entire exterior is a striking white and silver. Murals and sculptures blending traditional Lanna and Thai motifs and contemporary figures refer to meditation, the fight between good and evil, and the teaching of Lord Buddha. Spiderman, Neo from the Matrix and Michael Jackson stand side by side with demons of the Ramayana or representations of Lord Buddha. It is an amazing piece of architecture, which fluctuates constantly between the sublime and the kitsch.
Wat Phumin in Nan is renowned for the beautiful 19th century mural paintings that adorn much of its interior walls. These depict Lord Buddha’s life and also the daily life of the local people, farmers, noblemen and foreign traders – Chinese, Persians and Westerners – of the time. Perhaps the most famous depiction is that of a tattooed man whispering to a woman who wears a slight yet intriguing smile on her face.
Wat Phumin itself is a 500-year old temple built in typical Lanna and Thai Lue (a local ethnicity) architecture and features four entrances, one on each side and which are topped with a multi-tiered, decorated structure.
Northeastern Thailand or Isan
Among the temples to visit in Nakhon Ratchasima – part of Isan’s four largest cities ‘club’ that also comprises Udon Thani, Khon Kaen and Ubon Ratchathani – is Wat Sala Loi, one of the rare examples of tropical modern architecture in Thailand. The temple was originally constructed in 1827 but was then totally rebuilt in 1967 adapting a modern layout inspired by traditional junks (boats).
The main hall features a design that aims to reflect the feel of a ship riding the waves, while windows reinterpret traditional architecture with a modern twist. The back of the temple is covered with modern ceramics while a giant white Buddha statue attracts the eye amid a rather sober interior of grey/black marmor.
The exceptional design of Wat Sala Loi earned the structure an award in 1973 for the best avant-garde religious building from the Association of Siamese Architects under Royal Patronage. The temple’s lush gardens contain the surprise of lifestyle statues of heroes from US comics like Spiderman and Captain America.
A Gothic altar, stained glass windows and even medieval armouries… what looks like a church is actually a quite extraordinary temple next to Bang Pa-In Palace in Ayutthaya. Wat Niwet Thammaprawat Ratchaworawihan was built by Austrian-Italian architect Joachim Grassi some 140 years ago, at the request of King Rama V the Great who was fascinated by European architecture and asked him to create a Royal Temple for Bang Pa-In Palace, which would emulate the architectural details of a gothic church.
Surely Thailand’s most European temple, the walls bear paintings and gothic sculptures, while a Lord Buddha Image stands in the middle of what would have been a cross in a real church. Stained glass used in the construction was manufactured in France, and in one section shows a depiction of the King.
Wat Phra Mahathat Wihan is a Ceylonese-style temple on the eastern coast of South Thailand, in the city of Nakhon Si Thammarat – one of Thailand’s oldest settlements and once part of the Sumatra-based Srivijaya Kingdom.
Founded in the 8th century, the temple is considered one of Thailand’s most sacred, as it contains a tooth relic of Lord Buddha. The 78-metre high chedi is surrounded by 173 smaller ones, and there is a collection of Sukthothai-style Buddha statues and splendid murals that depict Ramayana characters.
For those who are particularly interested in the Srivijaya culture, the best example of Srivijaya architecture is to be found at Wat Phra Borommathat in Chaiya, Surat Thani, which boasts a splendid chedi.
These are but a few of the outstanding temples that abound throughout all regions of Thailand, each of which in its own unique and collective way presents a captivating glimpse into the fascinating historical, architectural and religious characteristics of the kingdom. Explore as many as you can!