As a Buddhist country, it’s no surprise that the bulk of wats in the country are Buddhist sanctuaries, although Hinduism and other religions are also well-represented with colorful temples. Thai wats are not only a place to pray for good fortune, but also a place to make merits, light some incense for your ancestors, or talk to the resident monks during difficult times. There are a staggering 40,717 Buddhist temples in Thailand and 33,902 of them are still in active use today.
Thailand is a Buddhist country and the temples here play a very active part in everyday life. Thai’s come to them to pray to Buddha for things such as health or good fortune, they also come to make merit and speak with the monks.
The structures themselves have become such magnets for tourists to visit, not just for their spiritual and social importance, but because they are among the most beautiful and impressive structures you are ever likely to see. While it would be truly impossible to come up with even a tiny partial list of temples to visit, we’ve collected some of the most popular and most stunning wats around the country that are well worth a visit.
White Temple, Chiang Rai
Wat Rong Khun, known in English as “the White Temple,” is actually not a temple at all – or at least not anymore. Abandoned and in ruins, the original Wat Rong Khun was “adopted” by a local artist in the 1990s, who then spent the next few years transforming it into one of the most stunning privately-owned art exhibits in the country. Sitting in the north of Thailand in Chiang Rai, Wat Rong Khun, or ‘The White Temple’ is one of the most photographed and recognized temples in Thailand.
The temple is white in color and has pieces of glass that have been put into the plaster to sparkle in the sun. The whiteness of the temple is a symbol of the purity of Buddha and the glass symbolizes his wisdom. Once visitors cross the “gate of heaven,” they’ll find themselves inside the usobot, which features bright, colorful murals depicting everything from demon faces to Freddy Krueger to Harry Potter. The design is confusing and it’s meant to be – the artist created it as a representation of humanity: strange, unexpected, and not always gentle.
Wat Arun, Bangkok
Wat Arun, also known as the “Temple of Dawn,” sits on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. Dedicated to the Hindu god Aruna, Wat Arun is a particularly stunning sight in the early morning, as the sunlight reflects on the temple’s walls, decorated with Chinese porcelain fashioned into ornate flower petals and glass mosaics in silver and reddish colors. This temple is unlike many others and is made up of a collection of spires that have been colorfully decorated. The tallest spire stands at over seventy meters tall and is decorated in small pieces of Chinese porcelain and colored glass. The central prang is climbable giving fantastic views of the winding river as well as local landmarks.
Blue Temple, Chiang Rai
Wat Rong Seua Ten is best known to English-speaking visitors as the Blue Temple or “Templo Azul.” Located just outside the city, this is one of Chiang Rai’s newest and most stunning wats, as well as one of the most visited. The Blue Temple is relatively small, but the gold ceilings and deep sapphire blue color of its walls make it almost hypnotic. The two colorful Nagas -semi-divine snake-like creatures – that sit on either side of the temple’s gate, add to the magnificent feeling. Inside, carved Buddha statues, mosaic-like blue paintings, and murals continue the magical experience, and a large white Buddha statue welcomes visitors.
Silver Temple – Wat Sri Suphan
The Silver Temple, or Wat Sri Suphan, is one of the most distinctive temples in Chiang Mai. It’s located south of the Old Town walls in the silver-making district of the city, a characteristic that is clearly visible in the silver shops that are dotted around the area. The temple is only silver-colored, not built with actual silver, but nonetheless if you’re visiting on a sunny day you will find it sparkling in the sun for you. Women aren’t allowed inside the temple but you can still enjoy the elaborate details that decorate the outside.
Sanctuary of Truth, Pattaya
Another temple-like structure that isn’t officially a temple, the Sanctuary of Truth is unique in many ways. Built almost entirely of teak wood to look like a cross between a palace, a museum, and a traditional Buddhist wat, the Sanctuary of Truth is the brainchild of a local artist, Mr. Lek Viriyahphan – who, inspired by the ancient temples of Ayutthaya, spent a couple of decades designing the structure until his death in the year 2000. Still growing and under construction, the building was always meant to be a place where philosophy, faith, and art meet and coexist.
Wat Pho or Wat Phra Chetuphon is one of Bangkok’s oldest and biggest temples. Most people flock to this temple to see the 46-meter-long reclining, gold plated Buddha and it’s not hard to see why. Standing at 15 meters high, the reclining Buddha image is absolutely massive and something you have to see with your own eyes. And if that’s not enough for you, the temple complex is home to the most Buddha images in Thailand! While the entire statue is stunning, it’s the feet of the Buddha that attract the most attention. Inlaid with mother of pearl and inscribed with auspicious symbols, the feet also display a chakra (energy point) right in the center. Lining up the walls of the hall, visitors will find 108 bronze bowls, where you can drop special coins (brought from the temple) for good health and fortune.
Wat Mahathat, Ayutthaya
Ayutthaya’s most famous temple is located in the center of a historical park and surrounded by dozens of other stunning ruins. Ayutthaya was once the capital of Bangkok and, around the year AD 1700, the largest city in the world. Wat Mahathat might not be the largest temple in Ayutthaya, but the impressive ubosot (ordination hall) and main viharn (the living quarters) are still stunning. Although the central prang (tower-like spire) collapsed a long time ago and only the base remains, the temple complex is still a stunning group of temples that attracts many visitors.
Emerald Temple, Bangkok
The Emerald Temple (officially Wat Phra Kaew) is Thailand’s most famous and most sacred temple. It’s located inside the grounds of the Grand Palace, and it is home to the statue of the Emerald Buddha, considered the protector of Thailand. Despite its name, the statue isn’t made of emerald but of a deep green, single piece of jade stone. It stands 66 centimeters tall, and it’s dressed in a special cloak changed personally by the king three times a year, as the seasons change. The Emerald Buddha sits on a gilded altar, in a wat decorated in shiny green and orange tiles, surrounded by mosaics and marble. It’s a stunning room meant to honor the importance of the statue. Outside the entrance to the temple, two giant yakshis (mythical demon giants) guard the temple.