The first thing to expect when you visit a Thai Buddhist temple (wat) are lots of buildings. Temples actually consist of several different structures. Remember, an active temple houses Buddhist monks. This is where they live. That’s why you will find a place to sleep and eat in addition to the area for prayer. There will also be important elements used in the landscaping that include statues, corner stones, and sacred trees. The three biggest structures are the ordination hall, the sermon hall, and either a chedi or prang.
You can think of a temple as being divided in two: the Phuttawat and Sanghawat. The Phuttawat is the area dedicated to Buddha. It includes a chedi or prang, ubosot, viharn, and pretty much everything else except the monks’ living quarters, bell tower, kitchen, etc. The difference pertains to what is sacred and what is mundane.
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Temple style differences
A chedi is bell-shaped and houses relics of Buddha, royalty, or a famous monk. It is the most sacred area of the temple. When you see the word chedi in a site name like, Phra Mahachedi Chai Mongkhon, you can conclude that it will have a chedi present. The word Maha in front of the chedi suggests a relic of Buddha resides here. The same goes for the word Phra in front of chedi, such as Wat Phra Chedi Klang Tung.
A prang, on the other hand, is more like a tower or spire. A prang is a Khmer style tower that was part of the architecture style of the Khmer Empire. They found popularity afterwards by the Sukothai Kingdom and Ayutthaya Kingdom. Temples with prangs are some of the most important ones in Thailand. In the central region, the prang will often sit on a square base.
Khmer prangs get smaller at the top as they taper off. Ayutthaya prangs are more uniform in shape. You may notice them for their corn cob shaped appearance. Modern prangs, like those at Wat Pho and Wat Arun, were built after the Rattanakosin Kingdom moved their capital to Bangkok during the time the Chakri Dynasty took power.
The ubosot is the ordination hall of a temple. A wall with 8 stones for protection surrounds the hall. The stones, bai sema or sema hin, are boundary markers. They stand above the luk nimit or stone spheres that are buried in the ground. Builders bury a ninth stone sphere underneath where the main Buddha image will be. This ordination hall will also have decorations, murals, and/or stained glass. Temple rituals, such as the ordaining of a monk, take place at the ubosot.
A vijarn will look much like the ubosot but will not include the same boundary stones. This serves as the sermon hall of the temple. Prayer, meditation, and sermon will occur at this building. Numerous Buddha images will be on display. It is one of the busiest locations of the temple.
Other Temple Buildings
Mondrop is the name of a square building with a spired roof that houses scripture, ritual items, or relics.
Hor trai is a library for Buddhist texts. It stands out for having a concrete base over a body of water. This method prevents termites from destroying the scripture.
A salawat is an open pavilion used for resting and shelter from the weather. You might see them throughout Thailand. When not at a temple the name is simply sala.
The khuti serves as the living quarters of the monks. These come in many sizes and styles. A monk may have his own hut or just a room in part of a larger building.
A hor rakang is a structure consisting of a bell used for summoning monks.
You may see a crematorium used for cremation of the dead. A chimney is the sure sign of a crematorium, although not all temples have one. Buddhists mostly use cremation for the dead as opposed to burial.
Other Temple Elements
Chofa is an architectural design on the buildings at temples in Thailand. It’s the gold, horn-like decor that sticks out from the roof of buildings. If you look close, you will see that it is bird-like and represents the mythical Garuda. However, there are some different varieties such as elephant or fish.
Dragon or snake representations called naga serve as protectors at temples. They may look scary because it’s their job to defend against evil spirits.
The Dhamma Chakra is the wheel symbol used to represent Buddhism as well as the Noble Eightfold Path. See Introduction to Thai Buddhism. You will notice the symbol throughout Thailand.
Tourists really seem to enjoy the Yak present at some temples. These are the sword carrying fanged beings that guard a number of temples against demons. Blue or greenish in color, these are indicative of the Hindu influence in Thailand.
Another popular Hindu element found at several temples is Ganesh. Having a human body and elephant head, this deity’s name in Thailand is Phra Pikanet.
Banyan and Bodhi trees are sacred to Buddhists and may be found at temple sites. A person can often confuse these two trees due to the fact that they grow in similar conditions. The difference is that a bodhi trees stands by itself while the banyan grows around a host tree.
Buddhists consider cannonball trees sacred although they are a result of a misconception. In Buddhist texts, Queen Maya gave birth to the Buddha while holding onto a branch from a blossoming sal tree. People have since misidentified the sal tree as the cannonball tree. Read more on this subject here > Flowers Popular in Thailand.
Hopefully, this helps you the next time visiting a Thai temple. Now you know what to expect and can also point out the different features. As always, please remember that these are sacred sites to Buddhists. Some may now only be tourist sites, but the vast majority are active temples. Many Thai people will be there praying. Respect this, but definitely have fun and enjoy these beautiful Buddhist structures.