Throughout history, humanity has thrown its best craftsmanship into spiritual places. It’s no wonder they make such popular attractions for tourists. In this series, we will help you understand what is expected when you visit holy places around the world.
Since we recently spent time in Thailand, what better place to start?
If you’re planning a trip to the Land of Smiles, chances are you will want to visit one of the abundant, exquisite temples throughout the country. However, there are some unique aspects to Thai etiquette that tourists should be aware of. Here are all the things we think you need to know before visiting the temples of Thailand.
// What you need to know about Buddhism in Thailand
Thailand is 94% Buddhist. With over 400 temples (known as wats) in Bangkok alone, it is almost inevitable that you will run into one during your visit.
There are three main factions of Buddhism: Vajrayana, Mahayana, and Theravada. Theravada is the sect iconic to Sri Lanka and South-East Asia and most Thai Buddhists practice this form. A conservative branch of the religion, the goal of Theravada Buddhism is to reach nirvana, the state of being free from the cycle of suffering and rebirth. This is done by following the teachings of Buddha.
When Buddhists visit a temple, they are not there to worship the statue as an idol. They come to be reverent to the teachings and practices of their religion.
Thai people are very aware that foreigners may not understand proper temple etiquette. At the major temples, there are assistants who enforce dress standards, but other offences may go unrecognised by you simply because the polite and forgiving Thai people will not bring it up. This is where the do and do not sections below are really going to help you!
But let’s start with your outfit…
// What should you wear to a temple?
Dress rules differ throughout Thailand. They are affected by the rank of the temple and your sex. Yes, what a man can get away with wearing a woman will almost certainly not. To stay on the safe side, observe these two basic principles:
1. Avoid short-shorts and leggings
- The longer the better, really, but you should at least cover your knees.
- Skirts that finish below the knee are generally acceptable.
- Nothing skin tight.
- Consider purchasing or bringing a sarong or the elephant-printed pants everyone ends up wearing at some point. You can find them EVERYWHERE in Thailand. Elephant Pants are very bohemian, light, comfy and most importantly, appropriate. Recently I discovered that there is a website completely dedicated to producing these awesome pants so why not pick up a pair before you go?
2. Cover your shoulders
- Choose a t-shirt with good-capped sleeves.
- No spaghetti straps or singlets.
- Nothing see-through or showing cleavage.
- Pack a shawl in your day bag, just in case there is an impromptu temple visit.
Interestingly, footwear is less of a concern. You’ll be taking off your shoes anyway, so flip-flops are ok!
After all that advice, you might want to know what the consequences are if the dress code is not observed…
What happens if you show up dressed inappropriately?
Well, a couple of things could happen. You may be refused entry to the temple complex; in which case you must hurry off to by some of those elephant pants. Maybe a shawl, too. There is normally a peddler nearby in anticipation of this inevitably happening to someone.
Alternatively, you may be let into the complex but will be taken aside by security to hire or borrow a suitable robe.
// The Dos
Do take off your shoes (hats, sunnies, etc).
During our trips to Thailand we have visited a few different temples and religious places. They all have places for you to store your shoes while you are visiting. At Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) we placed our shoes in racks available within the main precinct. Wat Pho assistants provided us with bags to carry our shoes around, while at other times we decided to pack them in our day packs. We have only heard one story of someone having their shoes stolen from outside a temple and that was enough for us to ensure we always took shoes we could carry.
We have only heard one story of someone having their shoes stolen from outside a temple and that was enough for us to ensure we always took shoes we could carry.
Do silence your mobile phone
No explanation required.
Do show respect to the monks
Monks are friendly and may even welcome a chat. Ensure you sit with your legs underneath you and avoid sitting higher than them. If you have been talking to a monk and are about to leave consider making the prayer-pose gesture or wai before you go.
Make way for monks if they are passing. In Wat Pho we saw a woman almost shove an elderly monk out of the way because she was not looking where she was going. Women in particular should make way in crowded areas as if a monk touches you they have to undergo a cleansing ritual. Allow monks to the front of the express boat queue.
If a monk enters to pray and you’re sitting, you should stand up.
Do use your right hand if required to give or receive anything
This is generally good manners across Thailand and does not only apply to temples.
Do respect the image of Buddha
At Bangkok’s big three (Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho and Wat Arun) I had noticed a change since my last visit: huge signs and printed umbrellas reinforcing that Buddhist iconography is not for decoration. If you’ve been thinking of getting a nice big Buddha tattooed on your back be aware that would be considered extremely disrespectful.
Images are everywhere: in paintings, prints, carvings, and photographs. It’s generally best to just avoid their urge to take a selfie with Buddha. When you’re in the temple, do not turn your back on the statue or image. Rather, back away from it. And absolutely do not touch anything unless it’s clearly ok for non-worshippers to do so (for example at Wat Pho you can purchase wish coins to be placed in bowls).
In the Temple of the Emerald Buddha there is a very strict no photo policy. Don’t be that guy who walks around with his phone at his crotch. They know you’re trying to take a sneaky shot. They will tell you to delete it.
Do finish your conversations before entering
Temples are a holy place for someone. So you should finish what you’re talking about or at least keep your voice down; particularly if someone is trying to pray. Which reminds me…
Do make way for locals who are there to pay homage
// The Do Nots
Do not point
Pointing with your index finger is pretty normal to most westerners, but in many parts of the world, it is considered extremely rude. Try using your thumb or entire hand if you need to indicate towards something. Start training yourself out of this habit now to ensure a reflex does not turn into an awkward situation.
Do not step on the threshold of the temple
The thresholds of temples are raised. At the major temples in Bangkok, you will find that the thresholds of temples are covered in perspex. This is to protect them and really reinforces that you should step over them, not on them.
Do not show the soles of your feet to the altar
In fact, don’t point your feet at anyone or anything. Feet are considered to be dirty. They should never be raised above someone’s head, placed on seats or anywhere you might create food.
Do not clamber over the Buddha
I feel we covered this in the ‘show respect to the image of Buddha’ section, but I will reinforce it here. You should not sit on any alters or raise yourself above the image or statue of Buddha. Don’t climb up onto the Buddha to get a picture with it – it’s not necessary.
Do not hand anything to a monk (women)
If you really have to, place it on a table or somewhere the monk can pick it up.
Do not photograph people when they are worshipping
It’s just rude to take a photo of someone without their permission and you are unlikely to get their permission if they are in the middle of prayer.
Have we missed anything? We want to make this guide as complete as possible so if we have left out you think is important to know about visiting temples in Thailand, be sure to let us know!
Last updated: 24 Jan 2017