The hidden temples of the Thai jungle
hailand has approximately 40,000 Buddhist temples. Known as wat, they are distinguished by their two-directional rooftops and the brilliance of their décor. Not just a space dedicated to prayer, where you can burn incense before a statue of Buddha, the premises normally include bell-shaped buildings, called stupas, and residences for the monks, who are unmistakable in their orange habits. Bangkok and the north of the country are home to some of the most admired.
Foreign visitors are welcome, as long as they leave their shoes at the door and cover their shoulders and legs. “Buddhism is a religion, not decoration” is written on signs placed throughout the building. Respect for Buddhism is very important in Thailand – a tourist was recently expelled for having an image of Buddha tattooed on his calf.
The most handsome temple in the north
The staircase leading to the walled monastery of Wat Phra That Lampang Luang, the oldest wooden temple in the country, is guarded by fearsome snakes called nagás. Nearby, the Thai Elephant Conservation Center protects the animal that symbolises the country, and lets visitors get to know them.
In Bangkok, the entrance gate for travellers, the popular public ferries follow the Chao Phraya River from the most westernised area, with its skyscrapers, hotels and luxury shopping centres, to the Grand Palace, a royal residence since the 18th century. In the complex, you will find Wat Phra Kaew, Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and nearby, Wat Pho, Temple of the Reclining Buddha.
From there, any of the insistent taxi or tuk tuk drivers will take visitors to Wat Arun, on the other side of the river. The most famous temple in the city is illuminated at night, inspiring photographers. From its 70m-high tower, the view of the river and city is simply unbeatable.
Thai people eat more in the street than at home. There are numerous stands and outdoor restaurants where the food is delicious and cheap. They don’t use chopsticks to eat. They use a fork to push the food onto the spoon, before putting it in their mouths.
Some 85km north of Bangkok is Ayutthaya, the first capital of Thailand. It was destroyed by the Burmese army in the 18th century and is considered the Thai Angkor Wat. Among the remains of palaces and other buildings reclaimed by the roots of trees are the temples of Wat Phananchoeng, Wat Yai Chai Mongkol and Wat Mahathat. Taking a traditional long-tail boat along the canal is the most convenient way of visiting them.
Before becoming the capital, Ayutthaya absorbed the important kingdom of Sukhothai, the first Thai kingdom and the cradle of their culture. From among the more than 20 ruined temples that survive in this city, a World Heritage Site, Wat Mahathat is the most important.
Although the historic sites are an essential stop, you won’t really know north Thailand until you reach Chiang Mai. Surrounded by the highest mountains in the country, “the rose of the north” hides 300 Buddhist temples, artisan markets and an old centre surrounded by a wall and moat. Chiang Mai is the ideal starting point to visit the surrounding towns and enjoy views of the rice terraces. The most revered temple in the area is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.
Whether bathed in silver, guarded by monkeys, shining in the city or in the middle of the jungle, Buddhist temples are the perfect showcase for the history, art and culture of Thailand.