Given that Thailand is 95 percent Buddhist, the country is home to thousands of beautiful temples – known in Thai as Wat’s. Visiting the country’s temples can be a very special and unforgettable experience. It’s a wonderful way to see firsthand the beauty of the Thai culture and customs that have been around for literally thousands of years.
But unfortunately, not all tourists do their research beforehand and act in a way that is disrespectful to some Thai. It is important to remember that to the locals, the temples are places of worship and not tourist attractions where people can dress and act as they please.
So here is a guide on how to be respectful of traditions and the local Thai culture when visiting a temple in Thailand. These are merely suggestions and there are variations. The best guide is to watch what the locals are doing as the do’s and don’ts are not black and white. They can however be a helpful guide to general customs and expectations.
Dress appropriately – yes temples have dress codes!
Thailand is a very hot and humid country. Bangkok is regarded as one of the hottest cities in the world and it is also here you will find most of the “must-see” temples from guidebooks about Thailand. As there are over 400 temples in Bangkok, some are small, located far down tiny streets (soi’s), and well out of the way of tourist traffic. Some temples are stricter than others but the dress code remains the same in all Thai temples and a certain attire is required to keep the sanctity of the Buddhist culture.
For women, skirts or long pants that go past your knees are in order as well as covering your shoulders. Tight clothes such as leggings, as well as see-through clothes and sleeveless tops, are not allowed. Men have the same requirements as women but are expected to wear long pants and shirts with sleeves.
If you are planning a full day of sight-seeing and a temple is just one stop along the way a suggestion is to pack a sarong you can tie around your waist and a t-shirt with sleeves you can put on over your clothes. Many larger temples also have clothing on hand that you can wear for a small fee.
Before entering the temple, it is important to take off your shoes at the door and remove your hat, sunglasses, and headphones out of respect. Socks are acceptable to wear. Do not step or stand on the door threshold going inside where the statues are held.
Act appropriate – Stay quiet and turn your phone to ‘silent
As clothing is important to consider when visiting a temple, it is also important to adhere to behavioral guidelines. Your behavior needs to be kept in check to keep from offending the culture and people. The temples are sacred places where the locals go to pray and observe Buddhist rituals and chatting away will be frowned upon. So stay quiet when inside a temple, turn your phone on silent and ask before taking pictures or look for the rules posted on a sign inside or outside the temple. Again watch what the locals are doing and mirror that but don’t get in the way of local people who are actually there to worship.
For travelers, the most common offense committed inside temples is to pose for a photo or selfie with the back turned to a Buddha image. Going too close to the statue could also be considered disrespectful so save your Insta moments for the beach or elsewhere. Don’t smoke, spit, chew gum, or snack while walking around.
Don’t point! Not with your fingers – nor with your feet
In Thai culture in general, it is considered disrespectful to point. Thai don’t point at each other or even objects and instead use their right hand with the palm facing upwards to indicate something. The same rules apply in a temple. Don’t point at anything with your fingers or feet, especially at a monk or Buddha statue.
In Thai culture the head is considered sacred and the cleanest part of the body. It is deemed offensive to touch people’s heads or hair and the feet are considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the body. It is therefore very important when talking or sitting by a monk that you never sit higher than him. Women should kneel with their toes pointing behind them, while men should sit with their legs crossed.
It is also important to remember that women are not allowed to touch a monk or his rope. If you do, the monk will have to go through a lengthy cleansing ritual to purify himself. Even hugs from a monk’s own mother are off-limits while he is in monkhood. So if you as a woman must hand something to a monk, put the object down with your right hand and let the monk pick it up himself. Alternatively, you can give it to your male partner or friend, who can hand it to the monk. Women are also not allowed to sit next to a monk and in some areas of the temples, they are not allowed to enter. There will be signs to indicate those, so keep an eye out.
Pay respect to Buddha statues at all times
The temple itself hosts a variety of Buddhists from around the world and it is important to be respectful in the temples and never overlook the feelings of the locals. Buddha statues are a key element in reminding people of Buddha’s compassion, kindness, and teachings. Buddhists feel the highest regard for him so never touch or climb on Buddha statues as it is considered disrespectful. If you want to pay respect to the Buddha, bowing to the statue or monk is acceptable. But remember to keep your head below the level of Buddha statues, monks or nuns, or even images out of respect at all times.
If you want to pay your respect to Buddha as the local Thai do, it is customary to ‘Wai’ 3 times. A wai is a form of communication and a customary greeting in Thailand and it is also used to say thank you. You wai by placing your palms of your hands together in a prayer-like gesture with your fingers pointing upwards while bowing your head slightly.
Stand up when monks or nuns enter a room and wait for them to finish before sitting back down again. When you leave do not raise yourself higher than the monk or buddha statue even if that means you have to walk slightly bent forward.
Try not to turn your back to the Buddha statue or the monk and back away from it instead for a short distance before turning your back. If there are pillars or statues in the middle of the room, walk around sacred objects in only a clockwise manner. Again watch what the locals are doing and mirror their actions. If your kids get rowdy or unhappy, take them out of the worship area.
Some areas are off-limits – Be aware of them
A temple is not the place to start exploring off the path as there are certain areas within the temples where tourists or visitors are not allowed to enter including the monk-only areas known as bots. Always follow the crowd and keep an eye out for signs. Always look around to see if other visitors are gathering in the same place before you enter.
Give donations to the monks and the temple if you’d like
Pretty much every temple in Thailand has one or more metal donation boxes. Donations are neither required nor expected but Thai people believe that donations to temples and monks give higher merit. They view it as the gift of giving. Tourists and other visitors may want to put money in the donation boxes found at the temple as well but it is okay if you don’t. If you enjoyed your visit, however, why not drop 10-20 Baht in the box on your way out?
You can also support the monks and temple by buying trinkets, bracelets, and items at the temple but be aware that while buying small Buddha statues is legal in Thailand, taking them out of the country is technically illegal.
No trip to Thailand is complete without visiting at least one of the country’s nearly 34,000 temples that are in use. Each temple has something that makes it unique and as with all visits to foreign countries, it is important to experience and appreciate the host country’s cultural traditions and practices. In Thailand, as long as you show respect by knowing a little Thailand temple etiquette you can enjoy the unique experience to its fullest.