Thai Temples for Dummies: Part III
What to Do & Not Do in a Wat
The Kingdom of Thailand has long been celebrated for its tiny tuk-tuks, fabulous food, stunning shoreline, and for its palatial places of prayer. Most visitors and expatriates, in between tooling about in a tuk-tuk, feeding on foreign food, and basking on a breathtaking beach manage to squeeze in at least one, if not several trips to Thailand’s well heeled Wats … Oh right, “Wat” is the Thai title for each of the many Buddhist temples that are randomly scattered across the Land of Smiles. Rich in all things opulent, Thai wats have been blessed with a unique combination of astonishing architecture, awesome art, remarkable reliefs, and sculptures of a spectral, striking and superstitious nature. Because the word’s out that a wat is wondrous to behold, hordes of uninformed, unruly and often unkempt tourists descend on these sacred grounds to gape, gawk and gaze at the sumptuous surroundings, and – to snap the obligatory selfie or two needed to enhance one’s all important Facebook page.
Regardless of their faith, foreigners of every stripe and persuasion are welcomed into Thai temples. Some however, are hesitant, intimidated, or insecure about this prospect because they’re uncertain as to whether or not a string vest and Speedos are adequate attire or considered to be a temple taboo. Exploring the grounds of a hushed and tranquil Thai temple for the first time can be a rewarding experience. This experience can only be enhanced if one does so without wittingly or unwittingly giving offense. Observing the following few rules that apply to temple decency and decorum should see one safely through the inaugural visit as long as one refrain from telling that “two Buddhist monks and a prostitute walk into a bar” joke while engaged in idle banter with a Buddhist monk.
When it comes to temple togs, two rules of thumb spring to mind: modesty is much appreciated, and reverence and respect rule. Despite the fact that this nation’s naughty nightlife implies otherwise, Thailand is very conservative. This is especially so when wandering the grounds of a wat. Depending on the whereabouts and ‘rank’ of a particular temple, shorts and a tank top may be marginally acceptable. But in general, sleeveless shirts should be avoided. If the heat prevents the wearing of long trousers, ensure that your shorts reach your knees. Women should think in terms of non-transparent garments with a modest neckline. The sleeves, legs and hems of which should all terminate closer to the elbow and the ankle than the alternative. In the case of ‘high ranking’ and ‘royal wats’, long trousers and full length skirts are a must. In addition, gaudy garb, showy outfits, displays of wealth, as is the color black, which is worn only at funerals, are also all considered to be inappropriate apparel. It’s a serious sign of disrespect to enter any temple wearing shoes, so be sure to remove your flip-flops before crossing the holy threshold.
Show some respect by switching off your mobile, removing hats, sunglasses, earbuds and footwear before entering any edifice. Get the chewing gum out of your gob, extinguish your cigarette, and lower your voice. It’s also wise to censor one’s language, and converse only about the things you’d want your dear old mum to overhear. This probably sound stupid, but don’t bring alcohol or snacks, don’t spit, or engage in public displays of affection, and don’t ever lose your temper or display strong emotions. Also, don’t point with your finger at things or people, and especially at holy relics or statues, as the Thais consider this to be extremely rude. Finally, because Buddhists value all life don’t kill any errant gnats, mosquitoes or other insects that may adversely affect your temple experience.
Main Hall Manners
Be sure to enter the main hall or shrine leading with your right foot. Step over not on the threshold and move away from the portal so as not to impede the flow of foot traffic. If you’re really serious, when entering a shrine do three prostrations or short bows with your hands folded while facing the alter. As a guest you should move along the right side of the temple and never walk in front of those who are bowing as this action represents deep reverence for Buddha. Never place Dharma materials (texts, books, etc.) on the floor or step on, over, or otherwise disturb them. Once inside, the highest ranking person is also the most respected and therefore will occupy the highest position. As such, when moving about the hall, do so in such a manner so that your head is never raised above his. Sitting with your legs outstretched is a sign of disrespect as is reclining. Sit cross legged or with your legs tucked underneath you, and ensure that your feet are not pointing directly at an alter, an image of Buddha, a monk, or another person. One’s feet should also never be raised higher than another person’s head. In the Land of Smiles, only the King and monks are not obligated to return a wai. Whether you’re inside a temple or a train station, failing to return the wai, Thailand’s polite prayer-like greeting, when the hands are placed palms together at chest level and the head is slightly bowed, is discourteous at best.
The area known as the Bot is the structure in which the temples most sacred Buddha images are housed. When within the Bot, top form demeanor is not only
expected, it’s demanded. That means never raising one’s head above, pointing at, touching, or turning your back on an image of the Buddha. If you must indicate items within the Bot, do so by gesturing with your chin, and always back away from the Buddha. Never photograph the Buddha during worship or without first seeking permission. And never ever climb on, pose for silly selfies, or otherwise disrespect sacred religious objects and the Buddha.
Although donations are neither required nor expected, virtually every Buddhist temple is grateful to the worshipers and visitors who express their appreciation in a remunerative way. This is generally accomplished when a token of one’s portable wealth is deposited in one of the many prominently displayed donation boxes. If you snapped a few selfies or otherwise enjoyed your wat walking, why not discreetly drop Thai currency in the form of a 20, 50, 100 or note of a higher denomination into the alms box as you depart.