The essence of Thailand, I believe, is tucked within the thousands of Buddhist temples that are spread across the kingdom.
It’s an observation made as I prostrate myself before a golden chedi (or stupa) at Wat Saket in Bangkok. The 58m-tall structure – situated at the peak of a man-made hill known as Golden Mount – houses relics of the Lord Buddha that were brought over from India.
Around me, locals clasp their hands together and offer prayers to the heavens above. The scene is one of quiet and peace – a reflection of the religion that has come to shape the social and historical landscape of the country.
From monks collecting alms in the early mornings to holidays during auspicious dates, this display of reverence is a quintessential experience for visitors to Thailand.
Of course, no trip would be complete until you have set foot at a temple. Here are some notable ones to visit the next time you are in the Land of Smiles.
Wat Saket, Bangkok
Its spectacular man-made hill aside, Wat Saket is a temple worth visiting thanks to its history. Before making the climb to the top, visitors will find a cemetery built into the base of the Golden Mount.
Some might find the sight disconcerting, but the burial ground actually alludes to the temple’s past. In the late 18th century, Wat Saket was used as a mass crematorium in the capital. When a plague hit the kingdom, over 60,000 bodies were brought to the temple.
That history is illustrated by a sculpture featuring vultures along the steps that lead up to the peak.
Another interesting nugget about the venue is the fantastic fair it hosts during Loy Kratong. Usually celebrated in November (the exact date varies as the festival follows the traditional Thai calendar), Loy Krathong is when devotees pay homage to the goddess of water by releasing lotus-shaped rafts.
The golden chedi at the top is draped in bright red cloth during this period. Adding to the festivities is a candlelit procession to the top.
The week-long celebration is often packed with worshippers and curious tourists. Queues are notoriously long and can wind as far as Rattanakosin Hotel, which is a good 2km away!
On the day of my visit, the vast temple grounds is rather deserted. This gives plenty of space and time to enjoy the spectacular view of Bangkok.
Wat Pho, Bangkok
The hot tip about this large temple complex (also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha) in the capital is the amazing and affordable massages that one can get on its grounds. Wat Pho is often regarded as the leading Thai massage school.
I skipped the massage and roamed around the complex instead. The temple is famous for its giant reclining Buddha. As with all temples, visitors will have to take off their shoes before entering the shrine.
The area around the main shrine is often packed with devotees and tourists. But venture a little further away, and you will find that the surroundings begin to get less busy.
There are over 90 small chedis peppered across the temple grounds. The gleam of the structures against the afternoon sun is quite a sight. But if it’s some good karma you seek, Wat Pho is a fine temple to pray whenever you are in Bangkok.
An interesting thing to note is that Wat Pho was actually the first public university in Thailand. Religion, science and literature were the subjects that the establishment specialised in then. Of course, today that educational aspect live on in the form of the traditional massage that is taught here.
Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai
This is probably one of the most recognisable temples in Thailand. But seriously, no amount of travel stories or viral social media posts could possibly prepare one for the eccentricities of the famed White Temple of Chiang Rai.
From afar, the temple stuns with its sparkling whiteness against the clear blue skies. The all-white exterior is supposed to reflect Buddha’s purity.
The striking exterior aside, Wat Rong Khun is like any other temple in the kingdom. Only this particular temple features a mural with Spider-Man, Angry Bird and Doraemon!
Meanwhile, a bridge leading into the main shrine is flanked by hundreds of outreaching hands that symbolise unrestrained worldly desires. Even in broad daylight and in the presence of a huge crowd of toursist, the scene can be quite a disconcerting sight. But it’s this eccentricity that makes the venue a truly unique stop in the relatively quiet northern Thai city.
Wat Rong Khun is designed by revered local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. He had envisioned the temple to be a centre of learning and meditation and for people to gain benefit from Buddhist teachings.
To date, the temple is still undergoing construction. The tentative completion date? 2070!
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai
There are over 300 steps to climb before you reach the breathtaking (literally, from the climb) golden chedi in the inner courtyard, at the top of the mountain.
Climbing up the steps is supposed to help devotees accrue merit. Of course, there’s also the funicular-style lift that will bring less energetic visitors to the top. The fee is THB20 for locals and THB50 for foreigners, which is about RM3 and RM6, respectively.
The golden chedi is said to house a bone shard that’s supposedly from Buddha’s shoulder. According to a well-known legend, the bone fragment was mounted onto a white elephant that was released into the jungle. The elephant is said to have climbed up the mountain and died on the spot that later became the site of this holy temple.
Venture past the walls that surround the golden chedi, and you will find yourself in a mini enclave. Within here, the grounds are richly decorated with historical murals and shrines.
There’s a replica of the Emerald Buddha statue on display. The real statue is now in Bangkok.
Located about 14km away from the centre of Chiang Mai, the exquisite view of the city from above the temple is one that’s worth climbing up for.
The writer was in Thailand for the Asean Travel Journo Camp organised by the Thai Journalists Association and AirAsia. AirAsia offers Fly-Thru service to transit in Bangkok (Don Mueang Airport) for passengers who wish to travel to Chiang Rai from Kuala Lumpur (KLIA2). AirAsia operates twice daily flights from Kuala Lumpur (KLIA2) to Chiang Mai.