Before I moved to Asia in 2012, I had never set foot inside a Buddhist temple, let alone visited a majority Buddhist country.

In January, I visited my first Buddhist nation when I spent two weeks volunteering with an orphanage in Myanmar (Burma). It was there I received my first up-close encounter with the practice of Buddhist worship when I visited the Schwedegon Pagoda, the largest Buddhist stupa in the world. Then in February, I visited Cambodia and the temples at Angkor, a Buddhist shrine that traces its origins to Hinduism. The country was swarming with saffron robe-clad monks, heads shaven and feet bare, while the spicy smell of incense permeated the air and ornate temples adorned with golden buddhas dotted nearly every street corner. The sights and smells were new, intriguing, and fascinating to me; so far beyond what is commonplace in my country and unlike anything I had experienced previously in my travels. So when I traveled to Thailand a few months later, I once again eagerly anticipated visiting a majority-Buddhist nation and sought to learn more about this religion that seemed so pervasive throughout its culture. There are many exciting things to do in Bangkok, but no trip there is complete without a visit to a few of the wats!

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Thailand’s Buddhist tradition dates back centuries, permeating the borders of neighboring Laos and Cambodia, and is deeply ingrained in the country’s ethics and traditions. It is the only nation where the king is constitutionally required to be a Buddhist, serving as an example to the nation. (source) Ninety-five percent of the population of Thailand is considered to be Buddhist, of the Theravada sect, spread to Southeast Asia from Sri Lanka. Theravada Buddhists follow a set of scriptures known as the Pali Canon, the oldest known Buddhist texts. The Pali Canon follows three categories (“Tripitaka,” or “three baskets,” in reference to the baskets the scriptures were kept in), which include “Discipline,” which gives guidance and codes of conduct for monks and nuns; “Sayings,” mostly the teachings of Buddha; and “Philosophy,” regarding the nature of mind, matter, and time. The canon is considered to include every instruction necessary to achieve the path to nirvana, the ultimate goal in Theravada Buddhism — a state of liberation, or deathlessness. (source)

Theravada Buddhism’s primarily goal is the attainment of insight through analysis of one’s personal experience, the application of knowledge, and critical reasoning. Toward this end, one observes the Seven Stages of Purification and ultimately strives to reach the state of nirvana. One key element of Theravada Buddhism is the belief in the Four Noble Truths. (source)

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Monks, one of the quintessential aspects most associated with Buddhism, are considered the most holy among Buddhisms followers. Those who enter the monkhood for purely spiritual reasons seek to free themselves of the things of this world and attain spiritual enlightenment through Nirvana. Although many men will remain monks for the long-term, living in monasteries or temple complexes (wats), others join for more practical reasons, such as to receive an education or to bring honor to the family. As a result, the majority of those who pursue monkhood do not end up remaining in the discipline for life.

One of the central goals of Buddhism is “kusala kamma,” or to do good. For each action of goodwill a Buddhist performs, they receive merit, moving them closer toward achieving Nirvana. Most Buddhists seem to regard such an achievement as very difficult, and one that requires the living of multiple lives to achieve. Buddhists believe in reincarnation, as well as the concept of karma — the belief that what happens to you is a direct result of something you have done, be it good or bad. Thai Buddhists believe that they must always strive to do good to others in life and that they themselves are responsible for attaining their own salvation through these good deeds. They also tend to be open to the inclusion of other religious beliefs to supplement their own Buddhist beliefs.

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Lay observers of Buddhism are also very devoted to their faith. Wats are not only teeming with golden-robed monks, but also with lay followers seeking to offer prayers and offerings to the various buddhas housed in the temple and alms to the monks who reside there. Lay followers will also work to increase their acts of merit by depositing coins as offerings into bowls at the temples. This is said to bring them good fortune, but it also serves a practical purpose in helping the monks to maintain the wat.

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To understand more about the role Buddhism played in the daily lives of average Thais, as well as the role it had played in shaping the overall culture of the country, I knew I would need to visit several of the temples myself to see this faith in action. It was through these visits that I was able to observe the abstract concepts I discussed above being put into practical action.

Although there are 21,000 temples, known as wats,  in all of Thailand, I have chosen to highlight just a few of the more noteworthy ones located in Bangkok, Thailand’s capital city. They are noteworthy both in terms of their religious and historical significance, as well as for their architectural beauty, boasting stunning golden stupas, lavish jewels, and intricate details that awe and inspire visitors.

Wat Phra Kaew

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This is one of Thailand’s biggest tourist attractions and the home of its most revered figure — the Emerald Buddha. Considered the most sacred temple in Thailand, it dates back over 200 years and sits in the same compound as the Grand Palace, the former residence of the Thai monarchy. Its more than 100 buildings are characteristic of Thailand and represent the Ratanakosin, or old Bangkok style.

The Emerald Buddha sits high atop an alter in the main building, a crowded chapel where worshipers and tourists collide. Only the king of Thailand is allowed to touch the Emerald Buddha, and he is responsible for changing the cloak on the buddha three times a year, in accordance with the change in seasons. Praying to the Emerald Buddha is said to earn one great merit. When praying to the buddha, one must never sit down nor show the bottom of one’s feet to the buddha. This is considered sacrilege. The buddha is smaller than I had expected, only around 26 inches tall. Compared to the towering golden buddha statues I had seen throughout Thailand, its small size seemed almost conspicuous. Photographs of the Emerald Buddha are not (legally) allowed to be taken, though that does not seem to stop most tourists from doing so. I, however, chose to obey the rules and respect the significance the statue holds to so many Thais by refraining from photographing it. I did manage to capture many images of the outside of the building and the surrounding buildings and structures throughout the large complex.

The temple’s Phra Si Rattana chedi towers above the other buildings and punctuates Bangkok’s skyline.

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Monks pray at the chedi.

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Close-up detail of the golden chedi.

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Lavish jewels and statues adorn the outsides of every building in the complex.

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Statues of “yakshis” (a mythical giant) guard the entrance to the main temple.

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The Ubosoth, or main temple of the Wat Phra Kaew complex, houses the Emerald Buddha.

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Ornate jewels, tiles, and statues adorn the outside of the temple.

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Buddhist worshipers present prayers and offerings in the area surrounding the main temple.

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The stunning complex of Wat Phra Kaew by night.

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Wat Pho

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Across the street from the Grand Palace lies another one of Bangkok’s more famous landmarks: Wat Pho. Also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, it is famous for its large reclining buddha statue, stretching 160 ft. in length and 15 meters in height.

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3 meters high and 4.5 meters long, the bottom of the reclining buddha’s feet are ornately decorated with inlaid mother-of-pearl and depict images associated with Buddha, including elephants, tigers, and flowers.

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Outside the main temple housing the reclining buddha, the rest of the grounds are very beautiful with 91 ornate chedis, or stupas, which are said to hold the ashes of members of the royal family and even Buddha himself, and over 1,000 additional buddha statues. It also houses a monastery and a school. The temple complex is actually considered to be the home of the first public university in Thailand, but it is now the location of Thailand’s most renowned school for Thai massage.

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 Wat Arun

An icon of Bangkok’s skyline, the prang of Wat Arun towers of the Chao Phrya river, wowing visitors, especially by night.  Also known as the Temple of Dawn, Wat Arun is named for the Hindu god Aruna, a personification of the sun’s rising. Its signature spires, or prang, are Khmer (culture of present-day Cambodia) in style and were built by King Rama II in the nineteenth century. The spires are ornately decorated with porcelain. The ashes of King Rama II lie at the base of the temple’s main buddha statue.

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The central prang stands 250 feet tall and has three symbolic levels of Buddhism: the first level, Traiphum, represents all levels of existence; the second level, Tavatimsa, represents the gratification of desires, and the third level, Devaphum, represents six heavens with seven levels of happiness. This spire represents Mt. Meru, which is considered the center of the world in Buddhist mythology. The spire is meant to represent both the physical realm, a peak, as well as the spiritual realm, a transcendence of reality and a movement toward tranquility.

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Things to remember when visiting Buddhist temples:

Cover your shoulders and knees — men and women. If you do not have something appropriate to cover up with, most of the “tourist” frequented wats have clothing available for rent.
Remove your shoes before you enter the temple itself. You can walk around the temple complex with your shoes on (although technically you’re supposed to wear closed-toed shoes, which I never knew), but you must place your shoes outside of the temple before you enter.
Remain quiet and respectful. Regardless of whether or not you yourself adhere to the beliefs of Buddhism, it is important to show respect to those who do as you visit their places of worship. These are not simply tourist attractions, but actual places of worship. Refrain from talking while inside the temples and be discreet when taking photos.