Thailand is a country famed for its abundance of temples celebrating a handful of different beliefs and cultures.
There are thought to be over 40,700 Buddhist temples – or wats, to give them their Thai name – alone in Thailand, and each has it’s own history and cultural significance.
While beauty and splendour characterise many of Thailand’s temples, there are a few that have something extra.
A glimpse of je ne sais quoi. Some may say, the X Factor.
We like to call it a little slice of mystery. Perhaps it’s something to do with unusual styles of architecture, interesting origin stories or a storied past. Regardless, these temples carry with them a sense of enigma that make them a must-see on your Thailand bucket list.
Let’s take it away…
1. Wat Rong Khun
Although purporting to be a Buddhist temple, Wat Rong Khun – better known by many as the White Temple – is really more of a living artwork thanks to its intricate and unusual architecture and rich symbolism.
Chalermchai Kositpipat, a Chiang Rai artist, redesigned the original Wat Rong Khun in the late 1990s, using ฿40 million of his own money in an effort to honour the Lord Buddha and achieve immortality. Although the temple is open to visitors, the renovation is still ongoing and not expected to complete until 2070.
Bright white in colour and flecked with shards of glass, Wat Rong Khun symbolises both the purity and the wisdom of the Buddha. Particular structures within the temple complex convey further Buddhist symbolism, including the Gate of Heaven, The Bridge of the Cycle of Rebirth and The Golden Building, symbolising the shallow bodily pleasures. The Ubosot main structure combines classical Thai architecture and art together with more modern, western symbols like Michael Jackson, Terminator, Hello Kitty and Harry Potter.
2. Wat Phra Dhammakaya
Resembling something more akin to a huge spaceship rather than a temple, Wat Phra Dhammakaya is actually the focal point for the Dhammakaya movement, an offshoot of Buddhism founded in the 1970s which emphasises the reality of the True Self in all living things.
The temple is home to around 300,000 Buddha images, 3,000 monks and other worshippers, and is a venue associated with mass meditation and prayers. In terms of inhabitants, it is now the largest temple in Thailand which can see congregations numbering 100,000.
Although the temple was once under scrutiny for embezzlement, these claims have since been disproved and apologised for.
3. Wat Phra Kaew
Wat Phra Kaew, or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is probably one of the most famous Thai temples thanks to its interesting history and its location in the Grand Palace complex of Bangkok. It’s also regarded as the most sacred of all Thai temples.
The Emerald Buddha inside the temple – which is actually made of jade – was thought to have been found in Chiang Rai in the 15th century before being relocated to Bangkok in the 18th. Its legend is woven from India where the saint Nagasena prophesied the Emerald Buddha would bring “prosperity and pre-eminence” to whichever country it found itself in. As such, the image is regarded as the protector of Thailand and is only allowed to be touched by the King or the Crown Prince.
Wat Phra Kaew itself is a beautiful temple and the focal point of the Grand Palace, attracting thousands of visitors every day. Intricate, grand design is complemented by symbolic Buddhist imagery and decoration throughout.
4. Wat Tham Pha Plong
Wat Tham Pha Plong is a notable Thai temple thanks to its beautifully secluded location in the side of cave, surrounded by forest and accessible only by the 500 steps that lead to its beautiful gold stupa.
Once you’ve completed the long incline to the temple – which is sprinkled throughout with encouraging Buddhist wisdom to help you on your way – you’ll find the perfect spot for meditation, mindfulness and prayer, if you’re so inclined.
If we have patience and perseverance, we can overcome anything that confronts us
The temple is also very well known for being conceived by the revered Buddhist monk Luang Poo Sim, who wandered the wilderness in solitude before finding Pha Plong Cave. He dedicated his life to teaching the ways of the Buddha and was granted the highest priest’s honour by HM King Bhumibol in 1992.
5. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Located on Doi Suthep mountain with beautiful views across Chiang Mai, Wat Doi Suthep is a legendary temple thought to have been founded in the late 14th Century before becoming the highly sacred sight it is today.
One of the legends surrounding its conception sees a monk, Sumanathera, told in a dream that he should travel to Pang Cha to find a relic. He does this, finding a bone – thought to be the shoulder of Gautama Buddha – which glowed, replicated itself, moved and even vanished before the monk. Sumanathera immediately took the bone to King Dhammaraja of Sukhothai, but the king was unable to see these magical powers.
Another monarch, King Nu Naone of Lanna, demanded the bone be brought to him which Sumanathera dutifully did. The bone broke in two, and one of the pieces was laid on the back of a white elephant who was released into the jungle, climbing Doi Suthep mountain before it dropped dead. King Nu Naone consequently ordered a temple be constructed at the site of it’s death.
6. Wat Pa Maha Chedi Kaew
Also known as the Temple of a Million Bottles, Wat Pa Maha Chedi Kaew is constructed of around 1.5 million recycled green glass bottles and is actively collecting more so as to expand the complex further.
Bottle caps are also used to help decorate the space mosaic-style, while the unusual building materials aren’t just a gimmick: they allow natural light to flood the temple and require little maintenance and upkeep. Bottle collection started back in 1984 and unsurprisingly, Chang and Heineken make up the bulk of the supply.
The local monks who started the unusual building were reportedly looking to educate the community in leading more environmentally conscious lifestyles and to revolutionise local waste disposal. The first building took around two years to construct while there are now around 20 structures built the same way within the complex.
7. Wat Phra That Lampang Luang
Both its beautifully preserved Lanna architecture and the fact that it’s home to a hair strand of the Buddha donated some 2,500 years ago, means that Wat Phra That Lampang Luang is one of the most important temples in Thailand.
The temple has been preserved in its original state, unlike other Thai temples which have been updated and modernised over the years, and it still boasts open viharns, a naga stairway, and other excellent examples of Lanna and Thai Lu architecture.
Other tidbits of historical significance here include bullet holes found in the temple railings, fired by Nan Thipchang, an infamous folk hero, and a very important image of the Buddha – Phra Kaew Don Tao. The large Viharn Luang in the temple complex is the oldest wooden viharn still around today in Thailand, thought to have been built during the late 15th century.
8. Wat Ku Tao
Wat Ku Tao is one of Thailand’s most beautiful temples, incorporating as it does many Burmese and Chinese Confucian styles and showing off gorgeous pagodas, representing the 5 most recent Buddhas, and the most unusual chedi. Many liken the look of the chedi to a huge stack of watermelons which goes some way to explaining its pithy name – ‘Tao’ translates to ‘melon’ in the Lanna dialect of Thai.
The legend behind the construction of the temple holds that it was built in the early 17th century in order to encase the ashes of Prince Saravadi, who died in 1607 after serving as the Burmese overlord of Chiang Mai. Even among the plethora of Thai temples in Chiang Mai, Wat Ku Tao shines through for its uniqueness.
9. Wat Samphran
Wat Samphran is possibly the most mysterious of Thailand’s temples: while its exterior is wholly unusual, there are no details to be found anywhere on the history of the temple, who designed it and the legend behind it.
At 17 storeys high, it’s very big, and it’s bright pink colouring certainly catches the eye – and that’s before you catch sight of the huge dragon coiled around the tower. Located off the tourist track, you can find the temple when headed past the Samphran Elephant Ground towards the Police Academy.
As well as the brilliant main structure, the grounds of the temple are full with other similar giant sculptures and a huge bronze Buddha image. Certainly a unique experience, if not fully – or even partially – explained.
Which is your favourite mysterious Thai temple?