Thai people are fiercely proud of their rich cultural heritage and spirituality — and nowhere is that more on display than in the Thailand temples.
There are over 31,200 Buddhist temples — known as ‘wats’ — scattered around the country. These places of worship are still very much part of daily life, while also representing the power of the past and the hope for a peaceful future.
A visit to Thailand would not be complete without experiencing the wealth of architecture, spiritual atmosphere and sheer wow factor of the Thai temples. Here are a few of the best and most beautiful on offer.
- 1 Bangkok Temples
- 2 Chiang Mai Temples
- 3 Chiang Rai
- 4 Sukhothai
- 5 Ayutthaya
While it’s true that many of the best temples lie outside of Bangkok — particularly in the North of the country — the capital city still plays host to some historically significant and visually breathtaking temples. Temples can be found scattered throughout the city, but the most popular are located on Rattanakosin Island in the old city.
Wat Phra Kaew
Skilfully carved from a single 66 centimetre high block of jade in the 15th century, the highly revered and serenely beautiful Emerald Buddha meditates from a lofty position in this elaborately decorated temple within the grounds of Bangkok’s Grand Palace.
The statue originated in India, where it was prophesied that it would bring prosperity to any country in which it resides. Only the King is allowed to touch the Buddha image, and he is solely responsible for changing the Buddha’s seasonal cloak in a ceremony that takes place three times a year.
Wat Phra Kaew is the most important temple in Bangkok — perhaps even in the whole of Thailand — so a trip to the Old City area and the glorious Grand Palace to experience it shouldn’t be missed.
Hotels near the Grand Palace & Wat Phra Kaew
- 0.6km from the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew
- 4* hotel
- Views across the river to Wat Arun
- Free bike rental, garden, terrace, restaurant and bar
- 0.6km from the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew
- 2* hotel, 10 minute boat ride away from Wat Arun
- Highly rated with just 5 guest rooms
Aruna — the Indian God of the Dawn — is the namesake of this majestic temple which glitters above the banks of the Chao Phraya River. The most spectacular views of this temple are from the east side of the river as the sun sets over the city.
Wat Arun is an architectural representation of Mount Meru, the centre of the world in Buddhist cosmology. The design of this temple is very different to others you will find in Bangkok.
The 79 metre high Khmer-style tower is embellished with multi-coloured mosaic tiles and surrounded by four smaller towers which represent the thirty-three heavens.
It’s on the opposite side of the river to the Grand Palace and central Bangkok, but it’s easy to hop on a river taxi across.
Hotels near Wat Arun
- 0.3 km from Wat Arun
- 4* hotel across the river with views across Wat Arun
- Tha Thien Pier just minutes away
- Open-air river restaurant
- 0.6km from Wat Arun
- Reservation possible without a credit card
- Private and dorm rooms
- Restaurant and garden
Facing the Temple of Dawn on the other side of the river, next to the Grand Palace complex, is Wat Pho, home to the venerated Temple of the Reclining Buddha.
At 46 metres long and 15 metres high the gargantuan Buddha is one of the largest in Thailand, and every inch of the figure is smothered in gold. The eyes are decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay, and the soles of the feet with 108 auspicious scenes portraying the characteristics of the true Buddha.
The colossal Buddha may be the main attraction, but the temple complex is also home to more Buddha images than any other Bangkok temple (over 1000). It is also where one of Thailand’s leading schools of massage is based, making a visit here the perfect opportunity to take a moment away from the crowds and enjoy a traditional Thai massage.
Hotels near Wat Pho
- 0.3km from Wat Pho
- 5* hotel, a former royal residence
- Landscape pool, traditional Thai interiors
- Outdoor dining pavilion with views over the Chao Phraya River
- 0.6km from Wat Pho
- 3* guest house with vintage style dorms, rooms and suites
- Just 15 minutes from Khao San Road
- Open air cafe in a landscaped garden
Chiang Mai Temples
In the North of Thailand, the ancient capital of the former Lanna Kingdom of Chiang Mai is littered with temples. The old town at the heart of the city is sheltered by timeworn walls which are peppered with shrines.
Away from the city perimeter, visitors can also discovered temples nestled among the lush hills and mountains.
Here’s our roundup of some temples that are worth exploring…
Wat Chedi Luang
Constructed in 1391, this atmospheric temple was expanded over the centuries until it sadly suffered catastrophic earthquake damage to its pagoda in 1545. Restoration work took place here in the 1990s but the central tower remains unfinished.
The temple is still an active place of worship in the central hub of Chiang Mai’s old city.
The 60 metre high brick chedi has four stairways guarded by carved stone elephants and fearsome nagas (mythical snakes). There is a large standing Buddha here dating from the 14th century and a giant dipterocarp tree stands sentinel at the temple entrance. Legend has it that if this tree falls, a great catastrophe will follow.
Enshrined next to the tree is the city pillar or ‘Spirit of the City’, which also serves to protect Chiang Mai from disaster.
Hotels near Wat Chedi Luang
- 0.2km from Wat Chedi Luang
- 4* modern Thai resort
- Infinity pool, free all-day breakfast, library, 24 hour fitness centre
- Free bike rentals, restaurant
- 0.1km from Wat Chedi Luang
- 3* rooms with en suite bathrooms and office desks
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Perched high on the (sometimes) misty mountain of Doi Suthep overlooking the city is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Aside from the appeal of its stunning setting, this is one of the most sacred temples in Northern Thailand and exhibits some excellent examples of traditional temple architecture, making it more than worth the journey out of town and the 306 step climb to get to the top.
Ascending the intricately carved mythical Naga Serpent Staircase prepares pilgrims for what awaits at the summit. The temple’s golden spire reaches toward the heavens, and the walls surrounding it are embellished with historical murals and shrines – one of which harbours a jade replica of the original Emerald Buddha in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew.
The magical relic on which Wat Phra Doi Suthep was founded can be seen in the White Elephant Shrine.
Hotels near Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
- 4.1 km from Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
- 5* resort with pool and spa wellness centre
- Shuttle service
- 3.2 km from Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
- Air conditioned dorm rooms with free WiFi
- Tour desk
- Bunk beds with personal lockers and reading lights, shared bathrooms
Wat Buppharam or ‘The Sunset Temple’ can be found just outside the old walled city not far from Tha Phae gate on the eastern side.
Like many things in Thailand the temple is a little quirky, with a statue of Donald Duck on display in the gardens. Make no mistake though, this is one of the most beautiful Thailand temples, decorated with rich colours that glow in the soft sunlight.
Built in 1497, the architecture is starkly different from other temples in the city. The temple is cross-shaped rather than rectangular and it combines both Lanna and Burmese styles. Colourful mirror mosaic details embellish the facade and everything is surveyed by the watchful eyes of four golden Singha lions.
Hotels near Wat Buppharam
- 0.1 km from Wat Buppharam
- 4* traditional Thai designed hotel
- Swimming pool, restaurant and bar
- 0.1 km from Wat Buppharam
- Mixed and female only dorm rooms
- Bike hire available
Also in the North, the city of Chiang Rai blends temples, culture and dramatic mountain scenery. Here travellers will find ‘The White Temple’ and ‘The Black House’. These two distinctly different buildings nevertheless combine and complement each other to produce a harmonious religious and aesthetic whole.
Wat Rong Khun (The White Temple)
This Thai temple looks like a star fallen from heaven. The white plaster of this unique building is studded with glittering shards of glass that catch the sun’s rays and add a divine touch that fills mere mortals with awe.
The white colour is meant to symbolise the purity of the Buddha, while the use of glass represents Buddha’s wisdom.
Rather than a traditional temple, Wat Rong Khun is actually an art exhibit — albeit a highly spiritual one — that’s owned by Chalermchai Kositpipat. Mr Chalermchai has funded the refurbishment himself in a bid to make it an offering to Lord Buddha and secure immortality.
Hotels near Wat Rong Khun, The White Temple
- 4.9 km from Wat Rong Khun
- 5* resort in the misty mountains
- Massage, spa and swimming pool
- Villas decorated in traditional Thai and Burmese decor
- 4 km from Wat Rong Khun
- Guest house with on site restaurant
- Shared lounge, breakfast included
- Bike hire available
Baan Dam (The Black House)
The Black House is almost the complete antithesis of Wat Rong Khun although, again, is more of an art exhibition than a religious temple.
It’s the unique creation of national artist Thawan Duchanee, and contains a daring mix of traditional northern Thai architecture and striking modern design in a celebration of the darkly surreal.
Externally the main structure resembles a temple, but inside it is filled with Duchanee’s controversial works featuring themes of suffering, sickness, sex and death which provide a fascinating contrast with the innocence, purity and hope represented at The White Temple.
Hotels near Baan Dam
- 1.2 km from Baan Dam
- Homestay boutique
- Barbecue, sun terrace, restaurant
- Free private parking and bike here
- 4 km from Baan Dam
- 3* hotel just a 5 minute drive from Chiang Rai Mae Fah Luang International Airport
- Famous Thai restaurant
This UNESCO World Heritage site is arguably the birthplace of traditional Thai architecture as we know it, and evidence of those creative roots can clearly be seen amongst the many ruins and monuments.
Sukhothai means ‘Dawn of Happiness’. Founded in 1238, this city was the capital of the first unified Kingdom of Siam. The kingdom flourished for 200 years, during which time the city was a highly influential political, artistic and religious centre which only fell into decline as a result of the increasing prominence of nearby Ayutthaya.
The Sukhothai Historical Park is full of some of the best ruins of temples in Thailand, and an array of amazing historical and cultural sights. Look out for the following:
- Wat Mahathat — The Temple of The Great Relic, with a design based on Mandala (the Buddhist/Hindu universe). It’s the most impressive of the ruins at Sukhothai
- Noen Prasat — the Royal Palace of Sukhothai
- Wat Si Sawai — the oldest temple in Sukothai, remarkably preserved and a great representation of Khmer architecture in Thailand
- Wat Phra Phai Luang — the ritual centre of Sukhothai and the city’s biggest temple
Hotels near Sukhothai
- 1.2 km from Sukhothai Historical Park
- 4* traditional Thai-designed hotel
- Every room has a private balcony and bathroom
- Pool, bike rental and massages available
- 0.7 km from Sukhothai Historical Park
- 3* hotel
- Bike hire and room service
- Airport shuttle
This sprawling ancient city defeated Sukhothai in 1378 and became the capital of the kingdom of Siam. 80kms north of Bangkok this complex is also now a UNESCO World Heritage site, containing a multitude of archaeological wonders including palaces, Buddhist temples, monasteries and sculptures.
Ayutthaya was founded in 1350, achieving its pinnacle as a centre of global diplomacy and commerce between the 14th and 18th centuries. It was eventually sacked and burned by the Burmese in 1767. Strong foreign influences can still be seen in the surviving art and architecture.
Look out for the following sights when you’re exploring the historical park:
- Wat Phra Si Sanpet — the largest temple in Ayutthaya
- Wat Phra Mahathat — home to rows of headless Buddhas (destroyed by the invading Burmese) and the Buddha image that’s grown into a tree
- Phet Fortress
- Viharn Phra Mongkol Bophit – home to a huge bronze-cast Buddha image
Hotels near Ayutthaya
- 1.6 km from Ayutthaya Historical Park
- 4* boutique hotel
- Outdoor pool, river restaurant, bar
- 0.7 km from Ayutthaya Historical Park
- 2* boutique
- Rooms have private balcony and air conditioning
- Cycling available
And that’s our guide to the Thailand temples — which is your favourite?
Featured image includes photo by KT Formen (CC BY 2.0 licence)