THAILAND IS UNIQUE in that it’s the most Buddhist nation on Earth, with around 95% of the population identifying as practicing Theravada Buddhists. This fact permeates daily life in a number of ways, from monks walking the streets for collections, to festivals tied to auspicious dates, to, of course, the temples.

There are an estimated 40,000 Buddhist temples in Thailand, official and otherwise. Thai temple architecture, while sharing influences with other Southeast Asian styles, is also unique. Typically comprising a multi-building complex, Thai temples, or wats, feature a tall, bell-shaped stupa, ordination and sermon halls, a space for shrines and Buddha images, and a residence for the monks. Temple roofs are often quite striking, with multiple tiers and gables ending in long, thin ornaments called chofahs.

Many temples are open to tourists — just be sure to dress appropriately (closed-toed shoes, shorts/pants that cover the knee, no bare shoulders) and act respectfully (no hats, sunglasses, smoking, gum chewing, or overly loud talking, and remember to remove your shoes before entering worship areas and to wield your camera thoughtfully). Below are some of the sites you’ll definitely want to check out.


Wat Tham Pha Plong

Wat Tham Pha Plong, located in Chiang Dao in Northern Thailand, is a peaceful temple partially carved into a cave. Located on top of a limestone hill, it's reached by climbing 508 steps, with Buddhist teachings and quotes plastered along the way. It's a place to relax and meditate with a splendid view over the forest.
Photo: Author


Temple naga, Chiang Mai

A naga, surrounded by candles, guards a pond in one of the temples in Chiang Mai during the Visakha Bucha holiday. This highly ceremonial annual event sees Thai people make merit by going to temples and engaging in Buddhist activities.
Photo: Author


White Temple

Unlike most Thai temples, Wat Rong Khun, known as the White Temple, is the dream-come-true work of art of Thai painter Chalermchai Kositpipat. Located in Chiang Rai, the whole structure is covered in whitewash and mirror chips and the architecture has been imbued with riddles, teachings, and Buddhist philosophy.
Photo: Author


Wat Kutao

This temple in Chaing Mai features a stuffed crocodile in its main hall along with its Buddha images.
Photo: Scott Sporleder


Wat Chedi Luang

Built in the mid-15th century, the stupa behind Wat Chedi Luang used to be the home of the famous Emerald Buddha. After an earthquake destroyed the upper portion of the structure in 1545, the statue was moved to Bangkok. The stupa stands about 60m tall (~200ft) and is the highest building inside Chiang Mai's Old City.
Photo: Author


Wat Dokeung

One of Chiang Mai's 18 or so Buddhist temples, Wat Dokeung is adorned in brilliant colors, statue work, and architectural details.
Photo: Scott Sporleder


Wat Sri Suphan

Located near Wualai Street, known as the silversmiths’ district, Wat Sri Suphan stands out from all other temples in Chiang Mai due to its being entirely covered in locally crafted silver panels, both inside and out. The temple also houses a silver-working school to maintain the local silvercrafting industry.
Photo: Author


Wat Sri Suphan detail

Photo: Scott Sporleder


Temple nagas

The setting sun reflecting on the eye of a naga sculpture on top of a temple. According to Thai mythology, nagas are cobra-like deities that served Buddha and are given key positions on Buddhist temples, guarding entrances and ornamenting the roofs.
Photo: Author


Wat Chet Yot

Northwest of Chiang Mai's city center, Wat Chet Yot dates to 1455. Its worn stone walls feature stucco reliefs of gods modeled after the king who commissioned its construction.
Photo: Scott Sporleder