Many tourists making the sojourn to Asia probably plan to see a temple, or “wat,” at some point on their journey. Religious buildings and gathering places are common tourist attractions for any travel destination, but there is something about the majestic Asian temples that draws a foreigner in to see them up close. Perhaps it is the rich, Asian history or the idea that a temple visit will lead to endless lush green fields, pointed stupas and wise Buddhist musings. Ancient lands, enlightenment, peaceful serenity, and honing in on your true inner self are the made up mantra for tourists hoping to explore these quaint religious grounds. The majestic imagery of temples, or “wats,” in Thailand is especially abundant, where there are numerous wats of varying size and stature. The country is 95 percent Buddhist, and most Thais take their religion seriously, practicing meditation actively, while giving frequent thought or praise to Buddha throughout their day.
As an outsider, there are several things to keep in mind while attending these places of religious worship. Whether in Bangkok, Phuket or Chang Mai, visitors will find many options for a wat visit. Many temples are open throughout the day for the public to come inside, observe and meditate privately.
Other wats draw in camera-happy tourists who can pose for a photo in front of a large golden or emerald Buddha. Wats that serve as housing for active monks and nuns are less available to the average tourist, but many are actually open for visitation, sometimes even giving the opportunity to stay and practice Buddhist ways at the temple overnight.
Basics of Visiting a Wat
Regardless of the degree of formality and exclusivity of a Thai wat, there are several steadfast guidelines to keep in mind to show respect and avoid possible cultural misunderstandings. Here are a few rules common to visiting any wat in Thailand.
- Remove your shoes before entry. This is a common and strictly followed rule for any Thai home and even some places of business. Larger tourist wats have shelves for your shoes and a line to enter and place your shoes accordingly. Smaller wats will have a sign reminding you to remove your shoes at the entrance. Always remember, even if there is not a sign, it is understood to remove shoes before stepping on the flooring where Buddha statues are held and in order to sit for meditation. The basis behind the shoe removal comes from the belief that feet are a dirty and unfavorable part of the body. The head is sacred (remember never to touch the head of a Thai person, especially not a monk!) but the feet are considered the lowest body part and should therefore never be used to point to or grab objects.
- Dress modestly and properly. Visitors should wear clothing that is respectful and non scandalous. A simple collared shirt and clean pants or a long skirt should work just fine.
- Act in a way that is not flashy or loud. Be quiet and orderly, keeping in mind the presence of others.
These simple rules will save a lot of grace and prevent social blunders. They may seem like common sense, but to the outsider that is busy taking in the serenity and beauty of a wat, it’s sometimes easy to forget a rule or two. If you discover yourself messing up, don’t make a big scene. Just quickly and quietly fix the problem.
Of course, there are understandably more extensive rules for staying overnight at a wat in the presence of practicing monks and nuns. Wat Ambhavan is one such wat tucked away along the Mekong River near Bueng Khan in the Singburi Province of Thailand. While quiet and humble, the wat delightfully offers overnight visitors, assuming that they will adhere to a certain level of cooperation and mirroring of their practice. Upon arrival, outsiders will see signs with profound phrases (written in Thai, but translated for English speakers) sprinkled throughout the forest of majestic trees.
Deeper Understanding of Buddhism
Learning the five key Buddhist principles helps the visitor to understand more about the culture and reasoning behind the religious ceremonies. A small amount of background knowledge makes for a better stay at the temple and allows for deeper focus and meditation. Though the first five are of utmost importance, many Buddhists also follow the eight precepts and sometimes even ten.
Wat Ambhavan lists eight precepts in its guide for Dhamma Practitioners:
- I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from taking life.
- I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from taking what is not given.
- I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from sexual misconduct.
- I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from false speech.
- I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from intoxications that cause carelessness.
- I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from abstain from taking food at inappropriate times.
- I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from abstain from dancing, singing, music, unseemly shows, from wearing of garlands, smartening with scents and embellishment with unguents.
- I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from abstain from the use of high and large luxurious couches and beds.
The rules are sometimes adapted or phrased differently, but the basics are still there: no killing (this sometimes leads to a vegetarian lifestyle), no stealing, no sex, no lying and no drugs. Following these rules will earn you respect and prevent the Thais from exclaiming “Oh my Buddha!” as a result of your silliness.
Within these behavior models, visitors at most wats are also asked to follow the dress, eating habits and meditation schedule of their fellow monks and nuns. It’s not a lot to ask for a short stay at a holy place of worship, but even if you mess up, the monks and nuns are usually forgiving and take things with a grain of salt. Basically, you’ll be walking, dressing, eating, sleeping and meditating just like a monk or nun.
When staying for a longer period of time, visitors should dress in white. This means every article of clothing: white pants, shirt and a typically a robe to go across. You should not wear jewelry, perfume, or any other unnecessary adornments or luxuries. Monks wear orange robes, and women are forbidden from touching the monk or his robes.
In addition to dress, wats have particular seating standards for meditation. You should follow their meditation schedule as closely as possible. Wat Ambhavan has an early morning chant and meditation at 3:30 a.m. each day Don’t worry about not being able to wake up early—a series of loud chimes radiates throughout the wat grounds to awaken everyone. Walking meditation takes place at 5 p.m. Everyone lines up behind the head monk and traverses throughout the monastery in a slow pacing movement. The focus is on breathing slowly, taking in the good and releasing the bad. Immediately following walking meditation, there is a ceremony of seated meditation on the marble floor next to the river. Everyone should remain quiet and calm during meditation. Sit with feet pointing behind you, never directly at another person. If you are unaccustomed to sitting for hours at a time, remember to transfer your weight by shifting to multiple seated positions throughout the meditation in order to avoid injury.
Then it’s time to retire for the evening. Sleeping arrangements include nothing more than a thin mat and blankets, the toilet is nothing more than a hole in the ground and the shower water probably won’t be warm. Overall, the goal is to be mindful and not concentrate on the standard civilian luxuries you are missing. To get the true experience, you are also asked not to read write or study during your stay. Wat Ambhavan offers this advice, “You should keep in mind that you came to practice to develop the level of your mind. Scrub the defilements and cravings so they become thinner. You didn’t come to fin d happiness in living comfortably and eating well. Therefore, you have to put in extra effort to endure the inconveniences and things that come into your contact, all of which are things to test your endurance and virtue to see how much of them you have.”
Visitors should also follow the eating schedule closely. Breakfast is served at 7 a.m. followed by lunch around 11 a.m. at most wats. The nuns prep and cook the entire meal, then haul food and dishes away to clean. Monks are seated on a higher pedestal than nuns and are served first. No food is served past noon and only a bit of tea or soy milk is allowed in the early evening. At Wat Ambhavan, all meals are strictly vegetarian and many ingredients come directly from the garden making for a truly rustic meal.
Suggested Wat Visits
Reclining Buddha in Bangkok – This visit is incredibly easy to complete in an hour and a great quick stop in the bustling city. A small fee gets you up close and personal with a 46 meter long golden Buddha and the ability to walk around the Wat Pho temple grounds.
2 Sanamchai Road
Grand Palace Subdistrict, Prankhon District
Bangkok, Thailand 10200
Salakeoku sculpture park in Nong Khai – This is technically a sculpture park and not a wat, but the majesty and grandeur are all the same. Sculptor Launpou Bounleua created dozens of bizarre Hindu and Buddhists sculptures that rest in a park alongside a peaceful pond, making for plenty of great photos to sate those with a craving for the weird and mystical.
3 km from Nong Khai by tuk tuk
Wat Phu Tok – This is one stop shop for wats and includes lush gardens and landscapes with an amazing, but tricky mountain to climb. The hike allows plenty of places for private meditation and reflection on a true test for enlightenment. The temple also sometimes allows for overnight visitors.
Near Bueng Kan, accessible by bus or tuk tuk
Wat Ambhavan In a forest near Beung Kan, no Web site
Any temple you choose to visit in Thailand will likely provide for a truly unique experience and a defining portion of the trip. There is much to be learned at a Buddhist wat if the visitor is simply willing to be open.
* Note about the author: Candace Birkelbach stayed at a Buddhist Wat while volunteering with Mundo Exchange, an NGO non-profit which operates community development programs in Thailand, Guatemala and The Dominican Republic. For more information about Mundo Exchange, please visit http://mundoexchange.org/
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