These breathtaking Buddhist temples are architectural masterpieces.
Thailand has some 40,000 Buddhist temples and hundreds of ruins scattered throughout the country. Temples in Thailand are called wats, and while every temple is different, most have a chedi (a stupa or pagoda, sometimes gilded, sometimes made of stone) and/or a prang (a Khmer-style conical tower with a broad base and viharn (assembly halls and a main building you can enter). All have some variety of Buddha statue and images of the Buddha. Thailand’s ruins vary in style between Khmer (like those at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia) and Sukhothai. Temple and ruin sites are hot with little shade, so try to go early or late in the day and bring water, a hat, and a parasol.
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WHERE: Bangkok, Thailand
Wat Pho occupies prime real estate in Bangkok, just off the Chao Phraya river and right next to the Grand Palace. Of course, its resident is no ordinary Bangkokian but rather a 150-foot gold-covered reclining Buddha, the bottoms of his 10-foot feet covered with 108 auspicious signs of the Buddha inlaid in mother-of-pearl. Walk farther into the complex and you’ll reach a monastery and Bangkok’s oldest university, where the monks run a Thai massage school.
INSIDER TIPThe most pleasant way to reach Wat Pho is by Chao Phraya Express Boat. Take the orange flag line to Tha Tien (N8).
Wat Rong Khun
WHERE: Chiang Rai, Thailand
This stunning white temple 15 minutes outside Chiang Rai proper is a symbol of modern Thailand: a glittering contemporary art installation built in the late 90s to look like a Buddhist temple, the work of artist Chaloemchai Kositpipat. Picture a traditional Buddhist temple designed by Antoni Gaudí and that’s Wat Rong Khun. The temple’s intricately carved exterior is white to symbolize Buddha’s purity. In a traditional temple one expects to find images of Buddha within, but here Kositpipat and his team have painted contemporary scenes of rebirth featuring characters like Hello Kitty. The temple is a work in progress with an estimated completion date of 2020.
INSIDER TIPBecause of its reflective surface and lake, this temple is brighter than most, especially on a sunny day. You’ll definitely want sunglasses here.
Wat Ku Tao
WHERE: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Few tourists visit Wat Ku Tao, built in 1613 to inter the remains of Tharawadi Min, son of King Bayinnaung, who ruled of the then-Lanna kingdom from 1578 to 1607 and appointed his son viceroy. The temple is named Ku Tao because of its distinctive melon head (tao means “melon” in Northern Thai dialect.) The unique watermelon-shaped chedi (stupa) is made up of five stacked stone spheres decorated with porcelain and glass pieces. Wat Ku Tao is the temple of Chiang Mai’s Shan community (of neighboring Myanmar/Burma’s Shan state).
For lunch, walk 15 minutes south to Free Bird Cafe, on the edge of the Old City. Proceeds from the restaurant—which serves vegan Burmese (including a tasty Shan chickpea curry), Thai, and a few Western dishes—go to Thai Freedom House, a nonprofit that supports Burmese refugees and marginalized Thai minorities. There’s a nice little secondhand shop, too.
WHERE: Bangkok, Thailand
Wat Benchamabophit was built in 1899 of Italian Carrara marble, designed by the half-brother of then-king Chulalongkorn. The courtyard, pillars, and body of the temple are gleaming white marble; the multi-tiered roof is tile with gold trim and chofa, the ornaments that adorn the tops of temple and palace roofs.
There’s no Skytrain stop within walking distance of Wat Benchamabophit. Take BTS to Victory Monument or Sanam Pao stations, grab a taxi or tuk-tuk there, combine with a visit Vimanmek Mansion (15 minutes’ walk), and then take a taxi back. If you take Skytrain to National Stadium instead, you can combine with a visit to Jim Thompson House.
Wat Lan Kuad
WHERE: Sisaket Province, Thailand
Census says there are roughly 40,000 temples in Thailand but Wat Lan Kuad, literally “Temple of a Million Bottles” is surely the most unique: it’s made entirely of recycled beer bottles and caps. The monks have painstakingly recycled more than 1.5 million beer bottles—mostly Heineken (green) and Chang (brown)—and their caps into 20 buildings, including the main temple, prayer hall, meditation room, pillars, the monks’ bungalow housing, and even the bathrooms. The entire complex is terrifically impressive, but pay particular attention to the wall mural in the meditation room of Buddha beneath the Bodhi tree, assiduously made from hundreds of bottle caps.
INSIDER TIPWat Lan Kuad is an hour’s drive from Cambodian border crossing Chong Sa Ngam and an hour and a half from Chong Chom.
WHERE: Chiang Mai, Thailand
This gilded temple sits inside Doi Suthep National Park, a verdant escape from downtown Chiang Mai. Legend has it that Doi Suthep was built here in the late 14th century because an elephant carrying religious relics from Chiang Mai climbed up to the 3,542-foot summit and decided to stay. To get here, climb 304 steps, the staircase flanked by 16th-century balustrades in the shape of nagas (mythical snakes), or hop on the funicular. The national park itself is lovely, with hiking trails for varying levels of climbers and rushing waterfalls.
INSIDER TIPSongthaews from Chiang Mai to Doi Suthep run regularly from outside Chang Phuak Gate and Wat Phra Singh. The drive takes around 30 minutes.
Sukhothai Historical Park
WHERE: Sukhothai, Thailand
Thailand (then Siam’s) first capital city, Sukhothai has an impressive spread of ruins–193 to be exact, spread throughout the historical park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The name Sukhothai, meaning ” dawn of happiness,” is fitting: after centuries of Khmer rule, two Thai princes took Sukhothai, defeating the Khmer. Sukothai was only the capital for around 140 years before Ayutthaya became the capital and Sukothai’s temples, stupas, and monuments were slowly consumed by nature. A massive late 20th-century restoration project created the Historical Park, which has five zones full of the ruins of temples and shrines.
INSIDER TIPWalking distance (or a quick tuk-tuk ride) from the historical park is Junshine, serving solid pan-Thai fare—think fried fish with crispy basil, papaya salad, green curry—in a blissfully air-conditioned space.
Historic City of Ayutthaya
WHERE: Ayutthaya, Thailand
Ayutthaya was the capital of Thailand (then Siam) for more than 400 years until it was succeeded by Bangkok in the late 18th century. During that time it grew enormously and became a commercial trade hub. The Burmese army razed Ayutthaya in 1767, leaving it in ruins. Despite the destruction, many of the stupas, temples, and carvings that fill the Historic City of Ayutthaya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are remarkably well-preserved. If you think many of Ayutthaya’s stupas and prang (stone and brick corn-cob shaped towers) look much like those at Angkor Wat, you’re spot on: these were built in Khmer style (the others are in Sukhothai style). Like Angkor Wat, the Historic City of Ayutthaya is quite spread out. Cycling is a nice alternative to walking, but avoid the middle of the day when it’s very hot. Grab a tuk-tuk if you start flagging.
INSIDER TIPAyutthaya is particularly beautiful at sunrise and sunset, and with trains and buses (1.5-2h) running from 4:30am until after dark, it’s easy enough to catch them (you can snooze on the road).
WHERE: Lopburi, Thailand
The city of Lopburi is an hour north of Ayutthaya, and as soon as you step off the train here you’ll see Khmer style ruins, which are dotted throughout the city center that’s grown up around them. Most are from the 12th century onward, when Lopburi (then Lavo) became part of the Khmer empire. Just across from the train station is Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat (12th century), and nearby is Prang Sam Yot (early 13th century). It’s a dead ringer for some of the temples of Angkor because it was built by the same king, Jayavarman VII. Lopburi has two things in spades: ruins and macaques. These little monkeys run wild around the ruins, swinging from power lines, and sitting on the city center’s rooftops. They’re relatively harmless but are certainly cheeky and will snatch any food or drink they see.
Don’t miss the ruins of Bahn Vichien, built by King Narai in the late 17th century as a French embassy. The structure was designed by Narai’s Greek advisor Constantine Phaulkon and, unlike the other ruins, is clearly European and not Khmer in style. After the French left, Phaulcon moved in. Among the ruins are small decorative pools and a little chapel.
Phanom Rung Historical Park
WHERE: Buriram Province, Thailand
Phanom Rung Historical Park isn’t quite Angkor Wat—that’s across the border in Cambodia—but it’s a superb example of Khmer architecture with a fraction of the tourists Angkor sees. The Hindu Khmer temple complex, built between the 10th and 13th centuries, sits 1,319 feet up, on the rim of an extinct volcano, so it’s pleasantly cooler up here than on the ground. Because it’s not so crowded, you’ll have time to admire the pretty lotus leaf-filled ponds and the carvings of Hindu gods Vishnu and Shiva, who are carved on the pediments and lintels of the entrance gates. Phanom Rung is part of a larger UNESCO site that includes 11th-century temple Prasat Muang Tam, 10 minutes’ drive south (grab a tuk-tuk), which is even less crowded.
INSIDER TIPWake Up Café in Buriram Town, where most visitors to Phanom Rung Historical Park stay, slings excellent coffee, including bottled cold brew.