Thailand's top temples

Touring temples is an unforgettable part of any trip to Thailand. Its ancient cities are home to evocative, crumbling ruins, while new and unusual structures are being built all the time to challenge and redefine Thai tradition. Here are some of Thailand’s most unforgettable temples.
Top 10 temples in Thailand
Wat Rong Khun contemporary Buddhist temple, Thailand. Photo: David Ionut/Shutterstock

Wat Phra Khaew, Bangkok

Thailand’s most famous temple is also its most sacred, as the home of the Emerald Buddha: a centuries-old statue, cut from semi-precious green stone, which is considered to be the great protective symbol of Thailand. The temple itself is most notable for its huge golden chedis (bell-shaped structures) housing relics of religious and royal figures and a rarefied location on the grounds of the royal palace. Wat Phra Kaew was built in 1782, but it’s so beautifully maintained that it could quite easily be brand new.

Wat Pho, Bangkok

Another of Bangkok’s most iconic temples is Wat Pho, the capital’s oldest and largest temple. A temple has stood here since the 16th century, but the current structure was built in the 1780s and has been grandly expanded and embellished in the centuries since. Wat Pho is perhaps most famous as the home of Thailand’s most recognisable reclining Buddha statue, a 46 metre-long gilded statue, covered in gold leaf, of the Buddha lying back with his head resting on his hand. This posture represents the moment of death, with the Buddha about to enter nirvana. Wat Pho is also the home of traditional Thai massage, and lessons are still available here.

Reclining Buddha gold statue, Wat Pho, BangkokReclining Buddha gold statue, Wat Pho, Bangkok. Photo: jirawatfoto/Shutterstock

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya was the seat of a powerful Siamese kingdom between the 14th and 18th centuries. The city was violently destroyed by the Burmese in 1767, but today its ruined temples are incredibly atmospheric. Wat Phra Si Sanphet was considered the holiest, and it remains the most impressive, with its three stone chedis remarkably intact. At nearby Wat Phra Mahathat is Ayutthaya’s most eerily beautiful sight: the head of a Buddha statue emerging from (or disappearing into) the strangling roots of a fig tree.

Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai

Not all of Thailand’s most beautiful temples are ancient or semi-ruined. Some are brand new, and one of the most remarkable of all is still being built. Wat Rong Khun, outside the northern town of Chiang Rai, is part temple, part art exhibit, the brainchild of artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. Gleaming white and studded with chips of mirrored glass, the temple is ornately decorated with striking scenes from Buddhist mythology; to enter, you have to cross a bridge over a sea of outstretched hands, symbolising doomed souls in hell. By way of contrast, murals inside depict pop culture icons such as Michael Jackson and Neo from The Matrix. The temple remains a work-in-progress, but when it’s finished (currently projected to be in 2070), it will include a prayer room, meditation hall and monastery.

Wat Rong Khun contemporary Buddhist temple, Thailand.Wat Rong Khun contemporary Buddhist temple, Thailand. Photo: David Ionut/Shutterstock

Wat Muang, Ang Thong

Thai temples, you’ll notice, love a Buddha statue – but there are none bigger than the aptly named Great Buddha at Ang Thong’s Wat Muang. Standing at a whopping 92 metres tall, this is not only the biggest Buddha in Thailand, but the seventh-tallest statue of any kind in the world. Interestingly, eight of the current top ten depict Buddhist figures – either the Buddha himself or Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion. Wat Muang’s Great Buddha is constructed of concrete painted in shimmering gold and took 18 years to build.

Wat Arun, Bangkok

There are so many candidates for the title of Thailand’s most beautiful temple, but Bangkok’s Wat Arun has to be in the running. It is named for Aruna, the Hindu god of the dawn, and it is gorgeous at both sunrise and sunset; its surface is covered in incredibly ornate coloured porcelain, which glitters to stunning effect in the twilight. The decoration depicts scenes from Indian mythology, and the structure of the temple, radiating outwards from its central multi-tiered tower, represents the mythical Mount Meru, centre of the Hindu and Buddhist universes. Wat Arun is so iconic that its image appears on Thailand’s 10-baht coin.

Wat Arun Temple, Bangkok.Wat Arun Temple, Bangkok. Photo: Amdale/Shutterstock

Temple of a Million Bottles, Khun Han

Like Wat Rong Khun, this stunning place is evidence that Thai temples are not necessarily bound by restrictive rules. Amazingly, its name is an understatement rather than an exaggeration: the glittering green pagoda was built by monks from more than 1.5 million recycled beer bottles. More and more buildings are being built on the site in the same way, including a crematorium, monastery buildings, and prayer rooms. It is considered one of the world’s great examples of sustainable architecture.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai

Perched on a mountainside overlooking Chiang Mai, this stunning temple is one of northern Thailand’s most beautiful. There’s a cable car to take visitors up the mountain to the temple, but if you’re up to it, take the stairs – lined with nagas (snake deities), this 304-step staircase is the longest of its kind in Thailand, and makes for a dramatic entrance. Inside the temple are beautiful gilded Buddha images, as well as statues of Hindu deities, such as the elephant-headed god, Ganesh.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand.Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo: Take Photo/Shutterstock

Wat Phra Singh, Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second city, is absolutely tiny compared to Bangkok but is its equal in the temple department – it’s not for no reason that it’s known as the 'City of Splendid Wats'. Perhaps the most splendid of them all is Wat Phra Singh, built in 1345 to house the ashes of King Kham Fu. The temple is also home to the Phra Buddha Sihing, a famous Buddha statue, and wall murals depicting life in Chiang Mai in centuries past.

Wat Pha Sorn Kaew, Khao Kor

Translating as the Temple on a Glass Cliff, this remote place remains off the tourist trail, but it’s worth seeking out – the nearest big town is Phitsanulok, around a 90-minutes drive to the west. Completed in 2004, this monastery-temple has a stunning design, with its surfaces covered in colourful mosaics which bring to mind Gaudí’s Modernist buildings in Barcelona more than a traditional Thai temple. There’s also a striking statue depicting five Buddhas overlooking the mountains, each one smaller than the last, in a nested arrangement like a Russian matryoshka doll.

Wat Pha Sorn Kaew, ThailandWat Pha Sorn Kaew, Thailand. Photo: bouybin/Shutterstock

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