I think it was easy for me to fall in-love with Thailand, both as a Bhakti yogi and as a writer. Never has a place felt more intentional or more symbolic for me than Thailand. The synchronicity of being invited to return to Bangkok just a month after my first visit was not lost on me. There were things I left undone the first time, and I left wanting more but on a deeper level; I left wanting to understand the culture, wanting to see more temples, and having a desire to explore with a local’s perspective. That is exactly what the Universe gifted me on my second visit when I was fortunate to discover a number of beautiful lesser known top temples in Bangkok and ancient Ayutthaya.
Thailand’s Culture and Customs
Living with intention is the Bhakti and yogic way, and part of my personal path and yoga practice. Thais are intentional about a lot of things, 94 percent of the population is Buddhist, with a sprinkling of Muslims and Christians, and they practice this Golden-Rule faith overtly with clear principles and guidelines. It is impossible to visit Thailand without feeling this faith as it shows itself to you in many everyday actions.
I learned a lot about the proper way to be in Thailand the hard way, by showing up in my sundress and sandals expecting to visit the Grand Palace, known as the best or one of the top temples in Bangkok during the last month of the year-long mourning of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. I was walking down Maha Rat Road on my way to get a fresh juice at the Good Job Store and I noticed every single person I passed was dressed in black. In the store I spotted three Thai girls who all looked as if they worked at the palace and I asked them about their black clothes and it was my first lesson on how devoted the people were to their king, and how gravely the loss was felt. They mourned for one full year with yellow marigold tributes and devotion and pause – collectively and outwardly. I also learned that in order to visit the palace and many other temples, or “wats,” I would have to cover my shoulders, and toes, and knees. The lesson that day sparked something in me, it inspired me to want to be more faithful, more devoted, and it inspired me to learn more about Thai people and their culture. It was the very beginning of my deep respect for Thailand and her people.
It is common to find monks walking the streets of Bangkok and in the wats you visit. My first visit to one of the temples inside Wat Pho included the great gift of watching and listening to a group of monks sitting in prayer and chanting mantras, I will never forget it. It is important to know that monks are highly regarded in Thai culture and they have an absolute code of conduct that cannot be deviated from which includes no contact with women and strict daily activities. It is important to keep your distance, respectfully, from monks in Thailand, especially if you are a woman.
Thais believe that their heads are sacred and the cleanest part of their body, and they believe that their feet are farthest from this part and the dirtiest. For this reason, there is a lot of important etiquette regarding feet in the Thai culture. Close-toed shoes are encouraged at the Grand Palace in Bangkok and it is never okay to have the soul of your feet facing a Buddha or monk or walking over anything clean or important.
San Phra Phum
Equally important are the Spirit Houses or San Phra Phum that you can find everywhere in Thailand. Each home and business has a Spirit House, and you can find it purposely placed in an auspicious spot in the corner of the property. These mini shrines are said to house spirits that must be constantly appeased to avoid any problems or bad luck. These shrines are filled with various offerings to keep the spirits happy, and adorning the alters is a daily ritual kept by residents and business owners.
The very first time I heard the sound of Kau Cim, or Lottery Poetry, I was in one of the courtyards of Wat Pho and I walked toward the sound of shaking which led me to the doorway of a smaller temple. When I peered in I saw a man bowing in front of the alter and shaking a round tube with wooden sticks in it until one of the sticks fell out onto the floor. He was intent and clearly praying or looking for answers and I was so intrigued by the practice that I later researched and learned that the sticks and practice originated in China and are a form of fortune-telling. The sound of Kau Cim became synonymous with prayer, and wats, while I was in and near Bangkok and a sound I will always have a fondness for. I tried my hand at it when I visited Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon with a local guide, he read the fortune to me that matched with the stick marked with a seven on it.
Top Temples in Bangkok
Bang Kra Jao, Bangkok’s Green Lung
It was on the island of Bang Kra Jao, the “green lung” of Bangkok that I learned about broken relics of deities. On a stone pagoda outside of a 200-year-old temple I noticed many statues carefully placed on the various ledges and upon careful inspection I could see that each of the little statues was broken. Thais believe in a careful and honourable resting place for these broken devotional pieces and as a result it is common to see relics of all kinds placed on pagodas and ledges around temples.
For more of the top temples in Bangkok see our First Timer’s Travel Guide
Temples of Ayutthaya
One of the most beautiful experiences I had near Bangkok was visiting Ayutthaya, a World Heritage Sight, originally founded in 1350, and just 80 kilometres north of the city. A physical aspect that makes this area so unique and special is that it is an island between three rivers. Originally the capital of the Kingdom of Siam, it was a prosperous area from 1350 until it was raided by the Burmese in 1767. Today, it is an archaeologist’s dream with ancient palaces, Buddhist temples, monasteries and statues. One thing you notice subtly is the evidence of the Burmese raid with some of the Buddhas missing their heads. You can find one of these heads nestled at the base of a Bodhi tree near Wat Mahathat, and you can see that the tree’s roots have grown around the head to create a natural piece of art that has become famous and widely photographed.
Visiting Wat Ratchaburana in Ayutthaya, was like walking onto a movie set, with a time travelling, larger-than-life front door entrance that perfectly framed the main stupah or prang in the distance. This Buddhist temple was founded in 1424 and has a sordid history of brothers who fought to the death for succession of their father’s throne and looters of the prang’s crypt. It is a grand and majestic place to visit, made entirely of stone with steep steps leading up to the prang’s crypt and faded ruminants of ancient frescoes inside.
Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon
Wat Yai Chai Mongkol also in Ayutthaya, known as the Chedi of Auspicious Victory, is an incredible temple to visit. This wat was built in 1357 and is still an active monastery today; historically the sect of monks who live and practice here, and have for many years, focus mainly on meditation. Like many other temples, Wat Yai Chai Mongkol is a deeply quiet place, not just in sounds you hear while you are there, but it feels like the earth and ancient Buddhas lining the perimeter of the chedi, or stupah, are in deep meditation when you are visiting. You can feel the history here, and you can also sense the keepers of it sitting perfectly still and frozen in stone and brick. The main stupah is flanked by two incredibly large seated Buddhas and surrounded by knee-to-knee seated Buddhas that sit just inside a brick wall that keeps everything together. If you climb to the top of the chedi you have a great panoramic view of the grounds and all of Ayutthaya.
The viharn or public sanctuary hall at Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon was filled with school children the day I visited, the steps of the façade were covered with little shoes as it is customary to take your shoes off when you enter any holy and sacred space as well as Thai homes. It is also customary to step over the threshold of temples, homes and some businesses, it is said that the spirit guardian lives in the threshold and stepping on it is bad luck and angers the spirit living there.
Wat Phra Ram
The last wat I visited in Ayutthaya was my very favourite, Wat Phra Ram, built in 1369. Visiting this wat was like reading a poem happening in real life. The prang could be seen from the car the moment I pulled up, it was cast against a sorbet-coloured sky as the sun was quickly setting. I walked to the entry gate known as the “Gate of Time” by the locals, and I stood there in awe. The brick entry is covered by Bodhi roots, it was as if the tree and the brick were one. From the arched doorway I could see the prang framed perfectly in the distance. A small table was set outside the gate selling a temple offering of small bouquets wrapped with palm leaves. Customary in Thailand, temple offerings often include jasmine, tobacco and betel nut. The floral offerings found all over Thailand and offered often and freely are one of my favourite customs. My guide purchased a bouquet for my offering and I made my way inside with it.
The sun was setting faster now and several locals were taking their turn at the alter with their gifts and bows. I watched as the couple before me took their shoes off and carefully climbed the steps to the alter and lit incense and bowed beside each other. They each took three deep bows bending from the waist and touching their foreheads to the stoned earth. Bowing, a long-time Buddhist ritual, is the ultimate symbol of humility and gratitude. Thais bow three times in temples, at alters and at the feet of Buddhas to symbolise taking refuge in the Three Gems: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha within. This is a devout practice of Buddhist faith. Once they were finished they made their way to the alter and placed their offerings and then made their way back to their shoes and left in silence.
I watched and reflected on my own spiritual practice and the practice of metta in my yoga practice, and I felt deeply connected to the universal bowing and culture of intention and symbolism of the Buddhist faith and of Thailand. As the sun was setting the sky turned into a red brick clay colour that matched the façade of the prang perfectly and everything blended into one until there was complete darkness.