Thai Buddhist temples are in the unique position of being both sacred sites of worship and huge tourist attractions. But locals can often be offended by well-meaning or over-excited tourists who just don’t understand the cultural differences and how their actions might be perceived. In order to enjoy the temples while remaining respectful of Buddhist traditions, you should definitely do some research before you go. Read on to find out more about Thai Buddhism, their temples and the etiquette you should follow.
Buddhism arrived in Thailand by way of Sri Lanka in around 250 BCE and has dominated Thailand’s core belief system and way of life ever since. Theravada Buddhism has been Thailand’s official religion since the 12th century AD and is practiced by some 95 % of the total population. It’s a more conservative form of Buddhism also practiced in Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Cambodia. From huge ornate temples to inconspicuous tokens, Buddhism affects the everyday lives of Thais and tourists alike. As you travel around the country, you’ll come across everything from spirit houses, shrine houses, temples, and protective amulets. With more than 300,000 in the country, you’ll also come across friendly Buddhist monks in their distinctive orange robes. It’s actually a requirement for all Thai men to become monks for a period of time before they turn 20, in order to receive good karma. Don’t be afraid to say hello!
For tourists, the ideal time to visit a Buddhist temple is just after sunrise, when it’s still lovely and cool and the monks are returning from their alms procession. You’ll also find it much less crowded with other tourists! Now that that’s out of the way, here are a few simple rules to follow to help make your foray into Thai Buddhist culture fun and respectful.
1. Show respect. You’ll want to leave any devices you might have back at your hotel. Turn off your mobile phone and avoid loud or inappropriate conversation. Be mindful of the fact that this is a sacred site and behave accordingly.
2. Remove your shoes and your hat. Just like in other sacred sites around the world, shoes need to be removed and left outside the main worship area before you enter the temple.
3. Wear modest clothing. While it’s tempting to dress for the humidity, you’ll have to forgo the singlet and short shorts and opt for something that covers more skin – namely long pants and a collared shirt. This is the most often ignored rule with tourists, so buck the trend and cover up.
4. Respect any statues of the Buddha. It’s actually considered rude to pose for photos with your back to a Buddha statue. You should also refrain from touching them, climbing on them or sitting near them. Make sure you always ask for permission before you take a photo. And, once you’re finished, ensure you don’t turn your back on the Buddha.
5. Be mindful of pointing or other rude hand gestures. Pointing is considered very rude, so if you need to, use your right hand with the palm facing upwards to indicate something.
6. Stand when monks or nuns enter. If monks and nuns enter the worship area and you’re sitting down, stand up and wait until they have finished their prostrations before you take your seat again. It’s a sign of respect, and one the locals will definitely appreciate.
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