Thailand temple etiquette

Around 95% of the Thai population are Buddhist and Buddhism plays an integral role in daily life. Wherever you travel in Thailand you will see Buddhist temples (known as wats). The temple is more than just a religious building. In many instances, particularly in rural areas, the local temple acts as a community centre. Tourists are welcome to visit these temples but should be aware of certain rules of etiquette.

  • Dress politely 
  • Cover knees and shoulders
  • Avoid revealing clothing
  • Avoid public displays of affection
  • Take off your shoes and hat when entering religious buildings
  • Keep your head lower than the Buddha images and monks
  • Don’t point your feet at Buddha images or monks
  • Don’t sit on the platform or seats reserved for monks
  • Talk quietly
  • No smoking
  • No alcohol

At many temples, you are permitted to wear shorts or skirts, but they should be smart and at least knee-length.  At Thailand’s more important temples and those with royal connections, dress regulations are stricter. At venues like Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) in Bangkok, visitors should dress extra conservatively. Men should wear long trousers and women should wear trousers or a dress/skirt that is below the knee.

Signs at a temple in Chiang Mai
(Photo: Roy Cavanagh)

Respecting local culture

In Thai culture, all Buddha images are regarded as sacred. It doesn’t matter if they are old or new, Buddha images should be respected by visitors. In locations like Ayutthaya and Sukhothai where you will see ancient ruins, do not climb or sit on any of the Buddha statues.

Don’t step on the raised threshold of a temple building. Step over it and don’t put your foot on it. This is because, in Thai culture, it’s said that the raised threshold is where the guardian spirit resides.

At some temples (especially in North and North-East Thailand) there are some buildings in the temple grounds which are off-limits to women. Signs in Thai and English will let you know when this is the case. Whether you agree or not, this is the local custom so please respect your hosts. 

At most temples, photography is allowed. But take notice of any signs where it says photography is prohibited. When taking photos, be respectful. Don’t use a flash and take photos discreetly from a kneeling position.

Entry to many temples in Thailand is free. However, there are some which do charge an entrance fee to non-Thais. When visiting a wat, Thai Buddhists will usually leave a small donation to make merit. Cinder your entrance fee as a way of making merit. The money normally goes directly towards the running costs of the temple.

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