Thai temples, known as wats, are very distinctive. The word wat means school, but is used only to refer to temple complexes. The Phutthawat is what we think of when we see the word temple. It is where all of the main religious buildings are contained. The Sanghawat is the living area for the monks.
The ubosot is the most important building in the temple. It is the ordination hall and it is where the primary Buddha image of the temple is normally housed. The Ubosot does not have physical contact with the other buildings and is clearly marked off by eight Bai Sema (marker stones named after their similarity to Bodhi leaves). The ubosot is where the ceremonies and rituals for the monks take place and is, therefore, the holiest part of the temple. You will notice that the entrance to the ubosot will almost always face the east.
The wiharn is a shrine hall. It normally houses a Buddha image. Larger temples can have more than one wiharn. The wiharn is where ceremonies for both monks and lay people are conducted.
The chedi is amonument that contains a relic or the cremated remains of a monk or member of the royal family. They vary enormously and in Thailand you will see a huge range of differing styles. Chedis are normally constructed over a relic chamber. They are traditionally made of laterite or brick andcovered in stucco. Normally they are covered in gold. Every temple typically has at least one main chedi.
Prangs are ‘corn-cob’ shaped Khmer-style towers that also function as stupas. They are often built over a pit containing a relic or the remains of an important person. They sometimes have chambers you can enter or can be closed off entirely. They are particularly prevalent in Sukhothai and Ayutthaya.
The mondop is normally a square building that contains a shrine or performs some other important ritual function such as a scripture repository or reliquary. They normally have a spired roof and vary in looks and function from temple to temple.
The horrakang is the bell tower of the temple. It is used to signal the start of morning and evening prayer times and can be in any variety of shapes and styles.
The hotrai is the scripture library. The structure is usually raised on brick pillars, often over a pond in order to protect the scriptures from humidity and termites.
A sala is a shaded rest pavilion. Originally they were open for any travellers who needed to rest for the night. Salas can be found all over the country in and out of wats. They can be at the roadside or in town centres. A sala usually doesn’t have walls and a sala in temple grounds is normally called a salawat.
Some larger temples have a cloister around the inner sanctuary called a Phra Rabieng and many, especially in rural areas, have a school for the local children. Temples often have cremation facilities and you can sometimes see a small crematorium building with a tall chimney on the grounds.
The temple will present you with all sorts of imagery other than Buddha images. There will be monkeys and demons, devas (gods) and asuras (titans/jealous gods), Hindu gods such as Brahma and Indra. Yakshas (ogres/earth spirits) or Singha (lions) guard the entrance of the temple.
Even though they can be a sensory overload, wats are some of the most beautiful, intricate temple structures anywhere on earth. They are filled with deep symbolism. A visit will reward you with an experience that allows you to touch the roots of Thai culture and see Thailand’s most magnificent heritage.
Text and photos by Tom Billinge of thetempletrail.com. The original and full version of this Thai Temples 101 article can be found here.