I make many assumptions when writing about Thailand- one of the worst slips is to lapse into local terminology for things, assuming that they are common words in English, and then I realise that they probably aren’t.
The following little guide is for Chiang Mai and regional cities throughout Thailand. Thai beaches in Phuket and other beaches tend to be very westernised places catering to foreign needs: Thai culture is almost lost in these towns. This list is for the traveller, not the beach sun baker or the resort frequenter.
What is a Wat?
- Temples are called Wats, coming from the Sanskrit word for enclosure, and are places of worship for Buddhists. In northern Thailand, especially around Chiang Mai and Lampang, Wats are distinguished by the Lanna style of architecture. You will notice many similar features to the Pagodas of Burma and the Wats of Laos.
- Wats will usually contain a golden Chedi, a conical or bell-shaped building, similar to the Nepalese Stupa , which often contains sacred relics. The Chedi is usually in the grounds of the enclosure and is separate from the temple or temples.
- Wats are often large compounds containing schools for monks, a monastery, a garden, a large Bodhi tree and shaded areas to sit and relax. They are relaxed places and provide a welcome shady break from the busy streets.
- Wats often also house museums, sometimes a cafe, and stalls selling religious items such as amulets, candles and flowers. They are really busy on the weekend so consider visiting Wats dring the week.
- They are public spaces and welcome foreigners. It is polite to make a small donation ( say around 20 Baht) and to drop your spare coins in the ‘days of the week’ boxes or monks bowls.
Notes for Travellers visiting a Wat in Thailand.
- You must remove your shoes before entering a Wat. Consider the type of footwear you will wear when doing a day touring the wats. Shoes with ties or elabourate clasps will become annoying. Wear thongs or scuffs. This is the preferred daytime footwear of the locals.
- Shoes are also removed when visiting people’s homes, in guesthouses, many shops and businesses but keep them on in restaurants. Be guided by what you see.
- Spotto the annoying shoes in these photos below.
- Dress modestly. This applies in the churches of Europe: the same respect applies to the temples (Buddhist or other) in Asia. Modest dress is a sign of humility. Put the shorts and singlets away and keep them for the beach. Most temples will, for a small fee, supply some cover up clothing for those who have turned up in their beach wear. It is much better and simpler to be conscious of the customs of the country you are visiting. Below, a sign outside a Wat, and a young European couple, oblivious to the offence they cause. Cultural ignorance or cultural arrogance? I wonder sometimes.
- You will often find a well signed toilet within the grounds. Handy information! Always carry your own tissues, however most Thai toilets now have paper, are super clean and modern.
- Sometimes scammers hang around temples. They are usually very well dressed and have an excellent grasp of English. This used to happen around Chiang Mai but I haven’t noticed any on this trip. They are still rife in Bangkok. Don’t respond to any unsolicited, polite greetings, just don’t acknowledge them. Break out into another language, real or made up, is another strategy.
Inside the walls.
- When choosing a place to stay, look at the map of Chiang Mai before choosing. Chiang Mai’s ancient city lies inside a square, the cities ancient walls still visible here and there, along with a moat. Most of Chiang Mai’s attractions lie within these walls: great restaurants, good footpaths, parks, markets, the sunday walking Market, the Saturday night market, a hundred Wats, and a vibrant cosmopolitan and artistic community.
- Big international resort hotels are not located in the ancient city. They are out in the busy traffic clogged suburbs or along the Ping River. You might like the look of these western places but will be forced to negotiate daily or thrice daily for a tuk-tuk to and fro back into the old city. If you like the thrill of spontaneous wandering and discovery, choose a place to suit your budget within the old city walls.
Below, Map of Chiang Mai, showing the walls of the old city and outskirts near the Ping River.
A little bit of Thai language.
These two phrases go a long way.
- Hello – Sawa dee
Spoken by males – Cup / Females – Ka
(“sawadee ka” for females and “sawadee cup” for males)
If you are female, draw our the ka with a long breathy sound: if male, the cup sound is very clipped.
- Thank you very much
- kob kun cup (male) , kob koon Ka (female)
Cup / Ka, can be said at the end of any sentence, it is a sign of respect and regarded as the polite form of these expressions.