Founded around 2,500 years ago, and with devoted believers in most Asian countries, the Buddhist religion continues to be highly influential in Thailand and elsewhere. Buddhist temples are where people come to pray, pay respects, and practice the religion.
But just as with other sacred spaces, Buddhist temples are sensitive areas, and so we should all take care to act with respect when we enter them. The following list of DOs and DON’Ts can act as a guide for how to behave and dress when visiting a Buddhist temple.
Men and women should wear clothing that covers most or all of the body. Shirts should have sleeves, and pants should cover beyond the knees. Avoid tank-tops and short shorts. Although Thai weather is hot, and sometimes there is barely any wind, Thai people will still expect you to dress like you are visiting a holy area, rather than heading to the beach.
Remember that people come to temples to show respect. Hats, sunglasses and sandals are okay, but keep in mind the need to wear clothing with appropriate designs. Please avoid patterns or messages on your clothing that suggest things such as sex, violence, religion, or drugs – use your common sense here, and you’ll be alright.
Show respect to monks and Buddha statues
Show respect to monks and Buddha statues when you see them. Thai people have a distinctive gesture called ‘wai’, which serves to signal respect. The action involves putting your hands together, fingers pointed upwards, while slightly tilting your head and body forward. There are other forms of showing respect, such as standing still when in the presence of a monk, or bending the body forward slightly when walking past.
Don’t be loud and obnoxious
Be quiet and keep your hands to yourself. Behave in a temple as you would in a museum, or your own place of worship. If your children are rowdy or unhappy, it is best to escort them outside of the sacred space. Don’t swear or use inappropriate language. The monks and the other visitors are there to pray or practice Buddhism, so please don’t do anything that will disturb them.
Don’t touch monks, sacred items, or the door threshold
Don’t go around touching things that belong to the temple, especially sacred items – unless the temple has specified the item as touchable. When you enter buildings you should step over the door threshold. Female visitors should take particular care to avoid touching monks. Monks with physical contact with a female have to go through a cleansing ritual that can last almost a day. Remove your shoes before entering a sacred space.
Don’t cause offence by gesturing with your body
Inside the temple, monks are chanting and there are likely many people inside. Don’t sit in a position where your leg is pointing towards a monk, as Thai people consider the foot to be a low part of a person’s body. Using the feet to point at someone, intentionally or otherwise, is a sign of disrespect. Furthermore, a person’s feet must remain near the ground; don’t raise your feet up to a high position, especially if there is a monk in the area.
Although the rules above may seem at first to be restrictive, in reality they amount to a simple request for respectful behaviour. Temples in Thailand are beautiful and spiritual places, particularly for those who respect their potential for guidance and inspiration. Once you learn how to behave, a Buddhist temple visit can be fun, fascinating, and educational – and may also be a place to stay for awhile if you seek a spiritual experience of your own.