As you cut through the Thai countryside, you will see many temple complexes with glimmering structures, intricate details, and immaculate spaces. Buddhist temples in Thailand are known as “wats“, meaning an enclosure, and generally contain 7 or 8 types of buildings, each of which have their own symbolic, ceremonial, or practical importance.
The largest building is usually the Ubosot, or Ordination Hall, which usually contains the main images of the Buddha and illustrations of the stories of the Buddha’s life on richly decorated walls, windows, gables, and doors. The tiered roofs to maintain a grand and elevated aesthetic over the large areas they cover, and you will see the blade-like pointed finials at the ends of the roof that take various sculpted forms of the head of the Naga – a serpentine dragon – or the Geruda – a humanoid bird. The Ubosot is usually surrounded by 8 Sema Stones – one at each corner and mid-way along the wall – to delineate the consecrated area of the Ubosot. They are often housed in small but ornate pedestals, and another Sema Stone is also buried under the Ubosot before it is built.
The most eye-catching structures are usually the large Stupa or Pagoda – usually the bell-shaped monolith, often coated or painted with gold, but which can vary markedly in style and shape. These structures enshrine important relics of the Buddha (such as bones, teeth, or hair) and sometimes of kings or other important people. It seems that the larger they are, the better, and they can get rather large indeed!
You may occasionally notice a tall chimney: these stem from a crematorium, with cremation being the preferred burial right for Thai buddhists. Other structures you may see include bell-towers used to summon monks to their devotions, libraries built in ponds or on high structures to protect scriptures from insects and fire, and the Kuti – or monk’s dwellings.
Keep an eye out for the occasional large fig-like tree amidst the buildings. This is ficus religiosa – the “Bhodi tree”. In Bodh Gaya in Northern India stands the original Bhodi tree under which the Buddha meditated for 7 days without moving and achieved illumination (or “Bhodi”), and the Bhodi trees you may see are planted with seeds descending from this original.