Peering out into the rolling hills that make up much of Thailand’s landscape, it’s easy to see why it’s a country of temples. From the majestic temples poking out from behind stands of trees in rural areas to those found along the congested city streets of Bangkok, visitors don’t have to travel far to find one.
According to the Office of National Buddhism, there are more than 33,000 temples used by monks scattered across the country, which should come as no surprise considering that 95 percent of the population practices Buddhism, a religion and philosophy based on the teachings of Buddha. And you needn't be a practicing Buddhist to appreciate the architectural significance of each iconic temple, from Wat Rong Khun, known as the White Temple thanks to its all-white façade, to the dozens of other lesser-known but equally impressive temples where visitors can find solitude and peacefulness.
Here are six iconic temples worth the trek.
Wat Rong Khun
In the midafternoon sun, Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple, can appear downright blinding. Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat looked to Buddha for inspiration when creating this intricately designed temple, selecting a whitewashed facade tinged with mirrors that perfectly reflect the sunlight. Kositpipat chose the all-white color palette to represent “righteousness and the encouragement of good karma,” according to Tourism Thailand. Other symbolic touches include a bridge crossing called the “bridge of the cycle of rebirth” that passes over a sea of outstretched hands reaching out from the depths of hell, and the “gates of heaven,” guarded by Death and Rahu, two creatures who decide the fates of the dead.
Although originally built in 1997, the sprawling temple in Chiang Rai, a city in northern Thailand, remains a work in progress and has not yet reached completion. Over the years Kositpipat has added other white structures to the property, each with its own unique architectural style. Interestingly enough, the spot that receives most of the attention is the restroom, housed inside a building covered in gold leaf.
Wat Phra Si Sanphet
Located in Ayutthaya, a former Siam capital that dates back to roughly 1350, Wat Phra Si Sanphet is one of the few temples situated within the boundaries of a Unesco Heritage site. It was built during the reign of Ramathibodi I, king of Ayutthaya, and, unlike other temples, it served as the royal monastery and has never been occupied by monks. Unfortunately, many of the temple’s most striking decorative touches have been either destroyed or lost to the sands of time, most notably a 52-foot tall Buddha sculpture coated in gold that Burmese invaders removed and melted down. However much of the original structure still remains, including the three bell-shaped pagodas flanking the temple.
Also known as Wat Prachetuphon Vimon Mangkararam, Wat Pho is perhaps best known for the massive reclining Buddha sculpture housed inside its hallowed walls. Stretching more than 150 feet in length, the sculpture’s feet alone stand at 16 feet in height, and each are inlaid with mother of pearl and spiritual carvings related to Buddha and his teachings. The temple complex is also home to the first public university in Thailand, still fully operational today and serving as the home of the Thai Traditional Medical School.
Wat Pa Maha Chedi Kaew
When a group of monks in Si Sa Ket, a province located in southeastern Thailand, wanted to build a new temple, they sought the help of locals to provide them with building materials, according to Tourism Thailand. Their request: empty beer bottles.
Known as the Temple of a Million Bottles, Wat Pa Maha Chedi Kaew is comprised of approximately 1.5 million Heineken and Chang (a popular Thai lager) bottles. Since beginning the project in 1984, after Phra Khru Vivek Dharmajahn, the temple’s founder, happened upon a nearby dumping ground overflowing with tossed bottles, the monks have continually added new structures to the temple complex, constructing a chapel, water towers, a crematorium, housing for the monks and an entrance gate comprised of the green and brown glass bottles, writes The Nation.
It’s easy to see why Wat Chantaram (also known as Wat Tha Sung) is often referred to as the Glass Temple. The interior of the sacred space, which is located in west-central Thailand, calls to mind a house of mirrors like the ones typically found inside a fun house. Decorated with dozens of glass columns that reflect the light, the columns lead up to a giant golden Buddha that replicates the original Phra Phuttha Chinnarat statue, found at another temple, Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat, and regularly referred to as “the most beautiful image of Buddha in Thailand.”
Wat Phra Dhammakaya
A half century ago the land where Wat Phra Dhammakaya sits was nothing more than a rice field, according to the Dhammakaya Foundation, the organization headquartered there. But today it’s home to one of the largest temple complexes in the country. Established in 1970, the sprawling property sits just outside of Bangkok and serves as a regular pilgrimage point for Buddhists seeking enlightenment and to practice meditation. The pinnacle of the temple is the Dhammakaya Cetiya, a massive domed structure that looks eerily similar to a spaceship. Measuring 105 feet in height and 354 feet in diameter, the cetiya “contains a sacred image of the Buddha in solid gold” along with one million images of the Buddha throughout the space, according to the book New Buddhist Movements in Thailand.