With over 40,000 examples throughout the country, and 4,000 in Bangkok alone, Thailand is famous for its temples, known as wats. From the stunning Grand Palace and the Royal Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok to the ancient Wat Phra Phutthabat in Saraburi, a visit to a Thai temple is a must.
As with any foreign culture, there are rules and traditions to be followed, and the most important in Thailand relate to the temples.
Buddhism is the main religion in Thailand, with roughly 94% of the population practising Theravada Buddhism, and you’ll see the orange-robed monks everywhere. They’re quite used to tourists flocking into their temples, photographing the golden buddhas and posing for selfies, and they’ve developed a tolerance for people who aren’t sure of the customs.
But we think it’s important to show respect to their culture, including what to wear when you visit their places of worship. And so here’s our guide on the dress code for Thailand temples.
Dress Code For Thailand Temples
In the Buddhist culture, the head is considered the most sacred part of the body (because it’s the highest), and the feet are considered the most ‘unclean’ part of the body (because they’re constantly in touch with the dirt and the ground). For this reason, pointing your feet at someone is considered disrespectful, and showing the bottom of your feet is the Thai equivalent of giving someone ‘the finger’.
Buddhism promotes a culture of modesty, and you should try and act accordingly. Although some parts of Thailand can be quite ‘racy’ when night falls, in general Thais do not appreciate PDAs (public displays of affection). So although holding hands in the street is OK, you should avoid kissing, hugging or anything which might be considered too intimate. One thing we’ve noticed is that your overall appearance has an effect on how you’re treated in Thailand, so choosing to dress tastefully and appropriately goes a long way.
Always remember it’s all about modesty and respect. Don’t point, either at a person or to give directions: it’s more polite to gesture with your whole hand. And whilst we’re mentioning hands, Thais prefer not to shake hands when they meet. Instead, they use the wai greeting, where you bow your head and place your hands together in a prayer position. Thailand is known as the ‘land of smiles’ – they even have a smile in their official tourism logo – so if someone smiles at you, smile back!
What to Wear When Visiting a Thailand Temple
Much like the day-to-day of Buddhist culture, the dress code for Thai temples is based on modesty and respect. Even if you’re in one of the more touristy areas, where walking around in beach gear is acceptable, you must always cover up if you go inside a temple. We’ll get to the specifics in a minute, but in general you should opt for loose-fitting, breathable clothing that covers most of your body. This is also a sensible idea when strolling around Thailand, as during the day it can get very hot!
One word of caution: if you ‘happen’ to run into a local who tells you you’re improperly dressed and offers to drive you to a cheap clothing shop nearby, you should politely decline and keep walking. Why? Because it’s almost sure to be a ‘tuk-tuk scam’, where the driver will make detours to gem shops and tailor shops where he can get gas vouchers and other incentives. Sadly, Thailand is as notorious for its scams as it is famous for its beauty.
Specific Dress Code for Thailand Temples
The most sacred temple in Thailand is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew) and the 15th-century buddha inside is regarded as the ‘palladium’, or protector of all Thailand. Because of this, the dress code for visiting this particular temple, and the Grand Palace in which it sits, is very strict. But don’t worry – there are always monks at the entrance who will quietly let you know if you’re not dressed appropriately, and suggest alternatives.
For other temples the rules are more relaxed. But we think it’s best to err on the side of caution, so what we’re going to list here is the strictest dress code for Thailand temples, and we recommend that you dress this way for all the temples you visit. It will be seen as a sign of respect, which is always a good thing.
Can you Wear T-Shirts in Thailand Temples?
Yes, but they must be buttoned at the neck or have a round collar. Sleeveless T-shirts (or tank-tops) are not allowed, and you should never show any belly or chest.
For men, we recommend shirts with full-length or half-length sleeves (but never with the sleeves rolled-up). For women, the rules are similar. Tops must cover your shoulders and waist, and crop-tops are not allowed. Sometimes a scarf or shawl worn over a sleeveless top is acceptable, but note that in the Wat Phra Kaew this is not permitted. Showing any hint of cleavage is seen as deeply insulting and is therefore absolutely forbidden.
Can you Wear Sandals in Thailand Temples?
We get asked this a lot, as it can be a bit confusing. Firstly, you should know that normal shoes are not allowed in the temples, which is why you’ll often see a pile of them outside the entrance. This is actually not because they may be dirty or dusty, but more as a sign of respect.
But yes, you can wear sandals, although make sure they have a strap that goes around the heel; flip-flops (or ‘thongs’ if you’re Australian) are not allowed, and you should always wear sandals with socks. In general wearing loose footwear, such as boat shoes or loafers, is definitely the way to go. Take it from us that you’ll be slipping your footwear on and off a lot, so it’s best to avoid any sort of shoe with laces as they will just slow you down!
Can you Wear Shorts in Thailand temples?
Yes you definitely can, but they must reach to at least below the knee. For men we recommend light cotton trousers or 3/4-length trousers (sometimes called utility crop pants). Sportswear, such as tracksuit or shell-suit bottoms, are not really allowed, and it’s a definite ‘no’ to ripped or torn jeans, no matter how fashionable they are.
For women the rules are again similar, but a long (maxi) skirt to below the knee is also acceptable. No short shorts (‘Daisy Dukes’), tight-fitting leggings or yoga pants. Thighs should always be covered – remember, it’s all about modesty.
Do’s and Don’ts When Visiting a Thai Temple
Many guides won’t mention this, but Thais believe that holy Buddhist spirits live inside the threshold to a temple and shouldn’t be disturbed. So you’ll always see locals step over the threshold rather than on it, and we suggest you do the same.
Monks are holy people and, as such, you should always treat them with courtesy and reverence. According to Buddhist law, monks are not allowed to come into contact with a woman. So, if you’re female, don’t sit next to a monk, don’t touch a monk and politely step to the side if a monk is walking towards you, so they can pass safely without fear of touching you.
Remember what we said about the head being the most sacred part of the body? Well it follows that the most sacred part of a monk is his head, and out of respect yours should never be higher than his. So if you’re a tall person, you should duck a little as you pass a monk – maybe even turn the move into a respectful little bow.
Although you may have heard that it’s lucky to rub a Buddha’s belly, once inside a temple you should never touch a Buddha statue, or lean against their pedestals. Sometimes the Buddha statues have human remains inside, and so you should regard them in the same way as tombstones. Remember – it’s all about respect.
Somewhat surprisingly, you are allowed to take photographs – even during temple ceremonies. The monks and locals do it too! Just make sure you don’t get in the way of anyone praying as this is considered a little rude. Most monks won’t mind if you want to take a photo with them, but always ask first (and remember they can’t be touched, so don’t put your arm round them for a selfie!) Oh, and put your phone on silent or flight mode – you can always wait until you get outside to upload to Instagram or facebook.
You’ll often see monks and locals making donations as they leave the temple. Temples are expensive to maintain, and the smaller ones don’t usually charge an entrance fee. Donations are, of course, not compulsory, but if you’ve enjoyed the temple experience then it’s customary to drop some money in the donation box.
Thai temples are holy places, but monks appreciate that you’re there to see the sights and take photos of the Buddhas. As long as you use common sense, follow the dress code for Thailand temples and always show the proper respect then your visit will be a visit to remember.
More Thailand Guides: