Bangkok, the City of Angels, is home to an extraordinary array of Buddhist temples. Some, like the majestic Wat Pho, defy description, others are more workaday but no less impressive monuments to a religion that permeates daily life in the city. Walking around you’ll come across temples and shrines just about everywhere you go, and it’s common to see orange-robed monks going about their business.
There is no state religion in Thailand, but the monarch is required to practice Theravada Buddhism, consequently it is heavily centralised and integrated into the running of the state. Unsurprisingly, this is the dominant religion in the country, accounting for around 90-95 percent of the population.
Theravada Buddhists can trace their religious roots back to some of the very earliest Buddhist texts, the Pali Canon collection of scriptures, dating from 250 BC. The scriptures are carved into large stones in Myanmar, earning them the title of ‘World’s Largest Book’. Each one of the over 2000 ‘pages’ is over 1.5 metres high and 1 metre wide.
As practiced in Thailand, Theravada Buddhism seems a moderate and peaceful religion. It is worth remembering though that this it the same branch of Buddhism practiced in Sri Lanka, where it is the foundation for a vicious nationalism used by Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists to justify violence and the persecution of the Tamil minority.
There are other forms of religion practiced in Thailand. Taoism is big in the Chinese community, and even I can tell the difference between a Chinese temple and a Thai temple. There is a sizeable Muslim minority in the south of Thailand, where it borders Malaysia. The area was conquered by Thailand at the end of the 18th Century and has always seen itself as separate from the rest of the country. The result has been a violent separatist insurgency since the 1960s.
There is incredible diversity amongst Bangkok’s temples. Some are tiny and hidden away down narrow alleys far removed from traffic and tourists, others are part of enormous temple complexes that take several days to explore. Some are ancient, others glaringly modern; some contain the most remarkable golden statues, yet others have some of the most kitsch memorabilia known to humankind.
It’s definitely worth going to see some of the most famous temples, but part of the joy of Bangkok is coming across temples randomly as you walk around. Almost all are open during the day, most are welcoming and fun to explore.