A wat is a collection of buildings within an enclosure serving two purposes: Buddhist monastery, temple, and community center. There are about 30,000 wats in Thailand. Their construction is often funded by wealthy patrons – contributing to a wat is a good way to make merit. Each period of Thai history has seen modifications to wat architecture, and the exact layout and style of buildings vary considerably. However, the basic layout of most wats follows set principles, as do the functions of different buildings.
A wall or cloister may enclose the main part of the temple (known as the phutthawat). A cloister sometimes houses a row of Buddha images, and murals may be painted on its walls.
A mondop is a square-based structure topped with either a spire, as pictured here with the mondop at Wat Phra Kae, or a cruciform roof. The edifice contains an object of worship or sacred texts.
The ho trai, or library is used to house holy scriptures. comparatively rare feature of wat complexes, they come in an assortment of shapes and sizes; this one at Wat Paknam in Bangkok is typical of a ho trai in a city wat. A ho trai in the countryside may have a high base, or be surrounded by water to minimize damage from insects.
Wats whose names begin with Rat-, Racha-, or Maha- have been founded by royalty, or contain highly revered objects (with names often prefaced by Phra). There are about 180 important wats in Thailand, and this imagined wat is typical. The bot and wihan are grand affairs, and there are a number of minor salas, as well as extensive monks’ quarters. Lesser wats have fewer buildings and sometimes no wihan.
A chedi is a solid structure encasing a relic of the Buddha, such as a hair or fragment of bone, or the ashes of a king. Wat complexes are often built expressly to surround a sacred chedi.
The wihan, an assembly hall, is very similar to but usually larger than a bot and not demarcated by bai semas. There may be several wihans. This one at Wat Rachabophit is, like several in Bangkok, an eclectic mix of architectural styles.
The cho fa, which means “tassle of air,” is the most recognizably Thai architectural detail. Its shape is thought to derive from a highly stylized garuda, a fierce bird featured in Hindu mythology.
The bot (or ubosot) is the ordination hall reserved mainly for monks. It looks like a wihan but is surrounded by bai semas. The bot usually faces east and often houses the wat’s main Buddha, as seen here at Wat Suthat, Bangkok.
Ho rakangs or bell towers are used to toll the hour and summon monks to prayer. This one at Wat Rakhang is a comparatively large, ornate structure.