The first thing we learned about Thai people is that religion is central to their lives.  It is key to understanding who they are, what their customs are about, and how they set their life goals.

About 90% of Thai people are Buddhists. This religion was brought to Thailand in the 3rd century B.C. by monks from India. There are several different branches of Buddhism in Asia.  Thais are typically Theravada Buddhists. Most of the other 10% of Thai people are Animist, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and Sikh.

Reclining Buddha at Wat Po in Bangkok

Although Thai people know and can use the Western calendar, all official documents and most public signs reflect the Buddhist epoch. That means, for example, that the Western year 2003 is 2546 in Thailand.


In America, people often worship in churches, synagogues or mosques. In Thailand people worship at the "wat".

The bot or “monk only” chapel in our village

The Wat or Temple Area

Buddhism is important not just to individuals but also to  whole communities. Just as European towns in the Middle Ages grew up around churches, so too, many Thai villages grew around wats.

A wat is usually a compound of several buildings that functions like a church and community center. One building on temple grounds is the bot. This is a small chapel used only by the monks and is especially important when new monks are ordained.

Sometimes stages are set up outside on temple grounds where singers or dancers entertain the community. During our stay in Na Lau, a giant screen was rented and huge loudspeakers were hooked up. Everyone in the village showed up carrying mats or chairs and spent the evening watching Charlie’s Angels in Thai!  Another time, everyone gathered to hear a famous Thai singer and later to see dancers in cheerleader uniforms perform on a big outdoor stage.

The wihan,a community temple and assembly hall, is used for community worship. It is especially busy during holy day seasons. Often, people from the village carry food to the wat and have what looks to Westerners like a big picnic after worship is over.

The Chedis & More

Crematorium in our village

When someone in the village dies, the funeral is held at the wat. Services can last as long as three days. Then, the body is cremated in a special building with a tall chimney. In some towns, cremations take place at special locations outside of city limits.

Afterward, ashes of the deceased are sometimes placed inside a tall monument on temple grounds called a chedi. Other times, the family takes the ashes home or places them in a small chedi built near their house. Large

Chedis at Wat Po in Bangkok

chedis like these at Wat Po were built for people of royalty or for monks who were considered important in their faith.

The Rong Rien or School

For thousands of years, monks were the only teachers in villages. Today, some continue to teach but most schools have teachers who are not monks. In Thailand, there is a strong tradition of building elementary schools (grades 1-6) on temple grounds. Here is a photo of the school in our village.

Elementary school in Na Lau

The Sanghawat or Monks’ Residence

Monks’ residence houses in Na Lau

Some of the buildings on the grounds of a wat provide housing for the monks. Large ones are called sanghawat.  It isn’t unusual to see saffron colored robes hanging from a clothes line to dry. Visitors,  Buddhist or non-buddhist, are welcome to stay at certain wats for free, although a donation is customary.  Like visitors, stray dogs, cats, sometimes monkeys can be seen

at wats because, like people, they are fed, cared for and treated with compassion. One wat is well known for the care of tigers that roam the grounds freely. When poor families do not have the resources to feed or educate all their children, it isn’t unusual for them to send a boy to live at the local wat and to become a novice monk. 

Besides larger residence buildings, an individual monk may live in a small hut or kuti. These are sometimes tucked away in the woods where the monk can spend time meditating in nature.

Other structures at a wat may include libraries, bell towers, meeting and lecture halls. There are also Bodhi trees. (see the section on Buddha).


Spirit Houses in Na Lau

Buddhism teaches its followers to be tolerant and accepting of people who follow other beliefs. Maybe this is one reason that many ancient beliefs about the spirit world continue today.

Animism is the belief that spirits reside with us in the world, sometimes in trees, in rocks, in door sills. Some are good and some are bad.  Spirits of people who died violently can cause problems for the living. Ancestor spirits are sometimes invited to join families during special events.  During the Chinese New Year, Chinese people in Thailand burn paper printed to look like money, coins and bars of gold,

shirts, and other items so they will be carried into the spirit world and serve as gifts for deceased ancestors.

One common sight around Thailand is the presence of spirit houses outside of homes and businesses. People often place candles, incense and food on these houses in an effort to give the spirits a place where they can be happy. People do this hoping the spirits will stay outside homes and businesses, leaving them in peace. Spirit houses on multiple legs are for ancestors while those on a single pole are for other spirits.

Another sight more common to rural villages are scarecrow-looking “protectors”.  A sign near the one on the right says that no one living in the house was born in the Year of the Snake. These warnings are directed against spirits of the people born in certain years. As in Chinese culture, years are designated by certain animals. It is believed that spirits of people born in certain years can create trouble for those who are living and who were born in a similar year. "Protectors" protect the living from the spirits of the dead.


Hilltribes are ethnic minorities in Thailand. Like ethnic Thais, many hilltribes members are Buddhist. Others are Christian. Some hilltribe members are also animist.  In several particular hilltribes, belief in the spirit world is strong. These groups believe that spirits abhor certain human activities. To keep spirits from entering a village, certain objects depicting human activity are placed at village gates. Homes may also have sacred centers where ancestors are honored.


A protector against “snake” spirits in our village


In southern Thailand, Islam is the dominant faith but its followers and their mosques are also found in smaller numbers in the rest of the country.  In Thailand, Islamic men are usually seen in white caps.  Unlike Buddhist Thais, they often have small beards.  Islamic women and girls cover their hair with scarfs.

Fewer in number, followers of the Christian faith are still found throughout Thailand. Attending churches rather than wats or mosques, they also operate schools, both Protestant and Catholic. Some schools offer only elementary education. Others offer classes through high school. Some are colleges.

People of Hindu & Sikh religions also exist. Those we saw were primarily in Bangkok and the larger cities, though it’s likely they can be found in other parts of Thailand. Buddhist stories and beliefs came to Thailand from India and have their roots in these religions.

Of course, foreign residents in Thailand may be followers of these and other faiths as well.  As a result, a great deal of religious diversity exists in most towns and villages.

For more information about Buddhism, click on Buddha, Teachings, or Monks on the side box.

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