Visiting Buddhist Monasteries in Phuket
Foreigners are welcomed into Buddhist Monasteries, or Wats
But please remember these are places of worship, reverence and meditation, and cultural sensitivity is required
Visitors, both Thai and foreign, are usually welcome inside Buddhist monasteries, and a visit there can be most informative and interesting. There are scores of monasteries on Phuket, and virtually every Buddhist community here has a wat as its traditional cultural center. So it is acceptable to walk into the grounds of any monastery on the island during daylight hours. Most close their doors at night.
Since these are quiet sanctuaries where monks are supposed to live with the minimum of material possessions and where they are challenged with the task of overcoming physical desires, it is expected that women – representing the physical desire perhaps most difficult to overcome – should act and dress modestly. A Thai woman would normally not come into the presence of monks dressed in sexy or revealing attire. Women, therefore should avoid visiting the monasteries in beach clothes or short pants. Monks are also forbidden to have physical contact with any woman, or to receive an object directly from one hand of a woman. To give something to a monk a woman must first place the object on a table, or mat, and leave the monk to pick it up. Or give it to a man who can hand it to the monk.
When entering any building within a monastery shoes must be removed. They can be worn throughout the grounds – unlike in Burma, where shoes must be taken off when entering any monastery grounds.
The typical Thai temple is composed of several parts, including the ‘temple’ itself, called ubosot, in which the most important Buddha image is usually housed. Identifying this building is easy: look for short, carved stone pillars buried in the ground around it, one at each corner, with others in the middle of each side. The ubosot is usually closed, except on Buddhist holidays (one every 14 days) and perhaps in the evenings or early mornings when monks may come to chant prayers. When the monks are doing this laymen may enter the back of the temple hall quietly, sit down and absorb the holy atmosphere.
Other buildings in the typical wat include a cheddi, or stupa, the soaring golden spire that represents the Buddhist strive for infinity, or the ultimate. A second temple-like building is often present, and is recognised by the lack of the holy pillars that surround and sanctifying an ubosot. This my also contain Budddha images, and will be used for more everyday Buddhist functions. A sala, or meeting hall, is often present, and is often distinguished by a lack of walls. This will be used for public gatherings, and monks may eat their meals here and receive offerings from laymen. The guthi are the monks’ simple accommodation, and may be built as small Thai-style homes, often surrounding a raised eating platform.
In former generations Buddhist monasteries were the site of learning, and had the only schools in the country. Today the government builds independent schools, though still today many monasteries contain schools within their grounds. The monastery at Rawai is a good example of this, and here each morning hundreds of students parade under the coconut palms in the monastery grounds.
The Buddhist site most often visited on Phuket is Wat Chalong, a sprawling temple in the middle of the island with lots of room for tours buses. But the island has numerous, equally interesting monasteries that can be visited freely. One of the most curious, with a strange history, or fable attached to it, is Wat Phra Thong (Golden Buddha Monastery) on the airport road on the north side of Talang town. To read about the fable attached to it, see Phuket Magazine’s story on The Legend of Wat Phra Thong.