As the majority of the country’s population are practicing Theravada Buddhists, one of the most prominent sights around Thailand from Bangkok to Chiang Mai are the tiered rooftops of grand temples (known as wats).
Thanks to its combination of such fascinating culture with a low cost of living, Thailand attracts thousands of backpackers each year, with numerous hostels in Thailand providing cheap accommodation for travelers exploring the country’s sights.
Often the first point of call for backpackers in Thailand, the hectic modern surface of the capital city, Bangkok, conceals a history that’s bound up with its numerous impressive temples.
Home to the country’s most famous attraction, the Grand Palace, Bangkok is at the heart of the Thai Kingdom and its cultural heritage. In the grounds of the Palace complex lies Wat Phra Kaeo, or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha – Thailand’s most sacred site.
Whilst the Emerald Buddha is small in size, it’s often considered to be the most important image in Thailand. Moved to its current location in 1784, legend places its origins in India with years of Southeast Asia fighting around (and over) it in between.
In addition to this celebrated image, there are paintings and figures inside the wat which depict the mythology of Ramakien, the Thai version of the Hindu epic of the hero Rama.
Just to the south of the Grand Palace, the dazzling Wat Pho is also a popular attraction in Bangkok. The oldest temple in the city, it dates back to the 17th century and is famous for its huge reclining Buddha.
With regards to a place to stay, there are a number of hostels in Bangkok offering both cheap private rooms and dorms to travelers exploring these stunning sights. Many of the best (and most affordable) hostels are situated in Banglamphu, a hub for travelers in the city and in easy reach of the Grand Palace.
However, these temples are just part of Bangkok’s rich history – other highlights include the Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, beautifully decorated with Chinese dragons, and the large Wat Arun, one of the city’s most distinctive landmarks.
North of Bangkok, the ruins of the walled city of Sukhothai lie on Thailand’s central plains. Easily accessible by bus via the modern settlement nearby, there are also some convenient hostels in the vicinity.
Dating back to the 13th century, the city originally housed around 40 separate temples. Today, the most important site is the large Wat Mahathat, surrounded by a moat and filled with the remains of many of Sukhothai’s ancient monuments.
Heading further north, public transport whisks backpackers on to Chiang Mai. This laidback and old-fashioned city is an intriguing sight in itself, although it’s mainly a center for hilltribe trekking in the mountains which surround it.
The beautiful Wat Phra Singh is the city’s must-see temple with its exemplary 19th century Lanna architecture, interior murals and gilded roof pediment. To the east sit the ruins of Wat Chedi Luang, once home to the Emerald Buddha, but destroyed by an earthquake in 1545.
Wat Phu Tok
Thailand’s least visited region, the northeastern province of Issan is home to Wat Phu Tok, a stunning retreat perched on the rocky outcrops of the red hills to the east of Nong Khai.
Built by meditation master Phra Ajaan Juen, it winds itself into the cliffs with wooden walkways that represent the seven levels of Buddhist enlightenment. The top level, on the flat of the hill, is in the midst of an overgrown forest.
Although it’s best reached by car, Wat Phu Tok is also accessible by bus from Bung Kan or the nearest town, Ban Siwilai, where there are also a handful of budget hotels providing beds for backpackers exploring the region.