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Thai architecture


From: Thailand: Traits and Treasures, National Identity Board, ©2005 by Office of The Permanent Secretary, The Prime Minister’s Office, ISBN 974-9771-52-4


Since historical time, Thai architecture has been grouped into three categories, consisting of Buddhist temples and their monasteries, known as Wat in Thai, palaces, and houses. Buildings of each category are of distinct character, representing traditions in arts and craftsmanship. Art historians have further distinguished eight periods in the evolution of Thai architecture, namely, Dvaravati, Srivijaya, Lop Buri, Chiang Saen, Sukhothai, U Thong, Ayutthaya andRattanakosin.

In the recent past, in the Rattanakosin Period, during the Sixth Reign (1910-1925) and the Seventh Reign (1925-1935), houses which are known as Ruean Panya, houses without ornamental gable ends, and Ruean Manila, recognizable by decorative items such as wooden, carved eaves, porches and artistic iron lattice trim, became popular. Under the impact of the transformation from the absolute to the constitutional monarchy, the introduction of parliamentary democracy and the adoption of Western technologies, architecture has reflected the blending of styles at great variety. While this is visible in government offices, commercial buildings and residential housing, Buddhist temples and monasteries, old and new alike, have upheld and preserved the Thai architectural tradition.

Architecture of Religious Edifices

Thailand is a country where freedom of worship is guaranteed. People enjoy the liberty to practice their religious belief as they desire. Based on the understanding that all religions induce their followers to lead their life in an observant, righteous and salutary manner, the king and his government have extended patronage equally to all religious communities in the kingdom. This explains the great variety of religious buildings throughout the country, including those of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity as well as shrines of celestial deities, ancestors, guardian spirits and local, benevolent spirits. Believers and pious people adhering to any of the various religions or spiritual protectors have rallied at religious sites established for worshipping, saying prayers, performing of religious rites and ceremonies, teaching and rendering assistance to those in need, complete with quarters for their monks, priests, prayer leaders, or sage individuals. By religious affiliation, these edifices are visibly distinct by their particular features. Buddhist temples and monasteries are recognized by structures like the Phra Ubosot, (the ordination hall), the Vihan, Chedi, Prang, Sala Kanparian, (preaching hall), Ho Trai, (the Tripitaka Hall), the Bell or Drum Tower, and the Kuti, the resident monks abodes. Likewise, there are Hindu temples, among them notably Brahmin temples, Christian churches, and Muslim mosques. Other structures of religious significance are shrines such as those housing the town pillars, those for ancestor worshipping, and those for seeking help from a host of local deities and spirits.

Temple and Monastery Precinct - Wat

The monastery is the central point for all Buddhist religious activities, enshrined the various rites and ceremonies. Various buildings within the compound of a monastery each serves a specific purpose. Objects of worship are enshrined, and the abodes of monks are located therein. As Buddhism has long been the religion of the Thai nation, the country has many Buddhist monasteries and temples, dating from ancient times, of which many have fallen into disrepair. Their present number exceeds, by far, those of the edifices of other religions. Buddhist monasteries and temples have remained the focal point of Thai culture and society. They are the embodiment of traditional architecture, a treasure trove of the fine arts like painting and sculpture, with superb specimens adorning the temple structures, and a source of inspiration for the upholding of traditional temple design and construction technique.

Two categories of Buddhist temples are distinguished in Thailand. They are the temples under royal patronage and the temples in the care of local worshippers. The former has been created by the king or by persons whose dedication has been graciously received by the king under his
patronage and duly registered as such. All temples built and maintained by worshippers among the general public are located at sites graciously granted by the king.

The buildings in a temple compound form two ensembles, the temple premise and the monks’ quarters. The former includes buildings and structures known as Bot, Wihan, Chedi, Sala Kanparian and Bell and Drum Tower. The monks’ quarters comprise the abodes known as Kuti,
the refectory and the pantry, among others. The structures of the two ensembles differ in architecture and refinement. They also reflect the period of their origin, the endowment by their founders and donors, and the contributions by their supporters.

Impressions of eminent temples in distant history can be formed by visiting the remains of certain ancient monuments at various sites such as at the World Heritage Sites of Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai and at Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya as well as the Chiang Saen Historical Park, to name some examples.

Shrines and Spirit Shelters

To mark an auspicious site, symbolic objects are placed there for people to pay homage,  worship, seek blessing, or secure help, or else good fortune from them. People who believe in spirits and their supernatural power have provided an abode or shelter for spirits, in which to place idols. There are numerous categories of shrines and shelters for powerful spirits. Examples are shrines for celestial deities, ancestors, guardian spirits, and spirits perceived as inhabiting the animated environment.

Shrines and spirit shelters of particular significance are introduced hereunder.

City Pillar Shrine : San Chao Pho Lak Mueang

An eminent deity has been recognized as the guardian of the city protecting its population and ensuring its welfare. Thailand has several such pillar shrines, in Bangkok and in cities as well as towns throughout the country.

Any such shrine houses a pillar made from wood of an auspicious kind, venerated as the founding pillar of the settlement. Its top has been anointed by the king, using some fragrant and moistened paste.


Brahmin Shrines

Shrines of deities widely held in adoration include some immenselypopular shrines of the Hindu God Brahma and also of the Gods Vishnu and Ganesh. The statue of the Goddess Thorani, the Earth Goddess, has been a landmark in the historical core area of Bangkok.

Guardian Spirit Shrines

Small buildings built in Chinese or Thai style have been built as abodes for spirits of various kinds, including those of some deceased persons, of mythical or legendary figures, or of supernatural powers, where idols are kept, prayers said, oracles consulted, rites conducted and ceremonies performed. Examples of this category of shrines are San Chao Pho Suea, San Chao Mae Thap Thim, San Chao Mae Soi Dok Mak, San Chao Pho Khun Tan and San Chao Pho Ho Klong.

Ancestral Shrines

Venerated idols or statues of heroes are enshrined in buildings of different architecture in many instances designed to suit the surroundings of historical significance. The object of veneration is an ancestor whose protection is sought. Ancesral shrines of this kind are those dedicated to King Naresuan the Great, King Taksin the Great, Prince Chumphon Khet Udomsak, and Phan Thai Norasingh.

Religious Edifices of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam

Hindu deities are enshrined in several temples where Brahmin ceremonies take place. An eminent Hindu Brahmin temple is located on Thanon Dinso, Bangkok, built at the same time as the Girant Swing, by royal command of King Rama l, in 1784. The three buildings in Thai style are laid out in line, with the large one enshrining the idol of the God Shiva, the one in the middle housing the idol of the God Ganesh, and the third one as the sanctuary of the idols of Vishnu, also known as Narai, and of the Goddesses Lakshmi and Maha Savali.

Another well-known temple dedicated to the goddess Uma is Si Maha Umathewi, situated at the corner of Silom and Pan Roads in Bang Rak District of Bangkok. In the centre of this temple of the Sakti sect built in the southern Indian style 1879 the image of the goddess is enshrined. It is surrounded by idols of Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna, Ganesh, Khantha Kuman, Lakshmi and Kali. In the centre of the courtyard, a small Devalai with Siva Lingam and miniature models of sacred buildings lie.

Christian Churches

Throughout recent history, Thai sovereigns have granted land for the construction of Christian churches and donated other resources to their communities. Nowadays, Christians attend religious services in many churches all over the country, most of them built in Western architectural style. The following are two examples.

Santa Cruz Church is situated or the west bank of the Chao Phraya River. It was first built, at the time when Thon Buri was the capital of Siam, on the initiative of Padre Corre, and named Maha Kangkhen, Church of the Holy Cross. Early in the Rattanakosin Period, it was resurrected by Bishop Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix who renamed it Santa Cruz Church.

Portuguese residents of Ayutthaya, who fled the former capital after it had been sacked by the Burmese for the second time late in the 18th Century, built the Calvary Church on the east bank, in Samphanthawong District, Bangkok. At its site, a new church in Gothic architectural style was built in 1891. Its interior features a ceiling showing the star-studded sky and stained-glass windows depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments.


The architectural design of mosques, where Muslims gather to pray, listen to sermons and strengthen the communal bond, features a main building of one or several storeys, flanked by two minarets called Ho Arsan. The ground plan is mostly laid out as a square. A structural feature popular among Muslims in Thailand is a dome that tops the main building, with matching minarets.

Mosques as the centres of Muslim communities all over the country have enjoyed support of the Royal Thai Government. Mosques are concentrated in the four southern provinces of Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat and Satun. The central mosque of Yala province, named Rao Dor Tula Yannah, is the largest in Thailand. Deemed the most magnificent of Thailand is the central mosque in Pattani Province, altogether the first with two buildings for ablutions before saying prayers, one for men and the other for women. On the site of an earlier mosque, Masjid BamBang, the central mosque in Satun Province, was built in 1849 by Phraya Samannatarat Burin, the then governor of Satun.

There are several more old mosques like the one in Ayutthaya Province, named Chao Phra Khun Ta Kia, and the one of the Kudi Khao community in Thon Buri, known as Masjid Bang Luang.

Palace Architecture

According to ancient Thai belief, the king was born as an incarnation of a deity, who had descended onto earth to take care of people’s welfare. The architecture therefore reflects the monarch’s exalted status through grand design, excellent execution, and dignified appearance. This is embodied, among other features, in tiered roofs and top structures in the shape of a Prasat. The interior of most such buildings was fully gilded and decorated with inlaid pieces of coloured glass. Royal palaces included various edifices, among them the Throne Halls, residential buildings for the king and members of the royal family, and quarters for employees of the royal household.

Housing Architecture

Architectural styles of residential houses, commercial structures and office buildings have been shaped by people’s wisdom in response to requirements of a particular locality. Over time, construction materials have ranged from bamboo, nipa palm leaves, thatch grass and wood
to brick with mortar and concrete. Preferences have varied by climate, cultural traditions, social values and norms, and economic activities as well as lifestyle along the ruralurban continuum.

The Central Thai House

Owing to the hot climate, the largely flat terrain and the likelihood of inundation through rainfall and flooding by rivers, farmers representing the majority of the population have settled high above the ground near watercourses, the essential sources of their livelihood and means of transportation. Three types of Central Thai houses are distinguished, as described hereunder.

Ruean Khrueang Phuk, the “structure tied together” has been a common type in the Central Plain and found throughout the country as well. Non-durable materials easily found on location like bamboo, nipa palm leaves and thatch grass were used together with wood. The wooden
frame was closed with plaited bamboo wall panels and the roof covered with thatch grass. All materials were tied together using rattan or bamboo strips.

Ruean Khrueang Sap is the type of house whose hard wooden structure is joined using bolts and wedges as well as some metal building material. Houses of this type have been built as either single structures or ensembles of two or more structures, in one and the same compound. The latter are usually connected through verandahs. It is this type of house that has become known and appreciated as Ruean Thai.

A unique variant is the Ruean Phae, the floating house, built on a raft that is anchored at the river shore.

The Northern Thai House

Three types are distinguished, namely, {1} Ruean Khrueang Phuk or Ruean Mai Bua {2} RueanKhrueang Sap or Ruean Ka Lae, and {3} Ruean Song Sala Nai. The Ruean Khrueang Phuk orRuean Mai Bua is the original northern Thai house constructed with a frame of hard wood, with walls made from plaited bamboo panels, and the roof thatched with banana leaves or vetiver. All components are tied fast using rattan or bamboo strips. These houses are usually built on high posts, subdivided into separate rooms and a spacious verandah. The Ruean Khrueang Sab orRuean Ka Lae is a hard wood twin structure on high posts that is roofed with tiles and has gables decorated with fine, ornamental carvings in “V” shape.

The Ruean Song Sala Nai is a variant of the Ruean Ka Lae, with adaptations of elements of houses in the Central Plain or showing influences of eastern style. Typically, gables and eaves are decorated with wood-carvings. Houses of this style have become ever more popular since the reign of King Rama V.

The Northeastern Thai House

Basically similar to either the Ruean Khrueang Phuk or the Ruean Khrueang Sap of the Central Plain and the Northern Thai house types as well, the following house forms are distinguished across the Northeast of Thailand.

Tup is a temporary, small shelter, built on the ground or with a somewhat elevated floor, with a gabled roof and walls made from plaited bamboo panels.

Ruean Yao is built on high posts with a gabled roof. The structure is tied fast. It has two rooms, one a room for sleeping and the other a multipurpose space. There is no kitchen.

A semi-permanent variant of the Ruean Yao, which has three rooms, or two rooms and a verandah, yet no kitchen, is known as Koei.

Ruean Koei is the name of a wooden structure on high posts witha gabled roof and walls made from plaited bamboo panels. It has a roofed verandah extending form the main house to an open platform or terrace, on which a fireplace or kitchen and a shed with jars to store drinking water are located.

Ruean Khong is a variant of the Ruean Koei, where the Ruean Koei is the large structure facing a smaller structure called Ruean Khong that is built apart yet connected by an open platform.

Ruean Faet features the main house with another structure at the same, raised floor-level or at a somewhat lower one, where the latter is being built incrementally.

Taken from: Thailand: Traits and Treasures. The National Identity Board, Royal Thai Government 2005.


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