Buddhist Architecture Part 3: Wat or Not?
January 23, 2015
Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai, Thailand | Duende by Madam ZoZo

In Part 1 of Buddhist Architecture 101, I defined the purpose of a pagoda; in Part 2 I elaborated on the significance of stupas. Part 3 will delve into the wat. A wat is a complex that combines a number of important religious buildings. These include a monks residence, a stupa, a building for a large image of Buddha known as a wihan, and a congregation hall for religious lessons, sermons and ordination of new monks. By its technical definition, a wat must also have a minimum of three resident monks. Wats can be found in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

In Thailand wat buildings often exhibit the local architectural characteristics of tiered roofs with decorative Lamyongs (bargeboards) that usually take either the undulating form of Nāga (snake deity of Buddhism and Hinduism) or feathers of Garuda (a mythical bird).

The finials that protrude from the bottom corners of the Lamyongs are called a hang hong (goose tail) and are shaped as Nāga’s head turned up and away from the building. Sometimes this is stylised in a Kranok (flame-like) motif or may have multiple heads. The ornament at the peak of the Lamyong is called a chofa (sky tassel) and takes the form of Garuda’s beak.

Lamyong | Buddhist Architecture 101 | Duende by Madam ZoZo
Naga shaped lamyong (bargeboard) and kranok style hang hong.
Chofa's of Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai, Thailand

Laotian wats are generally more modest in appearance when compared to their Thai or Cambodian neighbours. Characteristic features of Laotian architecture mostly relate to the ordination hall.  The hall may possess a roof ornament called dok so fa (pointing to the sky), which represents the centre of the universe; an ornately carved panel hanging over the entrance of the hall called dok huang phueang (beehive pattern); and a tall, peaked tile roof that sweeps downward in a number of tiers.

Wat Mai, Luang Prabang, Laos | Buddhist Architecture 101 | Duende by Madam ZoZo
Wat Mai, Luang Prabang, Lao PDR. Here you can see the dok so fa and multi-tiered roof.

Most of the wats you will hear referred to in Cambodia are those of the Angkor complex, an archaeological site covering 400 square kilometres, containing ruins of various types of religious buildings. The buildings were constructed by the historical residents of the land, the Khmer Empire. Technically none of the buildings fit the definition of a wat by having resident monks, instead the term is widely used to denote a variety of religious buildings.

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Built by Khmer ruler Suryavarman II as a tribute to Hindu deity Vishnu.

As leadership of the empire changed over time, so too did the dominant religion, generally alternating between Hinduism and Buddhism.  Therefore the buildings of Angkor are a unique mix of architecture and symbolism.  The most reliable common factor is that they are all made of stone or brick, as only religious buildings were.

If you missed Part 1 or Part 2 of the Buddhist Architecture 101 series, you can shortcut to them here.

Peace, love & inspiring travel,

Madam ZoZo

Buddhist Architecture 101 For Travellers
Buddhist Architecture 101 For Travellers

About author

Madam ZoZo

Hi! I'm Madam ZoZo, aka Zoë, an Australian designer, creative consultant, blogger and digital nomad. I'm passionate about travel, design, dance and new experiences that fuel my creativity. I strive to travel in a style that is gentle on the earth and that contributes to the communities I visits, even if it is merely to take away a greater understanding of a different culture. Duende by Madam ZoZo, is where I share the stories of my travels and the duende (soul/inspiration) I find along the way.


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  • […] I will be finishing up the Buddhist Architecture 101 series with Part 3: Wat or Not? If you missed Part 1: Pagoda, check it out […]

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