The “What is a Wat?” and the Buddhist Architecture Series is an attempt to demystify some of the buildings and sights you might commonly experience while travelling around East Asia. I went looking for answers after a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia when it became obvious to me that the term “pagoda” had been applied to lots of different religious buildings. I’ve summarised what I learned to help you get more out of your East Asia travels.
Before you dive into “What is a Wat?” you might find it useful to have some historic background for a few of the terms in this post, provided in What is a pagoda? and What is a stupa? Don’t worry, I have intentionally kept these posts short and given you just the need-to-knows.
What is a wat?
Traditionally a wat, sometimes spelled “vat”, is a complex that combines a number of important religious buildings. These usually 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.
Confusingly, where tourists are concerned, “wat” is often used to refer to just the temple part of complex. This is probably due to the building being the most impressive of the complex and open to visitors.
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 (translating to “sky tassel”) and takes the form of Garuda’s beak.
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.
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.
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 religious symbolism.
Top 10 wats of the world
Here are some examples of interesting and unique wats to look out for on your travels:
- Wat Ounalom, Cambodia
- Angkor Wat, Cambodia
- Wat Sisaket, Laos
- Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, Laos
- Wat Chaiwatthanaram, Thailand
- Wat Pho, Thailand
- Wat Phra Kaew, Thailand
- Wat Phra That Lampang Luang, Thailand
- Wat Arun, Thailand
- Wat Rong Khun, Thailand (technically a contemporary Thai art exhibit in the form of a Buddhist temple)
I hope this post has helped you understand what is a wat and how it relates to the sights you’ll likely visit as part of an East Asia travel itinerary.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,