Whilst many travelers may be used to depictions of the Buddha as overweight and bald, they might be surprised to learn that this isn’t the image of Buddha that Thais worship. The overweight, often laughing Buddha is from Mahayana Buddhism, which is followed across North and Eastern Asia. Thailand’s Buddha comes from Theravada Buddhism, the school of Buddhism practiced throughout the country. An extremely revered figure, many who visit his likeness at temples often leave flowers and incense at the base of the statue, and many prostrate themselves and pray to him. Those who visit temples should ensure they behave in the correct manner around statues of the Buddha, including not touching the head and never positioning themselves as higher than the statue.
The serpent-like statue that looks like a dragon or snake is, in fact, neither — it’s a Naga. Naga are fearsome creatures that can be found in both the Buddhist and Hindu faiths, and serve as guardians of the temples. Revered and feared in equal measure, many locals claim that Naga live in the Mekong River, aside from the temples. As well as being important figures in Thai culture, the Naga also feature in Lao mythology, where they’re said to be the protectors of the country.
The national emblem of Thailand, Garuda is a part-bird, part-human creature that’s prominent in Buddhism and Hinduism, where he’s said to be the mount of the god Vishnu. Whilst they may adorn the same temples as the Naga, Buddhist texts depict the two creatures as enemies who constantly clashed with one another. Away from temples, the Garuda represents the authority of the King of Thailand, and can be found on government documents as well as on banknotes.
You may have noticed yakshas, or yak, in temples as well as in the departure hall of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport. Whilst they may look intimidating with their large teeth and piercing eyes, they’re said to be benevolent creatures who strive to ensure goodness prevails over evil. Yak have served as guardians to temples in Thailand since the 14th century, where they keep away malevolent spirits and strike fear into anyone who seeks to do harm.
Ganesh, Shiva and Vishnu
Despite being Hindu and Brahmin deities, the three feature prominently as statues at Thai temples. Ganesh — instantly recognisable as an elephant’s head on a human’s body — can also be found at temples throughout Thailand. Known in Thai as Phra Pikanet, he is a well-respected figure amongst Buddhists. Known as a deity who can remove obstacles, he’s often prayed to by those about to undertake a new venture to ensure everything goes well, and is also associated with the arts and good luck. Vishnu is depicted as having four arms, and often alongside his mount Garuda. Historically, the Khmer Empire had a large influence in Thailand, and many temples were created and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Today, Shiva remains a respected figure amongst Buddhists and can commonly be found at temples across the country.