What makes a good wat?

Kyaik Than Lan Pagoda

We have spent just over three months in southeast Asia. Here they arguably make the most beautiful and impressive places of buddhist worship, whether they are called wats, payas, temples or pagodas. During these months I couldn’t help but become a bit of a wat connoisseur (or wat snob) myself.

In my opinion there are three components that turn a wat into a great wat: elevation, abundance of buddhas, and not too many stupas.

Elevation

Ideally you have to walk a considerable number of steps uphill to get to the main temple, most commonly on covered stairs. On the way up you will most likely see a number of minor pagodas, appetiser temples so to speak. The stairs leading to any temple should be lined with shops where you can buy everything from cold drinks and snacks to Buddha paraphernalia.

Unfortunately most temples fail to deliver on the suspense they build on the long ascent to the top. The pagodas on Mandalay Hill peter out somewhat after a rapid succession of nearly-but-not-quite-there-yet pre-pagodas. The temple on Mount Popa is a real letdown in all its monkey poo covered drabness. And I’ve even climbed up the stairs to the top of a hill near Mawlamyine where there was no pagoda at all!

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Abundance of Buddha statues

On top of the temple platform there is ideally a vast variety of Buddha statues. Different poses, different sizes, different materials. The more the merrier.

The meditating Buddha, the grounded Buddha and the reclining Buddha are all an absolute necessity. But I also like to see the stop Buddha, the bowl carrying Buddha, the fat and happy Buddha and even more apocryphal poses. Sitting, standing and lying down.

Gold is the perfect colour for any Buddha sculpture, but for the perfect pagoda experience I also like to see marble Buddhas, painted clay Buddhas, and – very important – at least one green Buddha. They call them emerald Buddhas. They are made out of jade and are unfortunately not very popular in Myanmar, where they have all the other ingredients to make a perfect pagoda.

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Definite no-no’s

No golden Buddha statue should resemble any living or dead person. Not even the late king of Thailand, revered as he may be among the population of Thailand. I’ve seen an uncanny likeness to him in the occasional Buddha in Thailand, which I find inappropriate.

Wax figures of monks, mummified monks, golden chickens, scary green monsters, holy toads. They all have their place on the ascent to the top, in the pre-temples. But the platform of the pagoda on top of the hill should be free of them.

Stupas

I find stupas quite boring. They are basically graves – structures containing relics and/or remains of Buddhist monks or nuns. They may serve a purpose as the centrepiece of the temple and as a shelter for the big golden Buddha sculptures. But in the end they are just fancy cones on a plinth, and the fewer of them the better. I much prefer a massive golden Buddha in the centre of a temple.

My top five

  • Shwedogan Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar
  • Kyeik Than Lan Pagoda in Mawlamyine, Myanmar
  • Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand
  • Wat Phra Yai on Koh Samui, Thailand
  • Bayon at Angkor, Cambodia

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