Thai Architecture Part 1: Origins of its Aesthetic

11 May 2024

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There are distinguishing characteristics to Thai architecture that one can observe in modern buildings, ancient monuments and everything in between. Initially, these shapes were only people's answers to daily challenges or shows of power. Now they are permanently inscribed into the fabric of the country's architectural design style. These forms evolved throughout thousands of years of artistic craftsmanship to become the legendary aesthetic we see today.


Thailand's temple and palace architecture stand out with vibrant colours, ornate embellishments, and multi-tiered roofs. They incorporate Indian, Khmer, Burmese, and Chinese architectural styles yet are uniquely Thai. No trip to Thailand is complete without seeing the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew, and the ruins of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai. Each shows Thai architecture's historical and contemporary evolution.

Thailand's architecture is a sight to behold and a must-do whenever you visit the country. It is an essential component of the country's historical and cultural legacy because many building types represent the difficulties of surviving in the country's often harsh environment and, more generally, the centrality of buildings to the Thai people's feeling of community and religious beliefs. 


There is considerable regional variation in Thailand's vernacular and religious architecture, which has been influenced by the architectural traditions of many of its neighbours. Siam was driven to be a modern state, yet Western culture and influence were inevitable. Nevertheless, Thailand's ruling elite sought selective Modernization to avoid Western influence.


Thai Religious Architecture Origins

King Indraditya founded the Sukhothai Kingdom in 1780 with Buddhist-inspired architecture. The architecture was an elegant reflection of Siam's strength and culture throughout the Ayutthaya Period.

Ayutthaya's temple compound ruins include an ordination hall, a preaching hall, and a dome-shaped chedi containing holy relics. In Khmer-influenced temples, the chedi was replaced by an elongated prang, like in Bangkok's Wat Arun. Open-sided sala pavilions and guti apartments housed monks in the temple complex.

Temple columns were often shaped into lotus buds to symbolize Buddha's purity, and eight stones were placed around the bot to ward off evil spirits. Roof peaks usually had curled, pointed extensions called a chofa - symbolic of the Garuda, Vishnu's vehicle in Buddhist and Hindu mythology.


Bangkok's Grand Palace has similar symbolic elements. Successive royals created this complex over 200 years, and while it has some traditional aspects, it also features diverse, western styles.

It was initially split into courts, walls, gates, and forts like the Ayutthaya Royal Palace. Wat Phra Kaew, aka the "Temple of the Emerald Buddha," was designed in the late 18th century in accordance with historic traditions dating back to Wat Mahathat in Sukhothai. Phra Thinang Chakri Maha Prasat shows 19th-century European styles, reflecting King Rama V's and his foreign architects' preferences.

The teak-built Vimanmek Mansion in Bangkok's Dusit neighbourhood and King Chulalongkorn's Italianate palace Bang Pa-In both have European influences. Sino-Portuguese storehouses with a ground-floor shopfront and a second-floor residential room were popular in 19th-century Thailand. These slender, two-story buildings are still visible in Phuket and Bangkok's Chao Phraya River.

The northeast of Thailand, previously part of the Khmer empire, has distinct regional architecture. Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung and Prasat Khao Phra Viharn both include Khmer architecture. Others built in what was then the Kingdom of Lanna have Burmese influences.


The kings' divinity and Buddhism's architectural conception of paradise prompted artisans to construct a masterpiece for the religion and the rulers. Their ambitious effort should bring them wealth, social status, and heaven. However, while artisans do their best for monarchs and royal members, Thai architecture has hierarchical laws and guidelines.


Thai Secular Architecture Origins

Thai architecture features steeply-sloping tile roofs, open-air areas, and lush gardens.


Thailand was an agricultural society. Fishing and farming supported many families, so buildings were built adjacent to rivers and canals. They settled near water because it helped to farm. These waterways also provided transport. But flooding required the homes to be raised off the ground. Then, they would use the ample space beneath when the water receded. 

Traditional Thai house architecture highlights the relationship between the Thai lifestyle and the natural surroundings by building on high posts and using local materials. Thai house architecture is influenced by regional environment, culture, and traditions. 

In addition, natural environments, religious beliefs, and direct or indirect adoption of foreign civilizations promote changes in art. Thai art refers to traditional, custom-made works with distinct shapes and identities. Thai people adorned many buildings and homes, especially religious structures, with murals. 


Thai art combines natural beauty, religious beliefs, classic literature, and people's livelihood via creativity, ideal imagination, and national identity. Its form and substance reveal Thai artists' innate tenderness.

Thailand is known for its traditional buildings on stilts, many located along rivers and canals that flood during the rainy season. Under the home is used for storage, keeping chickens or ducks, and relaxing during the day, while the upper level is for sleeping.


Stilt houses are generally built with prefabricated wooden panels from wood or bamboo. Superstition plays a significant role in traditional Thai house design, with taboos against altering a home once it's finished and concerning which plants can be placed on the terrace. In sleeping regions, the head shouldn't point west because that's how the dead are cremated.

Thai homes follow three traditional principles: material preparation, construction, and living. "Material preparation" relates to the house's trees, soil, and site, while "building" must be done carefully. Rituals are done when the first column is placed, and a guardian spirit dwelling is built to ward off evil. "Dwelling" refers to the proper behaviour of house residents, who must follow particular spiritual beliefs and practices.

Modern Thais adhere to these principles less and less, yet many still believe in making household dwellings sacred. Some rites are being changed to fit modern lifestyles and values.

Many architects and homeowners still install lotus ponds as an interior or outdoor adornment—a generation-old tradition. Besides candles and incense, lotuses are often offered to Buddha pictures. A lotus pond is a characteristic feature of homes in the central region. During floods, people install attractive and fragrant plants on their terraces. Some embellish their lotus pond with mountain boulders and ivies.


Thai Modern Architecture 

Thailand has embraced modern architecture, as seen in Bangkok. Thai people built many of the city's skyscrapers and shopping malls during the 1980s and 1990s development boom. Silom's MahaNakhon is the city's tallest building at 314 meters, while the Elephant Building in Chatuchak is one of the 20 most famous skyscrapers in the world. Baiyoke Tower II's 84th-floor observation deck offers 360-degree views of the city.

Despite modernity, Thailand's old architecture and mansions are being renovated into boutique hotels and museums. As a result, Bangkok is a fascinating mix of old and new, with modern influences and technology alongside Thai classical architecture.


Some well-known Thai sites that showcase the country's architecture are listed below.


Examples of Thai Architecture From Ancient to Modern


Prasat Hin Phimai

Phimai Historical Park, built during the 11th and 12th centuries, is the largest Khmer temple in Thailand. Buddhist temples are facing Angkor in Cambodia.

The temple walls represent stories from Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Buddha's life. A Buddhist temple built by Hindu monarchs is particular because it links religious identities.

Temple Town is a famous example of Khmer architecture and shows the city's importance during its construction.



Wat Rong Khun

Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat designed and funded the Wat Rong Khun structure. Now it's a collapsing 20th-century temple.

Wat Rong Khun, sometimes called The White Temple, is white and sparkles because the plaster contains glass.

Although called a temple, it's a privately-owned Buddhist-inspired exhibit. White denotes Budhha's purity, while the glass represents his teachings, Dhamma. A bridge surrounded by frantic hands portrays Hell. Humanity believes heaven resides beyond Hell. The building's interior features traditional and contemporary sculptures that showcase the artist's talent. The temple's magnificence continues as construction continues.



Wat Arun Ratchawararam

Wat Arun Ratchawararam, also called Temple of Dawn, Wat Chaeng, or Wat Arun, is named after the Hindu God Aruna. King Rama II and King Rama IV of Thailand's Chakri dynasty renovated most of the current structure. The temple was built during Ayutthaya.

The temple represents Mount Meru, the Buddhist universe's centre. The 70-metre-tall grand pagoda is embellished with colourful glass and Chinese porcelain and encircled by four lesser pagodas ornamented with seashells. The Buddhist-influenced temple houses the Emerald Buddha.

Sunrise and sunsets are breathtaking at this riverside temple as it reflects the sunlight with stunning pearly iridescence.



Wat Phra Kaew

Wat Phra Kaew, sometimes called the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is Thailand's holiest Buddhist site. The 66-centimetre-tall Budhha is carved from a single jade stone. In 1782, King Rama I enshrined it at Wat Phra Kaew.

Wat Phra Kaew consists of numerous buildings undergoing Rattanakosin or old Bangkok-style architectural experiments. 

Indian architecture impacted the construction by adding 'yakshis' to guard the temple gates and floral themes. Later additions added frescos depicting the Buddha's life, while the original orange and green tiles, marble, and mosaic pillars remain.



The Grand Palace

The Grand Palace was established by King Phutthayotfa Chulalok or Rama I of the Chakri Dynasty in 1785.

Due to periodic rebuilding, the palace's architecture spans decades. 

The royal home is one of Thailand's top tourist sites and a typical example of dynastic architecture. In addition, it's utilized annually for royal ceremonies.



Elephant Tower

The 1997 Elephant Tower, inspired by the country's national animal, was voted 4th by CNN as '20th World's Iconic Skyscrapers' in February 2011.

Ong-at Satrabhandhu and Dr Arun Chaisaree developed the 102-meter-tall Elephant Tower. It has offices, apartments, a bank, and shopping centres.

Towers A, B, and C form the elephant's body, while the right edge has the eyes and tusk. It symbolizes postmodern architecture and millennial technology.



Robot Building

The Robot Building, also known as the Bank of Asia Tower, contains the headquarters of United Overseas Bank. It was finished in 1987 with Sumet Jumsai as lead architect.

The design reflected the expanding importance of computer technology in the banking industry and is one of the city's remaining modernist monuments. It resembles a robot with two antennae on the roof and reflective glass windows for the eyes.

Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art named it one of the 'fifty important buildings of the 20th century.'



King Power MahaNakhon

MahaNakhon, Thailand's tallest building until 2018, was designed by Ole Scheeren and opened in 2016.

MahaNakhon is an architectural marvel that resembles a glass-curtained square wrapped in a spiral of cut cuboids. It looks to be dissolving.

MahaNakhon means 'Great Metropolis' in Thai, and the term fits the tower that seems to move between sky and ground.



Bangkok University's Landmark Complex

Architects 49 Limited expanded the university's facilities with the 2010 BU Landmark.

The structure resembles a diamond, the university's symbol. The building's pond provides a natural prism, reflecting light and generating a dazzling colour.

Although it's part of an institution, the building is a good illustration of Thailand's recent architectural development.



To Be Continued

Next, we'll get into the influences on the country's Architectural style, the Thai peoples' design principles and superstitions that guide their aesthetic, construction, and layout decisions.


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