It doesn’t take long on the tourist trail to spot Thailand’s unique architectural legacy in the form of temples and wat complexes. As with Thai art, much of the country’s most impressive architectural forms represent religious glorification, with magnificently detailed temple buildings, towering chedis (pagodas) and intricate woodwork.
It’s the focus of major studies in Asian architecture and considered one of Thailand’s greatest contributions to fine arts. A trip to the Grand Palace in Bangkok immediately reveals the sensible symmetry and beauty in the multi-tiered roofs, multiple spires and painstaking detail of filligree, lintels and decoration.
Thai architecture through the ages has a rich background dating from the earliest Lavo forms in Lopburi, and subsequent distinct Khmer influence in the form of phrangs (gerkhin shaped pagodas). These can be seen notably at Ayutthaya, but classic Sukhothai and Lanna styles predate this period and are well preserved in the north. Sandstone carved Buddhas and structures were gradually replaced with brickwork, but the shapes and appearance haven’t evolved too radically from what you see in Chiang Mai to the more modern gaudy temples of Bangkok.
Historians will point out subtle differences, such as the bell-shaped classic chedis of Sukhotahai or the colonial influences that were blended in from the 18th century. Even modern civic buildings are a stately combination of the two. But it is the temples which have preserved the most important elements of Thai architecture, since most people lived in simple wooden houses which were perishable over the decades.
The ruins at Sukhothai and Ayutthaya offer the best glimpse into the ancient architecture of the area, but the oldest surviving temples are generally found in the north. Wat Chamdewi in Lamphun is nearly 1,000 years old, while Wat Chiang Man in Chiang Mai is in good condition for its 700 years. In Bangkok, very little is older than 250 years, accept Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) across the river in the older settlement of Thon Buri.
But the most distinctive and prolific examples of Thailand’s contribution to unique architectural beauty is the multi-tiered roofs and symmetrical form of its temples. Complete with a myriad of symbolic and refined details, these masterpieces leave visitors in awe at their sheer beauty. The designs may have changed slightly over the centuries but the basic format and character remains, with plenty of emphasis on detail and finish.
Palaces and important buildings were invariably built of teak, considered the most luxurious and durable material of the time, and the Vimnamek Palace in The Dusit area of Bangkok offers a fine example of royal residences in the 19th century. Regrettably those that graced the grand capital of Ayutthaya were razed by the invading Burmese in 1767. However, a replica of the Grand Throne Hall has been recreated at the worthwhile Ancient City historic theme park south of Bangkok.
King Chulalongkorn took a special interest in European architecture during his late 19th century reign, and a hundred years later Bangkok now boasts a modern façade of skyscrapers which are indistinguishable from any other rapidly developing modern Asian city. The Thais love building and liberally mix in neo-Greco Roman, Italian, modern Chinese and other styles. Despite rows upon rows of functional shophouses across the city, some lovely residential mansions shine through.
Luckily pockets of the old wooden shophouse lanes remain, as does individual suburbs like Chinatown in Bangkok. Tucked away not far away from the huge concrete masses of shopping malls in the Siam Square area is Jim Thompson’s House. This former upper class residence of the famed silk trader has been turned into a museum which accurately shows the comfort of well-to-do Siamese at the turn of the last century.
To see a more attractive side of Bangkok and witness some handsome architecture you might want to tour the Dusit area, which is full of low-rise governmental mansions with an eclectic mix of styles.