DO you know the difference between a pagoda, a temple and a stupa?
I have been to Asia dozens of times since my rookie tour back in 1994, and ventured inside more Buddhist sanctuaries than I can remember, but it wasn’t until my first sojourn in Myanmar at the end of 2015 that a guide explained the difference.
Seems a pagoda is an all-encompassing term used to describe a Buddhist place of worship; a temple is a single structure within the compound, with at least one door for the devout to enter to pray; and a stupa is solid with no doors that worshippers can only admire from the outside.
There are thousands of Buddhist pagodas and monasteries dotted around Asia – from the famous in Bagan, Myanmar, to the hidden wats dotted around Loei Province in Thailand’s mountainous north – but some conventions must be observed when venturing inside.
Respect the ettiquette
Intrepid Travel’s Myanmar manager Aye Mya Mya Soe says travellers need to dress appropriately.
“Wear clothing that covers knees and shoulders. Removing shoes and socks is customary when entering pagodas or monastery compounds,” she says.
“Travellers need to respect monks. This can be shown by bowing and keeping heads lower than the monks or statues. It’s important to know monks cannot touch or be touched by women. Images of Buddha are sacred so do not pose for photos with them.
“Many Burmese keep wearing the traditional dress of a long-sleeve shirt and longyi (sarong-like skirt) as a sign of respect, especially when they go to the pagoda or meet with monks. They find it inappropriate to see someone with short clothing in sacred places.
“Taking off shoes is similar to a man removing his hat in a church to show respect to the sacred place. Buddha did not say anything about it, according to records, but it is a custom.”
Travelmarvel’s Asia expert Stuart Lyall says visitors should never eat inside a temple, “especially after noon as monks only eat before midday’’.
“When sitting, do not point your feet towards any Buddhist as it is considered the height of rudeness,” he says.
“Respect the temple by talking softly, stand up and face the monks and nuns as they enter the temple, and always sit down when talking to a monk ad while these are tips for visiting a Buddhist temple but the religion is very forgiving of a few ignorant mistakes.”
Going without a guide
Lyall says that while daily routines vary between temples, the two main activities are meditation and teaching. Most movement is in the morning before monks and nuns eat their last meal for the day at lunch.
“I like to visit Buddhist temples in the morning, just after the monks return from their alms procession, when you can also beat the heat,’’ he says.
“Timing of activities in temples around Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, India and Tibet vary but are usually based on the lunar calendar with the holy day Uposatha observed weekly on the new moon, full moon, and quarter moons and mostly in the morning.
“The shrine found in the temple is a focal point of meditation and at the centre there’s an image of Buddha that may be made of various materials such as marble, gold, wood or even clay, that help people recall the qualities of Buddha and inspire them to work towards cultivating these qualities themselves.’’