How to Become a Buddhist Monk in Thailand


In the SE Asian nation of Thailand, which considers itself as a largely Buddhist country, ordaining as a monk has traditionally been regarded as an important, if not necessary rite of passage for young males, albeit it only temporarily for the majority of them.

This has long been done as a demonstration of commitment to Buddhism, or at least to understanding the fundamentals of it.

It is also a sign of respect to the ordaining monk’s parents, and is particularly pleasing to the mother. This act is thought to bring merit to the monk’s family as a whole, and Thai men are considered to be more suitable and prepared for societal life, and perhaps marriage, after undertaking a brief sojourn into monkhood.

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Although this largely ceremonial act is still part of Thai culture, it is gradually becoming less prominent in the lives of many modern young Thai males, especially those in the city. In the past, young novice monks would ordain for anything from 2 weeks to six months, but nowadays it can be as little as a few days for some of them.

However, Thailand has long been an attraction point for would-be Buddhists from around the world, including Westerners, many of whom have travelled across the globe to try and find enlightenment in what might seem to them like an exotic and mystical place.

The reality for most of them though is heat, humidity, mosquitos, cultural barriers, and of course, language barriers. Aside from staying in the temples of a few highly-regarded Thai monks who took it upon themselves to try and accommodate foreigners more easily, becoming a Buddhist monk in Thailand has never exactly been an easy thing to do.

But there are now more and more temples and retreats that are making it easier for non-Thais to come and experience life as a monk in Thailand, and thankfully more attempts have been made within the monkhood here to learn and use the English language more proficiently.

But it pays to research and plan such an endeavour, obviously, which is something that has been made much easier through the internet.

And although the Thais are a reasonably easy-going lot in many ways, anyone requesting to be ordained as a monk here must first agree to at least try and follow a seemingly endless list of fairly strict rules and requirements.

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This includes having studied and memorised the chants used in Buddhist rituals, which are actually in the ancient Pali dialect. Any man with the intention to ordain is expected to have communicated this to their chosen temple beforehand, rather than just turning up and expecting to be accepted.

The majority of Thais will choose to ordain at a local temple close to their family home, or perhaps at one with some special significance to the family for any reason.


At Home

Again for Thai men, according to tradition, some kind of ceremony usually takes place before he ordains in a monastery which may entail monks from the temple paying a visit to his home to pray, chant, and then commence to shave his head, eyebrows and facial hair.

The man will then bath in what is considered a symbolic act of cleansing, along with more chanting and blessings, before he changes into a robe that is white to symbolise purity.

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The soon-to-be novice monk will then make his way to the temple amid more ceremony – the means will depend on the distance – with great care being taken to ensure that his feet make no contact with the ground until he arrives. If this is a local affair there are likely to be well-wishers with offerings for the temple and a few essentials for anyone beginning life as a monk.

At the Temple

Now the ceremony begins proper with the novice monk and various other members of the throng circling the temple three times in a clockwise direction, as is customary. Then the man greets the temple abbot (head monk), undergoing a few more preliminaries before being taking vows, being ordained, and changing into his orange robes.

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Now the new monk must be approached by people on their knees to show deference, and this includes his family who will offer a basket containing supplies for the duration of his stay. This generally includes the monk’s saffron robes, an alms bowl, razors, a needle, and a water strainer, the traditional eight items prescribed to a monk.

Some monks will receive some kind of shoes like flip-flops which they are allowed to wear some of the time, along with a few other ‘luxuries’ such as a cotton bag, a sleeping mat, a pillow, and various other items, although for the most part, all usual ‘home comforts’ will be forfeited during the monk’s stay.

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It is usual for the monks to eat lunch, their single daily meal, soon after the ordination rituals have been completed. This is done according to protocol, which is to consume the meal – which will have been collected on the morning alms rounds – before midday.

If anyone else is still present such as family members or congregation, they must wait until the monks have had their fill before indulging.

After the new monk has been accepted into the monastery his family will usually organise a big party – Thai style – with lots of food, drink, and loud music. Needless to say, this will be outside of the temple and the novice monk himself will obviously be unable to attend!

So that is the normal state of affairs in local terms — much ceremony for an ordination that could last from anything between just a week to three months, although 2 weeks is common for a lot of Thai men.

Westerners in Thailand

For foreign visitors, and especially Westerners, proceedings tend to take on a different slant. There are plenty of temples in Thailand that will accept foreigners, with varying degrees of success depending on factors such as the language and the very Thai nature of doing Buddhist things in this country.

But researching this matter is much easier now than it has ever been and all the information is out there for the temples that could best accommodate non-Thai speakers.

One of the more famous Thai monks and meditation teachers of the 1970s onwards, the late Ajahn Chah, had a forest retreat temple out in the north-eastern provinces which became famous for accepting Westerners.

A few of these western students went on to become famous spiritual teachers in the west (Jack Kornell being one example) after including the Ajahn Chah experience in their spiritual journey. The temple, Wat Pahnanachat (which translates as ‘Natural Forest/Jungle Temple’) still exists and encompasses special programs of learning and ordination specifically for foreigners.

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True to the vision of Ajahn Chah’s wish to establish a monastery offering the proper training to foreigners intending to become Buddhist monks unfamiliar with Thai ways, this place was established in 1975 for just that purpose. All instruction is in English and great care is taken to progress through the training using very gradual steps, specifically with the intention of preparing the western mind for what is ahead.

Wat Pahnanachat

The ‘jungle temple’ sounds very exotic and appealing for any would-be Buddhists from western climes wishing to escape the drudgery of their culture and life in a freezing country and go off on an adventure.

But this is no holiday retreat, and the temple is most interested in accepting those with a genuine interest in long-term training within the communities associated with Ajahn Chah’s main monastery Wat Nong Pah Pong, which has a monastic code requiring that new monks to be under the guidance and instruct of a teacher for up to five years.

At present, there is no permanent nun’s community at Wat Pah Nanachat, but if you contact the temple they may be able to put you in touch with an affiliated nun’s branch.

Image by international forest monastery fom wikimedia commons

Many inspired participants arrive at the temple with the idea of ‘leaving it all behind’, but they may not have taken into consideration that this also encompasses mobile phones, tablets, laptops, and any other form of electronic gadget In for a penny, in for a pound, so to speak.

There are a fair few procedures and steps involved in undertaking study at this monastery. Having contacted Wat Pahnanachat and first stated your intentions of ordination as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, you would then be expected upon arrival to stay in the monastery as an eight-precept layperson for more than one month.

You may then go through some kind of further initiation to get to the white-robed stage of preparation, at which you will be known as a pah-kow (white robe), before being accepted into the temple’s monastic routines.

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There are no specific requirements, or becoming a pah-kow other than a record of clean physical and mental health. The temple will require you to have health insurance and sufficient funds for emergencies as safeguards, including all the necessary visa requirements and passport durations having been taken care of.

It could be as long as six months before you can proceed and need to request the Going Forth (pabbajja) as a novice monk (samanera). It is at the novice stage of training where the monk forgoes all ownership or handling of money, which means sole reliance on donations from the lay community, and training can begin proper.

For those in for the long haul of Buddhist monk training, after a year as a novice Higher Ordination can be requested which will then take the novice to full monk (bhikkhu) status, when he will get the full roster of temple duties and generally gain a fuller acceptance.

For those who were initially enthralled by the idea of becoming a Buddhist monk in Thailand who are now reading this and having second thoughts – the temple does offer the chance to come and stay as a visitor – a lay guest — before committing to anything or undertaking any kind of training. 

The recommended minimal stay is one week and normally, the maximum length of stay is 30 days but this is not related to those intending to undergo ordination. You can join in with a few activities and observe the monk life, which is not for everyone and certainly not as exotic as some might imagine.

No Kung Fu training here.Nor is Wat Pahnanachat a meditation retreat centre.

Instead what you will get here is a chance to grow and develop spiritually through the somewhat challenging lifestyle of a traditional forest monk which is based on the Dhamma-Vinaya Buddhist teachings, in the spirit of renunciation, simplicity, and quietude.

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Planning a Visit

Wat Pahnanachat can actually get quite busy, and during certain times the jungle temple receives the majority of its visitors. These periods are usually most likely around the second half of January and then again in the second half of June.

This means that accommodation is harder to come by and may even be at full capacity around these periods, so please make sure to plan your intended stay well in advance.

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Getting There

By train: If you are travelling from Bangkok there are various trains throughout the day heading to Ubon-Warin Chamrab. This station is 5 km south of Ubon Rachathani, close to Wat Pah Nanachat.

By plane: There are quite a few domestic flights per day between Bangkok and Ubon. These are usually easy to organise with budget-airlines doing domestic online reservations.

By bus: There are plenty of long-distance, air-conditioned buses with reclining seats that depart from the Northern Bus Terminal at  Mor Chit in Bangkok, which is not too far away from the BTS skytrain station of the same name.

When you get to Ubon there are plenty of Meter-Taxis that can take you directly to the monastery from wherever you land in the city. They should know the way, but Wat Pah Nanachat is not right on the main road – in fact it is about 500 meters away — in the forest behind the rice fields, with an easily-recognisable and identifiable white wall around it.

Address: Bung Wai, Warin ChamrapUbon Ratchathani, Thailand