The Sukhothai period (13th-14th c.) is regarded as a period of notable achievement in Thai culture, with big advancements made in art and architecture. One of the lasting legacies of the Sukhothai period is its sculpture, characterized by the graceful aquiline-nosed Buddha either sitting in meditation or, more strikingly, walking contemplatively. These Buddha figures are considered to be some of the most beautiful representations ever produced of this genre. The city of Sukhothai itself is said to be an expansion of the decorative style typified by Khmer works. With the inclusion of Chinese wood building techniques, polychromatic schemes, and elegant lines from Japanese-influenced carvings, the wat, or temple -- with its murals, Buddha sculptures, and spacious design -- is defined as the first "pure" Thai Buddhist style. During this period came the mainstays of Thai temple architecture: the chedi (stupa), bot, viharn, prang, mondop, and prasat.
The dome-shaped chedi -- better known in the West as stupa -- is the most highly regarded edifice here. It was originally used to enshrine relics of the Buddha, but later included holy men and kings. A stupa consists of a dome or tumulus, constructed atop a round base (drum), and enveloped by a cubical chair, representing the seated Buddha, over which is the chatra (umbrella) in one or several (usually nine) tiers. There are many types of stupas in existence in Thailand: The tallest, oldest, and most sacred is the golden chedi of Nakhon Pathom.
The bot (ubosoth or uposatha) is the ordination hall, which is generally off-limits to women. It consists of either one large nave or a nave with lateral aisles built on a rectangular design with Buddha images mounted on a raised platform. At the end of each ridge of the roof are graceful finials, called chofa (meaning "sky tassel"), which are reminiscent of animal horns but are thought to represent celestial geese or the Garuda (a mythological animal ridden by the god Shiva). The triangular gables are adorned with gilded wooden ornamentation and glass mosaics.
The viharn (vihaan or vihara) is the assembly hall where the abbot conducts sermons. The design is similar to that of the bot, and the hall is also used to house Buddha images, but it is generally a larger building. The prang, which originated with the corncob tower of the Khmer temple, is a form of stupa that can be seen in many temples at Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. The mondop may be made of wood or brick. On a square pillared base, the pyramidal roof is formed by a series of receding stories, enriched with elaborate decoration, and tapering off to a pinnacle. It may be used to enshrine holy objects, or it may serve as a library for religious ceremonial objects, as it does at Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok.
The prasat (castle) is a direct stylistic descendant of the Khmer temple, with its round-topped spire and Greek-cross layout. At the center is a square sanctuary with a domed sikhara (tower) and four porchlike antechambers that project from the main building, giving the whole temple a multileveled contour. The prasat serves either as the royal throne hall or as a shrine for venerated objects, such as the prasat of Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, which enshrines the statues of the kings of the present dynasty.
Less recognized architectural structures include the ho trai (library), which houses palm-leaf books; the sala, an open pavilion used for resting; and the ho rakhang, the Thai belfry.
The Ayutthaya and Bangkok periods further cultivated the Sukhothai style by refining materials and design. The Ayutthaya period saw a Khmer revival, when Ayutthayan kings built a number of neo-Khmer-style temples and edifices. The art and architecture evident in early Bangkok allude to the dominant styles of the former capital. After the demise of Ayutthaya in the 18th century, the capital was established briefly at Thonburi before being moved across the Chao Phraya River to Bangkok, where replicas of some of Ayutthaya's most distinctive buildings were constructed. Khmer, Chinese, northern Thai, and Western elements were fused to create temples and palaces in what is now known as the Rattanakosin style, of which the key features are height and lightness, best exemplified at Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
Over time, Thailand's architectural and artistic development has become increasingly diluted, somewhat compromisingly, by the West. During the latter days of the Ayutthaya period, Jesuit missionaries and French merchants brought with them distinctly baroque fashions. Although Thailand was initially reluctant to foster relations with the West, these European influences eventually became evident in architecture. Neoclassical devices were increasingly apparent, notably in the Marble Temple, in Bangkok, which was started by King Chulalongkorn in 1900 and designed by his half-brother, Prince Naris. This style can also be seen in the splendid riverside facade of Siam Commercial Bank (1908), near the River City shopping complex. Thanks to a number of Italian engineers, Art Deco became an important style in Bangkok and is seen today at the arched Hua Lamphong Rail Station, the Governor's House, and along Ratchadamnoen Avenue. In fact, the style is so ubiquitous that many writers use the term Thai Deco to describe certain buildings.
Today's Bangkok is almost indistinguishable from other Asian capitals; a mix of Thai classical, modernist, neo-Greco, Bauhaus, and Chinese shophouse styles all meld into a unique, urban mishmash. Sadly, vernacular styles, such as old Thai wooden houses, are rapidly being cleared and the klongs (canals) filled to give way to high-rise offices and apartments. Happily, efforts are now being made by a new generation of educated Thais to bring architectural integrity to the city, and some of the most interesting results can be seen in new shopping malls such as CentralWorld and Siam Paragon.