It would be easy for Westerners to assume that the Wat (Temple) in Thailand is the Buddhist equivalent of the Western village Church. But they would be very wrong. The Wat is not just a place of worship or religious ceremony; it is the focal point of village life. The fundamental differences between the Wat and the Church are their differing purposes and significance.
Because the Church is a place of worship and Christianity is based on set routines whereby formal services are held in Church on a weekly and often daily (e.g. confessions) basis it is not, generally, seen as having other purposes. But Buddhism does not have that formality except on special festivals once a year and the Wat has many purposes that are not related to Buddhism.
When the call to serve the village comes, as it regularly does, it takes precedence over everything. It may be a meeting about the work needed to install a new water system, the organisation of the bi-annual village festival or one of the many annual Buddhist festivals like Loi Krathong or Khao Phansa. Whatever it may be villagers must heed the call and most of these things will happen in the grounds of the Wat.
The villagers themselves built the Wat with whatever money and skills they could find and they will continue to maintain and improve it for the benefit of all. Because of this, it has special meaning and they are deservedly proud of the achievement. Even if their Wat is not as good as the one in the next village they will strive to improve it. Every person is involved in village activities or in assisting to some degree. That is taken for granted and has nothing to do with Buddhism or beliefs.
So, unlike the Western village Church, the Wat is many things to all the people of the village. Like the motoring world’s ‘MPV’ it’s an ‘MPP’ or multi-purpose place if you like. Its grounds may house the village school, as in my village of Huai Kaew. There will probably be no police station or village hall so the Wat will provide the facilities for whatever functions are undertaken, like voting at local and government elections, handing out the monthly pension monies (in cash), collecting and issuing the farmers loans to fund the rice crops, exhibitions, puppet shows, concerts and the like. They will all be held in the temple grounds. It is literally the hub and the temple itself is the central building. The Mayor is responsible for overseeing everything and the villagers all pull together to see that whatever is needed is done.
The Wat does not have a cemetery which is normally an integral part of the Western church. The body of the deceased is cremated following a big party at the family’s house which often lasts three days. The cremation itself is not held in the Wat unless the crematorium is there, but at another quiet place usually away from housing and it can be quite a colourful ceremony with fireworks. Unlike most Western funerals the Buddhist send-off, whilst lengthy, is by no means a sombre affair.
But where are the monks in all of this! Well, they are there if you want to talk or make a donation, for the Bhuddist festivals and funeral ceremonies, which normally don’t take place at the Wat unless the family cannot afford a party. But they are not usually involved in other activities. Huai Kaew only has two resident monks so for big events they have to call on re-enforcements from other villages.