As I said in the introduction, Chiang Mai is a city that maintains its historical and religious charm thanks to the presence of many historical buildings. In fact, the moat and the wall around the Old Town were originally built in 1296, when the city was founded, and have been restored in the 20th century; but what really gives the city of Chiang Mai its unique aspect are the temples. Within the city and its outskirts, there are over 300 temples that reflect the glory of the ancient Lanna kingdom. Wherever you are in Chiang Mai, you will see a temple, to the point that people get so use seeing them that they don’t even notice their presence anymore. Other people, like me, keep walking around the city with their eyes wide open and can’t get enough of them, not even after months in the city.
‘How can you be so obsessed with temples? They are all the same, after you’ve seen one, you have seen them all!’
It might be my background in history of art, it might be the fact that is not only the actual temples that fascinate me but also the sound of the prayer, the bright orange of the monks’ vests, the gold statues on the white stones, the flowers and the peace that I find there. I remember the very first temple that I entered in Bangkok like it was yesterday. I can hear the prayer, smell the incense and feel my eyes jumping in that blaze of colors, carvings, and golden statues. I might have a special love for temples, but I can still assure you that they are not all the same; particularly in Chiang Mai where one can see the stylish influences from the Lanna Kingdom, Burma, and Sri Lanka.
I have to admit that in Chiang Mai there are really a lot of temples and many people spend just a few days in the city, so a selection is required. In the time that I spent there, I managed to see quite a few of them and in this post I will show you the one that impressed me the most and show more differences.
First of all, a WAT is a temple complex, that includes the main building where the prayers take place and the Buddha statues are displayed. The CHEDI or STUPA is a hermetic structure that contain relics of Buddha. As I mentioned, the structure is hermetic and it can be of different sizes and materials but it’s never accessible.
1.WAT CHEDI LUANG
This is one of the most popular temples and it’s right in the heart of the Old Town. Entering from Ratchadamnoen Road, you will find the main temple first and the chedi behind it. The chedi was started in the 14th century but remained unfinished for 10 years. When the chedi was finally finished, it reached the 82 m of height and it was the biggest building of the Lanna Kingdom. In 1468, the temple was the house of the famous statue of the Emerald Buddha, one of the holiest Buddhist images. The legend is that the jade carved statue was found inside a chedi after it had been struck open by lightning. This happened in Chiang Rai in 1434, and the Buddha statue found its place in Chiang Mai from 1468 to 1551, when it was moved to Laos and finally Bangkok. The big earthquake of 1545 severely damaged the chedi that wasn’t restored until 1990.
Today the chedi still has a part of the top missing, but it’s still majestically standing surrounded by a moat filled with water. On each side of the brick building, there is a niche with a golden statue and Naga serpents on the stairs to protect them.
As impressive as the chedi is the main temple: once you walk in, you will be welcomed by an explosion of colors. The red carpet drives your sight to the end, where there are three big golden statues and a series of small ones. The columns along the nave are beautifully decorated with golden motif and on the sides there are the curved seats used by monks. One of the most spectacular things in this temple are the colorful prayer flags hanging from the top, giving more brightness to the whole space.
2. WAT PHRA SINGH
King Phayu started with building a chedi in 1345 to host the ashes of his father. Over the years, more buildings were added and the complex took today’s name in 1367 when the statue of Phra Buddha Singh was taken there. The temple was then abandoned for a couple of centuries, during the Burmese rule, and finally completely restored in the 1920s.
The whole complex maintain elements that are some of the best examples of Lanna style and culture. When entering the complex, on the right of the main building, there is the library with a top wooden structure built on a stone base richly decorated with stucco. The top building is where ancient scriptures are kept, protected from floods.
3. WAT PHAN ON
Another temple located inside the Old Town but much smaller than the previously mentioned wat. The temple itself was originally built in 1501 and the golden chedi is from 2007. The whole setting is cozier. The chedi is covered in shiny gold and has red niches with golden statues creating beautiful contrasts.
Around the chedi, there are the bells and a big gong for the prayers that can be rung by visitors as well. Inside, the temple is widely decorated: there are beautiful golden carvings on a red background on doors and windows, as well as golden decorations on the black columns along the main room. This temple might not be as spectacular or historic of the previous one, but the details on the carvings and decorations make it very interesting photogenically. The Sunday night market takes place on Ratchadamnoen Road, where the temple is located, and it expands with a few interesting stands on the temple court.
4. WAT BUPPHARAM
This is one of the most different looking temples that you will find in Chiang Mai.
This time we are outside the wall of the Old Town, but not very far, just about 500 meters off the eastern gate. The architecture of the temple is completely different from the other temples mentioned before, or in general, other temples in Thailand, and there are specific reasons for this. The main temple structure was originally built in 1497 and in 1561, when the northern part of Thailand was occupied by the Burmese, this was used by Burmese monks who changed the temple’s structure instead abandoning it. Normally Thai temples have a rectangular shape while this one has a cross one with a sort of tower in the middle. Even in the 400-year-old Chedi the Burmese influence is visible in the garden; in fact it is guarded by the typical golden lions (Chinthe).
The main temple is two stories high and is widely decorated, both inside and outside, with golden carvings and images of Buddha.
5. WAT SUAN DOK
We are going a bit farther from the Old Town, but this time to the west. The temple was founded in 1370 for a monk coming from the Sukhothai Kingdom who found a relic of the Buddha. When the monk arrived in Chiang Mai, the relic was magically split into 2 pieces and to preserve one of the pieces, the main golden chedi of Wat Suan Dok was built. The second piece was attached to the back of a white elephant which died close to the top of the mountain of Doi Suthep, where it was buried, and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was built to house the relic.
The golden chedi in Wat Suan Dok is 48m high and built in Sri Lankan style. Around it there are many smaller white chedi which contain the ashes of the Royal Family. Close by there is the unusually big temple with open sides which was rebuilt in 1930 and hosts several Buddha statues, including a 5 meters high bronze one. This big prayer room is definitely impressive, but what attracted my attention the most was the garden of white chedi. When I went there the sun was setting, warming up the white stupas and creating a beautiful contrast with the big golden one. Perfect.
In Wat Suan Dok, there is also the campus of Buddhist University and on specific days of the week, you can go to chat with monks. They can practice their English and you can learn about Buddhism or meditation, which is a perfect trade.
6. WAT PHRA THAT DOI SUTHEP
As we saw in the previous story, this temple was built in 1383 on the spot where the white elephant carrying the Buddha’s relic died. The main and impressive golden chedi in the middle of the courtyard is from the 16th century, but the whole complex has been renewed, and in some way modernized, in the 1990s.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is today the symbol of Chiang Mai and is one of the most visited temples in the region. It’s located at an elevation of 1073 meters and it’s about 15 Km north west of Chiang Mai Old Town. Once you arrive on the top of the mountain, you still have to climb about 300 steps with suggestive and colorful Naga serpents by the sides, before you get to the actual temple. On the top you will find a lower terrace with several shrines, the bells for the prayers and a panoramic view of the city. On the upper terrace there is the actual chedi that has an area around where you can pray while walking clockwise. The upper terrace with its statues, shrines and umbrellas, is literally a tripudium of gold but is also relatively small if you consider how important this temple is and how busy it gets. The temple is popular within both tourists, believer and people who goes to the close by Buddhist center for meditation retirement. This means that can get very busy so don’t expect a secluded temple hidden on the mountain, but the exact opposite.
7. WAT PHA LAT
Do you know when you go to a place and you feel like if that is your place? It might not even be that beautiful or impressive, you might have seen better places, but that place has something that make it special. Wat Pha Lat is my place!
Jarel and I were up for a morning ride on the mountain: he likes to drive on curvy roads and I’m always up for new discovery. While I was busy hyper lapsing the way up (with poor results) I saw this small temple on the left and kindly yelled to Jarel that we had to stop. As usual I was taken in by the mysterious and uncontrollable temple excitement, so we had to reverse and go back. After parking the motorbike, we saw a smaller road going down behind the temple and decided to follow it: best decision ever! We ended up at this complex of small temples and beautiful stone statues that were developed around a waterfall. The temple complex is incredibly peaceful, beautifully blended in the nature and barely anyone else goes there. Architecture wise this is probably the least spectacular one, but setting wise is amazing. It’s on Doi Suthep, halfway between the top and the base and it was used by pilgrims heading to Wat Phra That as a resting spot before the road was built
Later on I discovered that I got to the temple in the wrong way! There is a trail that starts at the bottom of the mountain, marked by orange robes wrapped around trees, that takes you there by foot. The walk should take about 40 minutes and it must be incredibly beautiful to end up to this magic place after a short hike; I would go back to Chiang Mai just for that.
Those are the temples that you can’t miss when visiting Chiang Mai, but if you are on a temple hunt, there are many more.