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Ten of the Best: Chiang Mai Temples (Part 1)

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Twin naga serpents guard the entrance to Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai

Related Posts: For five more splendid Chiang Mai Temples, see my post Ten of the Best: Chiang Mai Temples (Part 2).

Chiang Mai is a city with no shortage of temples. Since its founding over 700 years ago, over 300 different wats have come to define the city’s character and made it one of Thailand’s go-to places for temple lovers everywhere.

Around almost every corner of Chiang Mai’s old town, the peaked roof of another temple can be found. There are white ones, wooden ones, silver ones and simple ones. Some are pictures of extravagance, their golden facades shining in the sun. Others are more modest affairs, secluded from sight at the end of sleepy backstreets without a passing glance from anyone the whole day long.

For those of the “once you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all” persuasion, Chiang Mai is the perfect place to prove such claims unfounded. Each of the temples listed here has its own unique style and characteristics; each one is different from the next. These are the most important, the most interesting, or otherwise standout attractions in a city which leaves you spoilt for choice. There are others you could add. But these are my favourites.

Wat Phra Singh

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Every morning the young monks and local school kids walk through the grounds of Wat Phra Singh on their way to the neighbouring high school

Dating back to the mid-14th century, during Chiang Mai’s time as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, Wat Phra Singh is not only one of Chiang Mai’s best looking temples, but perhaps its most well-known too.

As one of the country’s best examples of classic Lanna architecture, there are several buildings of note within the grounds. There is the gold-fronted Viharn Luang containing the Phra Chao Thong Tip Buddha, cast in 1477. While the Phra Singh Buddha, almost a century older still, can be found in the smaller but even more impressive, Viharn Lai Kham.

Decorated with intricate gold patterning on deep red walls, together with murals depicting scenes from the history of Chiang Mai, the interior of Viharn Lai Kham alone puts Wat Phra Singh on top of the Chiang Mai temple pile. Plus, with hundreds of resident monks, it’s also a great place for monk watching. It even has its own library too.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

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Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of Chiang Mai’s most revered temples

Located high above Chiang Mai at the slopes of Suthep Mountain, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was founded, according to legend, by a wandering elephant that had set off from the city below carrying a mysterious relic that had magically replicated itself upon its arrival in Chiang Mai. Having promptly died when it reached the summit, the spot was chosen as the site of the new temple’s construction and it has remained one of Chiang Mai’s most important temples ever since.

The large golden pagoda in the centre of the complex is very much the focus of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Plated with gold and rising 52-feet above the surrounding courtyard, it is within this chedi that the original relic is said to be enshrined. Several small shrines can be found in the surrounding cloisters, overlooked by countless Buddha statues. There is also a viewpoint over the city down on the lower terrace, as well as the small matter of the 300-plus-step naga staircase leading up to the temple itself.

Wat Chedi Luang

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The main chedi at Wat Chedi Luang was originally over 80 metres tall before an earthquake partially destroyed it in the 16th century

Together with Wat Phra Singh and Wat Phra Doi Suthep, Wat Chedi Luang makes up the trio of Chiang Mai’s most famous temples. After taking almost a century to complete between 1391 and 1475, the Temple of the Big Stupa became the city’s most recognisable landmark, towering 80-plus meters over the centre of the old town. Even after an earthquake knocked 20m off its original height in the 16th century, the chedi was still the tallest structure in the city for the next five hundred years.

Once home to the most sacred statue in Thailand, the Emerald Buddha, since moved to Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, the current complex features a large viharn containing the Phra Chao Attarot standing Buddha statue, as well as the ruins of the impressive central chedi itself. There is also a small building to the rear of the chedi containing a reclining Buddha, while the city pillar near the main entrance, dates all the way back to 1296.

Wat Suan Dok

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A resident monk shades himself with an umbrella as he walks past the distinctive white chedis of Wat Suan Dok

Remember that mysterious relic carried to the top of Doi Suthep by a soon-to-be-ex elephant? It was originally housed in the chedi of Wat Suan Dok at the foot of the mountain. It was brought to Chiang Mai by a visiting monk from the neighbouring kingdom of Sukothai and it was for this monk that the temple was originally constructed.

Founded by King Kue Na of the Lanna Kingdom in 1370, Wat Suan Dok was originally a royal flower garden. Indeed, the distinctive rows of whitewashed chedis standing in the temple grounds collectively house the ashes of a few centuries of the Lanna royal family. The adjacent viharn contains two large Buddha images which face in opposite directions on the altar – one seated in the lotus posture, the other standing. There is also the opportunity to engage in some “monk chat” if learning more about Buddhism is your Chiang Mai thing.

Wat Umong

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Notable for its network of underground tunnels, Wat Umong is one of Chiang Mai’s most intriguing temples

One of the oldest temples in Chiang Mai, and certainly one of the most intriguing, Wat Umong stands half hidden amongst the trees and undergrowth at the foot of Doi Suthep. Though maybe “stand” is the wrong word to use, as the defining feature of this “Temple of the Tunnels”, is its mostly subterranean layout.

With the main body of Wat Umong cut into a large man-made mound, the temple itself is not especially large. There are no ornate viharns or oversize statues. Instead, the several incense-filled tunnels contain shrines with smaller statues at their end. Above ground, a large Lanna-style chedi stands in a grassy clearing surrounded by trees. There are wooded trails, moss-covered Buddha heads, as well as a small lake and picnic area making it a popular place for locals looking for a shady place to while away the afternoon.

Related Posts: For five more splendid Chiang Mai Temples, see my post Ten of the Best: Chiang Mai Temples (Part 2). Or click tag: Chiang Mai for more of the Chiang Mai good stuff.

Get Involved: Have your own favourite Chiang Mai temple that I haven’t included here? Let us know in the comments below.

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