Quaint, laid back and an absolute delight, Chiang Mai is steeped in rituals of Buddhism and temples. There are more than 300 Chiang Mai temples and the city seems to follow the Buddhist adage of, “The real evil is ignorance”. These temples are called wats and many of the old ones are built in traditional Lanna style. Chiang Mai, in fact, is a fantastic place to learn about Buddhism and the city seems to have a temple, or wat, on every street. You could spend your time going into every single one, but this enlightenment tour tends to get exhausting quickly.
The different kinds of Chiang Mai temples
Just like their Indian counterparts, the Chiang Mai temples are of varied wealth, importance, and styles. Some are large and exquisite, teeming with visitors, while others are more locals’ haven of peace. Many are discreetly tucked away in shady lanes and empty without a soul in sight. Others are working wats, glimmering with gilded prayers leaves, ornate statues, and saffron-robed artisan monks busily practicing his art. These temples also usually offer “Monk Chats”, in which foreigners can get their queries about Buddhism answered. The local Thais pray there, mumbling in front of giant gold Buddha statues and lit incense pay obeisance to the precious emerald deities. The rest are really old structures, badly neglected with their chedis crumbling and tropical vegetation obscuring them out of sight. The biggest and most important ones are surprisingly quite commercial and there you may find ATMs, billboards advertising mobile phones, cafes, and monks coolly working on their iPhones or tablets. Anyway, whether you are interested in Buddhism or simply want to go on a Chiang Mai temples tour, here is a list of the most beautiful, eye-catching, and intricately made wats to visit during your trip.
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Wat Bupparam is one of my favourite Chiang Mai temples
Located near the Thaphae Gate, Wat Bupparam is pretty,flower-filled and quiet. Built around the 15th century, Wat Bupparam contains some very beautiful statues and is heavily adorned. It boasts of three major Buddha images – one in painted wood, one covered with gold leaf and one made of green gemstone.
Wat Phra Singh is one of the most visited Chiang Mai temples
I walked over to the Wat Phra Singh from there and immediately got swallowed up by a huge crowd of tourists. It is undoubtedly the most stunning wat within the old city and one of the most popular in the tourist circuit. It’s Lanna-style temple murals, black and gold lacquered columns and intricate gold patterns on red lacquer behind the altar are breathtakingly beautiful. There is a large chedi (stupa) with the complex which was built in 1345 by King Pha Yu to immure the remains of his father King Kam Fu. The in house wat repository has an impressive collection of the delicate sa or mulberry paper sheets which were used by monks and temple scribes for maintaining records and folklore. Entrance to Wat Phra Singh is free for Thais and chargeable by 20 baht for foreigners. Respectable attire covering shoulders and legs is required for entering inside the wat and robes are available at the entrance for those wearing shorts etc. The temple complex is located at the western end of Ratchadamnoen Rd., the main east-to-west roadway in the Old City and is it the perfect starting point for a walking tour of Chiang Mai temples.
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The ruins of Wat Chedi Luang
Located nearly in the center of Chiang Mai, Wat Chedi Luang in comparison to Phra Singh, was much very peaceful. It is also believed to be the oldest of Chiang Mai temples and is famous for being an ancient structure which has been constantly rebuilt. It looks very much in a photogenic state of ruins and its saffron-robed monks add more character to the atmospheric wat. It is also most historically significant among all the wats and contains the remnants of a massive ancient chedi. The chedi was badly damaged during the massive earthquake of 1545 and part of it has been painstakingly reconstructed brick by brick. Interestingly Wat Chedi Luang houses a totem (Pillar of the City) which was used in ancient Thai fertility rites. A black jade replica of the Emerald Buddha has recently been placed inside this wat and there is a wax statue of a much-revered temple monk. Since it is bang in the center of the Old City, Wat Chedi Luang is a 5-10 minute walk east from Wat Phra Singh along Ratchadamnoen Rd.
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The most dazzling of all Chiang Mai temples is the beautiful Wat Srisuphan
My favourite is the dazzling Wat Srisuphan. Tucked away in a quiet leafy lane it is not yet very popular on the tourist wat circuit and is refreshingly quiet. The original (now non-existent except for bits of boundary wall) temple was built in 1502 and the wat complex includes a beaten silver workshop and monk chat facilities. The temple itself is beautifully covered with intricate hand beaten silver plates and spires. Bamboo groves cover the wat and little fountains splash water in its well-tended gardens. Huge dancing Ganesha/Hindu elephant god throw long shadows on the grass and fragrance from incense sticks fill the air. This wat has plenty of gold and silver prayer leaves glittering in the sun and it is as serene as expected from a wat. Since being a woman, I cannot enter the chapel, I usually walk around to explore the silver workshop within the complex. Monks and artisans create silver panels engraved with scenes from Buddha’s life and the clanging noise of their hammers and the acrid smell of chemicals fill the place. The silver work on this temple began a few years ago to highlight the silver filigree home industry of Chiang Mai and there is also a silver work school inside the temple complex. Wat Srisuphan also offers a “monk chat” program, where those who are interested can talk with a monk about Buddhism or life as a monk and introduction to meditation sessions.
No Chiang Mai visit is complete without a visiting Wat Doi Suthep
No Chiang Mai visit is complete without going to the revered holy Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and I too paid tribute to the iconic wat. Located on a mountain, 15 kilometers away from Chiang Mai city, it is a sacred site for most Thais. The wat straddles the summit of Doi Suthep mountain in the middle of dense Doi Suthep National Park and the drive up to the complex was very pretty. In fact, I found the journey more pleasant than the wat where huge crowds of excited camera-totting tourists made it nearly impossible to enjoy its intricate beauty. The golden chedi is the holiest part of the wat and it also has some fine pagodas, statues, bells, and shrines, along with a model of the Emerald Buddha and statue of Hindu God Ganesha. It is a working temple, with an intricately carved Naga Serpent staircase and inside the cloister, the Lanna style chedi is topped by an exquisite five-tiered gold umbrella. To reach Wat Doi Suthep, simply hop on a songthaew which departs from in front of the Chiang Mai Zoo. It charges 50 baht for one way. From the parking lot, there are 309 stairs leading up to the temple, or you can squeeze into the electric tram (20 baht per person). The admission fee is 30 baht.
A wat tucked away in the wilderness, this is Wat Umong
I took in the stunning views of Chiang Mai nestled placidly amidst the lush, green forested bowl before heading towards the 700 years old Wat Umong. Located near the Chiang Mai university it is one of the most unique temples in Thailand and definitely the wildest. Tucked away in the naturally forested slope, it is hauntingly beautiful. The green sappy freshness, the buzz of crickets and prayers echoing through ancient trees made me feel at home immediately. It is also a working wat and has meditation centers tucked away in its expansive forested grounds.
Life at the mysterious Wat Umong
Monks of Wat Umong live among trees, birds, insects, and deer with only prayers and work on their routine. The entire complex stretch across fifteen acres and has ancient tunnels and a large stupa. These tunnels were supposedly built under the orders of the King and painted with forest scenes to keep a famous, mentally deranged monk within the grounds of the monastery. Words of wisdom written in English and Thai hang from the trees leading to a small lake where fish and turtles are kept by the monks. A quiet prayer filled evening kept me there till dusk and I made the wat my home by nightfall.
How staying at one of the Chiang Mai temples can be a life-altering experience?
It was one of the most powerful experiences I ever had. The wat soothed me, calmed me down and healed me and the rest of the work was done by nature herself. The trees, birds, crickets, stars. and sublime sunsets worked their magic and Mother Nature lavished love on her troubled child. Of course, the prayers, the learnings, volunteer work, and the wat also helped, and by the time I re-emerged, I felt happy and at peace with myself. Now, isn’t that a reason important enough in life?
Looking for more of Chiang Mai temples photos? Take a look at the photo essay below.
Got more than two days for the Chiang Mai temples? Then check out this detailed guide. It has a wealth of all those secret spiritual spots including the gorgeous teak temple, the red and gold Burmese temple and much more.
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