21 Oct Temples in Chiang Mai, Our Favourite 5
One of the things I love about Chiang Mai is that it’s a city peppered with gold-tipped, glimmering Buddhist temples. In fact, there are over 300 temples in Chiang Mai to explore, each with its own unique history, story and architectural quirks. We’ve seen but a fraction of the temples in this city we now call home, but we’ve already acquired a list of our favourite five.
Top 5 Temples in Chiang Mai and a note on Temple Etiquette
We’re always wary of the fact that we’re guests in Thailand and we try our hardest to be respectful of Thai Buddhist culture. When visiting temples this means that we cover up; I wear trousers and a shirt or scarf over my shoulders. We take care to remove our shoes when entering buildings, visit quietly and don’t get in the way of locals who are there to pray. With that in mind, here are our top five temples in Chiang Mai.
1) Wat Umong
Wat Umong is tucked away in the forest outside of Chiang Mai’s Old City so it has an extremely peaceful vibe. There was just a scattering of visitors when we were there, mostly Thai people who’d come to pray, as well as monks sweeping the floors, temple dogs lazing in the sun and roosters pecking in the brush. We strolled around the 15-acre complex soaking in the serene, leafy surroundings. We passed a pond, walked through gardens piled with broken Buddha statues and amongst talking trees adorned with Buddhist wisdom quotes like: “Good is easy for a good person to do.”
There’s a bell-shaped brick pagoda at the top of a grassy hill guarded by serpent steps. However, what’s unique about Wat Umong is that a series of prayer tunnels have been built into the hillside beneath the pagoda which you can explore. Inside, there are Buddhist altars laden with candles, incense and offerings. It’s said that the tunnels were constructed by King Mengrai in 1297 to stop a respected monk from wandering into the woods for days on end; the walls were supposedly painted with forest murals.
How to visit Wat Umong: the address for the temple is: 135 Moo 10 Suthep. If you’re coming from the Old City, a return songthaew trip should cost around 300 THB. It’s free to get into Wat Umong and the temple is open daily from 6am till 5pm.
2) Wat Phra Singh
The king awarded Wat Phra Singh royal status in 1935, making it one of the most sacred temples in Chiang Mai. When King Bhumibol Adulyadej sadly passed away last week, thousands of Thai people gathered at the temple to pay their respects to him. Wat Phra Singh is named after its lion statue from Sri Lanka, which is said to have mysteriously been stolen in 1922 and replaced with a fake. Whether this is true or not, the statue is revered and paraded through the streets during Songkran to be blessed with water by locals.
Wat Phra Singh is located within the city walls and is one of the oldest in Chiang Mai, built in 1345. The temple can get incredibly busy with both tourists and local people, but we still love visiting to see the spectacularly ornate buildings which demonstrate typical Lanna-style (northern Thai) architecture. The roofs are made of winged wood; the outside walls are decorated with golden swirls and intricate carvings while the insides are adorned with traditional murals and golden Buddha statues. There are plenty of monks wandering around the complex, which is filled with other impressive gold-leaf pagodas and prayer halls.
How to visit Wat Phra Singh: you can find the temple at the west end of Ratchadamnoen Road, inside the city walls. Visit anytime between 5am and 8.30pm, entrance to the grounds is free but to get into the main temple you have to pay 20 THB.
3) Wat Ched Yot
We’ve just discovered this peaceful temple, which is located not far from our apartment in the Nimman area of Chiang Mai. Wat Ched Yot is set in leafy surroundings and has a collection of temples, statues and chedis (bell-shaped structures) spread around its shady gardens and pond. As we explored the tranquil grounds we were joined by just a handful of other visitors and a school trip led by a monk. We were fascinated by all the serpent statues placed around and later found out that the temple has become a site of pilgrimage for Buddhists born in the year of the snake.
Wat Ched Yot is unique because it incorporates a mix of Chinese, Indian, Lao and Thai architecture. The crumbling brick structure is windowless with a flat roof topped by seven triangular spires. The outside walls are decorated with orange prayer ribbon and 70 carvings of mythical Thewada creatures. The design was copied from the famous Mahabodhi Temple in India where Buddha achieved enlightenment after seven weeks of meditation. Traditional Thai chedis were later built in the grounds; the largest contains the ashes of King Tilokrat who commissioned the temple’s construction in 1455.
How to visit Wat Ched Yot: the temple is located on Jed Yod Road, which is north-west of the old city, just outside of the super highway. We walked from our apartment but you can take a songthaew from the Old City for about 300 THB for a round trip. Wat Ched Yot is free to enter and open between 8.30am and 5pm.
4) Wat Suan Dok
Wat Suan Dok was built on a field of flowers in 1370 and its name roughly translates to the Flower Garden Temple. As we entered the quiet complex I was immediately struck by the 40-metre tall gold, cone-shaped chedi which was built to enshrine a piece of Buddha’s shoulder bone. Unusually, this central feature is of Sri Lankan design and is surrounded by a collection of white chedis which hold the ashes of generations of Thai royalty.
As Wat Suan Dok is again located outside of the main city gates, at the foot of Suthep Mountain, less people visit which makes it a more peaceful experience. Next to the main Chedi there’s an open-sided temple with a five-metre high Buddha statue and a Buddhist University Campus, so plenty of monks usually wander through the temple. Wat Suan Dok is one of the best temples in Chiang Mai to get sunset views from.
How to visit Wat Suan Dok: the temple is about a 15-minute walk east from Suan Dok Gate, at 139 Suthep Road. A songthaew ride from the Old City should cost 20 THB and it’s free to enter the temple itself between 6am and 5pm.
5) Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
The other half of Buddha’s shoulder bone is enshrined at the top of Suthep Mountain, in Chiang Mai’s most famous and visited temple: Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Legend says that in 1383 the Thai King strapped Buddha’s bone onto a sacred white elephant that climbed to the top of mountain before circling three times, trumpeting and dropping dead. The temple was built on the very spot where the elephant died.
The bone lies in a 15-metre tall golden pagoda surrounded by Buddha statues, bells, prayer buildings, murals a golden umbrella which symbolises Chiang Mai’s unification with Thailand and altars to pray at. To show respect, visitors circle the pagoda three times in an anti-clockwise direction in the same way the white elephant did.
One of the best things about visiting Doi Suthep is the incredible panoramic views you get over Chiang Mai from the top. I love strolling around the lower level of the temple which has a quirky statue garden of gnome-like monks, bronze bells, a museum and meditation centre and a statue of the white elephant. Last time we visited we drove up the steep, 15km road on a motorbike in late afternoon. The temple was the most empty and peaceful we’d ever seen it. I love the flight of over 300 stairs that leads up to the pagoda, which are decorated with serpents that guard the temple.
How to visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep: the temple is located on Doi Suthep road on Doi Suthep Mountain. We’ve taken a songthaew up there several times and it usually costs around 400 THB for a round trip. Some people attempt the steep climb by bicycle and we’ve done it by motorbike. You can also hike up the monk’s trail through the forest, which is marked by strips of orange robes wrapped around tree trunks. It costs 30 THB to visit Doi Suthep temple between 6am and 7pm. If you come in the evenings you can hear the monks do their evening chant and watch the temple lights come on.
Other Famous Temples in Chiang Mai
There are hundreds more famous temples in Chiang Mai, many of which we have yet to discover. Some of the most popular temples lie in and around the Old City, including Wat Chiang Man, which is the city’s oldest temple and home to precious crystal and marble Buddha statues. The temple also has a famous chedi made from 15 life-sized elephant statues carrying a gold-topped peak on their backs.
Wat Chedi Luang is another popular temple inside the city walls and it used to be one of our favourites. Unfortunately, last time we visited we didn’t enjoy the experience. There’s now a 40 THB entrance fee and the temple was packed with people and surrounded by noisy construction work. Historically, Chedi Luang is still worth a visit for its mammoth chedi which was once the tallest in northern Thailand until it was damaged by an earthquake in 1545.
Wat Buppharam is another important temple that sits on Tha Phae Road, just east of the old walls. Built in the 15th Century, it includes some beautiful Lanna-style temples and a flower garden filled with statues, including some modern additions of Disney characters. One of our other favourite temples in Chiang Mai is Wat Lok Molee, just north of the Old City. It has an impressive brick chedi and unusual silver-trimmed temple surrounded by elephant decorations.
What are you favourite temples in Chiang Mai?