Chiang Mai’s oldest, biggest, best known and unusual Buddhist temples

Chiang Mai’s oldest, biggest, best known and unusual Buddhist temples
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Situated about 700km (435 miles) north of Bangkok, Chiang Mai Province is the second largest of Thailand’s 76 provinces, while its capital, the city of Chiang Mai, capital of the former Kingdom of Lanna, is acknowledged as the seat of Theravada Buddhism in Northern Thailand.

While Buddhist temples in Bangkok date back to the early part of the 18th century, Chiang Mai’s oldest Buddhist temple, Wat Chiang Man, dates back to the foundation of the city itself by King Mengrai in 1296 – making it more than 700 years old.

Visitors to Chiang Mai who have visited Buddhist temples in neighboring Burma or Laos, or even Sri Lanka, will find familiar elements from Buddhist temples in these countries incorporated into the design and structure of the more than 300 Buddhist temples to be found in Chiang Mai City alone.

Chiang Mai’s oldest Buddhist Temple – Wat Chiang Man

Situated near the Chang Puek gate inside the city’s northern wall, the temple and its grounds are small, belying it’s important role in history. Though not on the traditional tourist trail, Wat Chiang Man houses two important Buddhist images – a marble bas-relief Buddha said to have come from Sri Lanka 2,000 years ago, and a crystal Buddha from Lopburi thought to be about 1,800-years-old.

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The buildings surrounding the temple are all decorated in the Northern style, with red lacquer, gold leaf and many coloured mirrors, while the chedi (stupa) at the rear of the main prayer hall is lined with elephants cast out of plaster.

Chiang Mai’s best known Buddhist Temple – Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Thailand’s best known Buddhist temples and a major pilgrimage site for Thai Buddhists
Thailand’s best known Buddhist temples and a major pilgrimage site for Thai Buddhists Martha de Jong-Lantink

Situated on top of the towering 1,676 meter (about 5,500 foot) tall mountain known as Doi Suthep some 15km (about 9 miles) to the west of Chiang Mai City, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of Thailand’s best known Buddhist temples and a major pilgrimage site for Thai Buddhists.

Dating back to 1383 when the first of it’s chedi’s was built, the temple’s importance is highlighted by the “Phra That” appellation incorporated to the temples name, signifying that a relic of the Lord Buddha – said to be part of the Lord Buddha’s shoulder bone – is held there.

According to legend, the site of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was chosen by an elephant. The legend states that a Buddha relic from Wat Suan Dok self replicated and was placed on the back of a white elephant which was then allowed to roam at will. The elephant is said to have climbed to the peak of Doi Suthep, trumpeted three times, turned in a circle three times, and then knelt down and died. Rather than being seen as a bad omen, it was interpreted as an auspicious sign and the temple founded on the spot.

To reach this significant Chiang Mai temple visitors must first ascend a 309-step naga (dragon)-style staircase, or place their faith in a funicular cable-car running to the top. The temple has undergone significant changes since its construction and today the gold encased chedi and white elephant shrine are two of the temple’s most admired features.

Chiang Mai’s most unusual temple – Wat Umong Suan Puthatham

Wat Umong or “Tunnel temple” is unique because of its location in the forest and the maze-like network of tunnels running below it
Wat Umong or “Tunnel temple” is unique because of its location in the forest and the maze-like network of tunnels running below it Millevache

Umong is the Thai word for tunnel and it is the maze-like network of tunnels running below this temple from which it draws its name. Built in the late 14th century, Wat Umong is situated in the foothills of Suthep mountain about 1Km south of Suthep Road, west of the canal.

Wat Umong was abandoned for a lengthy period of time and not occupied again until the 1940s. Today the monks at Wat Umong Suan Puthatham – not to be confused with Wat Umong Maha Thera Chan inside the old Chiang Mai City moat – live in an extremely natural setting and can often be seen feeding the free-range deer that live there, as well as the turtles and fish in the temple’s lake.

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Chiang Mai’s royal burial temple – Wat Suan Dok

Wat Suan Dok houses cremated remains of past Lanna Kingdom rulers
Wat Suan Dok houses cremated remains of past Lanna Kingdom rulers Yiqun Ding

While the majority Chiang Mai’s earliest temples were built inside the fortified walls of the old city, some were also constructed outside. One such Buddhist temple is Wat Suan Dok, and it is from this temple that the Buddha relic that is said to have self replicated and placed on the back of a white elephant resulting in the site of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is said to have originated.

Built by Lanna King Keu Na in 1383 on what is now Suthep Road, Wat Suan Dok (field of flowers in Thai) was established in what was then the gardens of the Lanna Royal Residence and its construction exhibits the unique sculpture, wood and glass mosaic work of the early Lanna Kingdom.

Visitors to Wat Suan Dok will find the temple grounds dominated by the large wiharn, or prayer hall, which unlike almost all others has open sides instead of enclosed walls. It is perhaps though the vast range of white-washed reliquaries behind the wiharn housing the cremated remains of past Lanna Kingdom rulers that draws the most attention from visitors.

It is also these royal remains, which pre-date the arrival of the Buddha relic, that prevent this important Chiang Mai temple from having the Phra That appellation incorporated in its name

Wat Phra Singh temple buildings feature classic Lanna Kingdom period architecture
Wat Phra Singh temple buildings feature classic Lanna Kingdom period architecture

Chiang Mai’s largest Buddhist temple – Wat Phra Singh Woramahaviharn

Situated in the heart of the old city, Wat Phra Singh was constructed in 1345 and in 1935 had the title “Royal temple of the first grade” bestowed on it by King Rama IX.

The temple is renowned for the Phra Buddha Sihing statue housed inside, though in the second, smaller wiharn (prayer hall) and not the main, larger one, which legend states was brought from Sri Lanka and based on the lion of the Shakya statue in the Indian city of Bodh Gaya where the Lord Buddha, Gautama Buddha, attained nirvana (enlightenment).

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The temple buildings feature classic Lanna Kingdom period architecture, with the walls decorated with murals illustrating Lanna customs, dress, and scenes, while its distinctive roof is meant to represent the wings of a bird.

These are just a few of the notable Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai. Visitors are welcome at all, but are reminded that appropriate clothes should be worn so as not to disturb the priests – long pants for men, modest tops and skirts for women and no bare shoulders.

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Feature photo Leo Zaza

 

 

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John Le Fevre is an Australian national with more than 40 years experience as a journalist, photographer, videographer and editor.

He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, with stints in the Middle East, the USA, and England.

He has covered major world events including Operation Desert Shield/ Storm, the 1991 pillage in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010, and 2014 Bangkok political protests.

In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.

Most recently he was the Thailand editor/ managing editor of AEC News Today . Prior to that he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.

In the mid-80s and early 90s he owned JLF Promotions, the largest above and below the line marketing and PR firm servicing the high-technology industry in Australia. It was sold in 1995.

Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me

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