Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second major city and the capital of the north. It is located in the Himalayan foothills and used to be the capital of the Independent Kingdom of Lanna (1296–1768). it is a wonderful city to visit, perhaps making the top 20 cities of the world in our opinion. There are over 300 temples in the Chiang Mai area dating back to 1296 when the city was founded. Here is a list of our top picks for Chiang Mai temples in and near to the Old City.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
This mountaintop temple is a must see if you visit Chiang Mai. You can travel to, and explore this temple in about two-four hours since it is only 13km outside the city. The climb up to the temple is a little tough because the staircase is steep, but you don’t need to be super fit to make it up. Doi Suthep was founded in the 14th century and today is the most important temple for Theravada Buddhists in the north of Thailand. It is a journey every Thai Buddhist is recommended to make at least once in their life so it is not just a temple but a pilgrimage too.
The temple is beautiful with many stunning statues, sections and courtyards. There are many representations of the Buddha, ornate dragon statues, and also lots of relics. The views are also spectacular.
This temple was built around 1383. King Keuna of Chiang Mai selected a white elephant to carry a holy relic of the Lord Buddha to what would be its resting place. The elephant wandered up Mount Suthep until it came to a place where it finally laid down. A Temple was built on the spot to house the holy relic, and both remain there to this day.
Wat Chedi Luang
Wat Chedi Luang is particularly beautiful and also imposing. Built in 1401, the structure was damaged during an earthquake in 1545, but it remains mainly intact. You can still see the massive elephant carvings and they are a wonderful photo opportunity. The temple is particularly lovely at night, when it is lit up. Nearby, there is an ancient tree planted next to the city pillar, meant to protect the city and its grounds. This tree is huge and because of its sacred purpose, will not be cut down.
This temple is located right in centre of the Old City and is is the largest temple within the old city walls. It was constructed in 1345 when a Lanna king built it in his father’s honour. The temple’s most sacred relic is the very old and famous, (now headless) Buddha called Phra Singh Buddha. According to legend the Buddha came to Thailand from Ceylon to Ayutthaya and then to Chiang Rai, Luang Prabang and back once more to Ayutthaya. In 1767 it arrived in Chiang Mai where it has been ever since.
An historic scripture repository is also located at this temple. Repositories were designed to protect the delicate paper sheets used by monks and scribes to keep records/document folklore. The walls of the temple are covered with murals illustrating Lanna customs, dress, and scenes from daily life.
Wat Chiang Man
Situated in the northeast corner of the Old City, this was the first temple to be built in Chiang Mai. It was built by King Mengrai in 1296 as part of the original city construction and it it is alleged that he lived here while the city of Chiang Mai was being built.
Of all the Chiang Mai temples, this temple is an exceptional example of Lanna style architecture. The golden Chedi surrounded by carved elephants, which can be found at the rear of the complex, is a favorite among visitors. The ornate red roofs and gold carvings on the newer temple buildings are also stunning and perfect for a photographer to take wonderful pictures. Housed within the temple are two rare Buddha statues, the Crystal Buddha and the Marble Buddha.
Wat Umong is a beautiful but simply designed temple, located in a forest environment. It is located 2km west of the Old City on Suthep Road, nestled into the foothills of Mount Suthep. Built in the 14th century for a revered monk, it was then abandoned for nearly six centuries. This forest temple and cave complex is very beautiful and distinct in style to other temples in Chiang Mai.
The corridors under the temple are a unique aspect of Wat Umong and no one really knows why they were made. They still have visible paintings from the 14th century. This temple is close to Wat Suan Dok and is a great chance to get out of the city into the countryside and see a temple in a lovely woodland setting.
A large and very simple Chedi sits on the flat hilltop above the corridors of Wat Umong and is very splendid to look at among the trees. A key highlight can be discovered when you look at the many trees throughout the complex and see that they are decorated with hundreds of Buddhist proverbs in both English and Thai. It’s a truly unique experience to come here.
Wat Doi Kham
Although small, Wat Doi Kham is well worth a visit. Of all the Chiang Mai temples, this has the biggest legend associated with Buddha and his supposed travels in the region. Legend has it that this site was established long ago by Buddha himself when he met and converted the indigenous Lua people to Buddhist practices. There is a 17 metre tall white Buddha statue, a beautiful gold Chedi and there are also lovely views of the valley below, making it a great photo opportunity for those who love to take pics of beautifully located Buddhist temples.
Wat Suan Dok
This temple, constructed in 1371 is built on what were once a 14th-century Lanna King’s gardens. Interestingly, some of the temple’s Chedis contain ashes of the old Lanna Royal Family. You can also view a Buddhist relic brought from Sukothai in 1371, which split into two a long time ago. The other half is buried at Doi Suthep. A 500-year-old bronze Buddha image, one of the largest in northern Thailand, is also at Wat Suan Dok and is well worth visiting. Located 1km west of the old walled city on Suthep road. The temple is currently the site of a Buddhist University and also has a large open-air sala.
Wat Bupparam is located 500 metres outside of the Phrae Gate of the Old City. It was built in the 15th century, and houses beautiful statues and ornaments including three famous Buddha images, a painted wooden Buddha, a gold leaf Buddha, and green gemstone Buddha. The gardens surrounding the main building are filled with flowers and statues, some kinda quirky – you should check it out for yourself!
The architecture of the temple is different from typical Thai temples, and there is a specific reason for this. The main temple structure was originally built in 1497, but in 1561, when this area was occupied by the Burmese, Burmese monks had the temple’s structure changed to suit their style rather than abandoning the temple altogether. Normally Thai temples are a rectangular shape, while this one is crossed shape with a tower in the middle. The 400 year old Chedi also has a Burmese influence and is guarded by the typical Burmese golden lions.
Wat Jed Yod
Wat Jed Yod is situated near to the Chiang Mai National Museum on the northern loop of the ring road. Built in 1455 by King Tilokaraja, its name means “Seven Spires”. It was modeled on the Mahabodi Temple in India, where the Buddha supposedly achieved enlightenment. The Chedi contains the ashes of King Tilokaraja who famously organised for the World Buddhist Council to come to Chiang Mai. Wat Jed Yod was built to host the Eighth World Buddhist council which was a massive honour for the Kingdom of Lanna at that time, so of all the Chiang Mai temples, if has great relevance to the history of the Buddhist religion.
Wat Pan Tao
The main temple of Wat Pan Tao is constructed entirely of teak panels supported by 28 massive teak pillars. It is one of the few remaining all wooden structures of its sort in Chiang Mai. It has a three tiered roof with golden colored roof finials, shaped as Naga snakes on its roof ends. It was built in the late fourteenth century and its survival is a miracle. It is one of the last remaining wooden temples of that era and since it is next door to Wat Chedi Luang, it is easy to visit. The elegant wood carvings that decorate Wat Pan Tao are also beautiful.
The Wat Pan Tao temple complex also contains a large white Chedi, a small bell tower and the monks private living quarters. A number of Burmese style lions on the outer wall guard the temple complex and a heavily decorated gate provides access to the temple grounds which is also very beautiful.
Not far to the south of the Old City is the traditional silver-making district. Located around Wualai Road, this area is dotted with silver shops, but is probably best known to tourists as the location of the Saturday Walking Street Market. However, there is also an amazing new temple here too.
Wat Srisuphan was built in 1502, although little remains of the original temple. The temple is now the focus of renovations that started in 2009 and are designed to make it a centerpiece for the ‘silver village’ it serves. The entire surface of the hall, inside and out is covered in silver, as is the roof, and all sorts of ornate silver statues, signposts and ornaments are being added. This is a modern masterpiece and worth a visit for sure. It is marvelous to see a Thai temple decorated in silver rather than gold. The monks at this temple are particularly tourist friendly, always ready for a chat.
Wat Pha Lat
Architecturally, this not a spectacular temple, but setting wise is amazing. There is a waterfall running through the temple grounds and a stunning view out over Chiang Mai. It’s on Doi Suthep mountain and it was used by pilgrims heading to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep as a resting spot when there was no road and no cars. Wat Pha Lat is a complex of small temples and beautiful stone statues that focus around the waterfall. The temple area is incredibly peaceful, blended into the nature in a wonderful way. There are no shops, no crowds, just the peace of a temple, stunning views and a waterfall.
The walk up the hill to Wat Pha Lat takes 35-50 minutes from Suthep Road, and you should probably wear trainers to do it it. Orange robes wrapped around the trees to mark the path up the hill to the temple. Wat Pha Lat, means ‘Monastery at the Sloping Rock’.
Wat Phan On
This temple is located inside the Old City on Ratchadamnoen Road and was built in 1501. The large golden Chedi is a recent addition however, built in 2007. The Chedi is gold and has red nooks adorned with gold statues, which creates a beautiful red/gold contrast, a theme which continues inside the temple. The interior of the temple building is highly decorated and there are very ornate gold carvings on the red doors and windows. These details make this temple stunning to photograph.
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Images courtesy of flickr.com – Featured image by 60D