If you’ve been a long-time reader of Miss Filatelista it’ll come as no surprise that I’m a temple lover. From the quaint brick churches of Macedonia, colorful Hindu temples in India, to the massive mosques of United Arab Emirates–I’ve loved visiting them all. But I have a special place in my heart for Buddhist temples, pagodas, wats–you name it, I love it. I’ve been following the teachings of Lord Buddha for most of my life. After spending so much time in Buddhist countries I now find Buddhist temples to be some of the most peaceful places in the world. The way of life for Thai Buddhist is determined by the concept of “Good nature, good air, good water, good food, and good mind.” This is a philosophy I can full heartedly believe in!
Chiang Mai has no shortage of incredible dazzling Buddhist temples, which is one of the many things that keeps bringing me back to the former Lanna Kingdom city time and time again. Out of the 300 temples in Chiang Mai, I’ve likely been to about 50, many of which I could never locate again. There is a temple around almost each and every corner around the city within the Old City and out into the countryside! Here is my temple lover’s guide to Chiang Mai’s Buddhist wats.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Before you set off on a temple run around Chiang Mai there are a few things you should know. It’s respectful to wear modest clothing, some temples enforce a strict dress code of no shoulders or knees showing for both women and men. Wear slip off shoes so you can easily step inside Buddhist temples where shoes are not allowed. Don’t worry, no one is going to steal your sandals!
Once you’re inside the wat remember to never point your feet directly at any imagery of Buddha, I usually stand with my heels together and my feet point outwards as not to offend anyone. Keep this rule in mind when you sit down too and either tuck your legs to one side or sit on your calves. It’s also incredibly inappropriate to have your back turned to Buddha, so please don’t post in front of Buddha statues! There are usually exits of prayer halls near the alters, use those doors to exit rather than the front so that you don’t walk away from Buddha. If you’re as in love with Thai Buddhist culture as I am then you might e interested in getting a Sak Yant tattoo blessing from a monk!
Wat is the Thai word for temple complex. Within a wat there are often several buildings. Usually you’ll find an ubosot which is the prayer hall and is one of the most important structures of the wat. Ubosot are sometimes referred to as bot, these are the rectangular buildings with east-facing entrances and alters with imagery of a sitting Buddha. Monks are ordained in ubosot and hold daily mantra chanting in the building. A viharn looks awfully similar to a ubosot but is actually an assembly hall. Viharns are where most Buddhist ceremonies take place. A chedi is also known as a stupa or pagoda–it’s the most sacred structure in the wat as it usually is built over buried relics. Chedis are bell shaped and can be found behind the ubosot in many Chiang Mai wats.
Chiang Mai is very easy to reach from other Thai cities or neighboring countries via direct flights. A more sustainable transportation option, for both the environment and your wallet, is to take a bus or train to reach Chiang Mai. Tickets can be purchased with foreign credit cards on Baolau or 12Go. Check out various accommodation options in Chiang Mai on Booking.com or hostels on Hostelz.com. As always when traveling abroad it’s crucial to secure a travel insurance plan with World Nomads.
WAT SUAN DOK
Wat Suan Dok (Google Maps) has special meaning for me as I often attended the monk chats with Buddhist monks held on the grounds. I also went on their overnight silence meditation retreat which is led by a Buddhist monk and promises to help you “do good, avoid bad, and purify your mind.” I cherish these experiences and recommend them to anyone who is interested in learning more about Buddhism while visiting Chiang Mai. The monk chat is held in a discreet building just past the massive gilded ubsot (prayer hall) from Monday to Friday, 5-7 PM. This is immersive cultural experience is not to be missed! You’ll have the unique chance to discuss Buddhism with monks who are studying at the on-site Buddhist Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University to help them practice English. Wat Suan Dok is also the location of the delicious vegan-friendly Pun Pun restaurant.
The ornate flora decor on the massive golden pagoda (48 meters!) is what gave this stunning complex its name of Flower Garden Temple, or Wat Suan Dok. Just in front of the floral chedi is what must be one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world. Those white structures aren’t temples, they’re actually the mausoleums of royals from the Lanna Kingdom. It’s free to enter the cemetery but please be respectful and remove your shoes before walking around. To enter the newly renovated ubsot foreigners must pay a small fee, currently of 20 TBH (less than US$1). It’s absolutely worth it as the inside is one of the most incredible golden Buddha images in Chiang Mai surrounded by intricately carved red pillars with golden accents. This temple is sacred as it was the first place where a Buddha relic was brought, I’ll explain below as the relic now resides at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep!
WAT PHRA THAT DOI SUTHEP
The gilded temple that watches over Chiang Mai from the peak of Suthep mountain is likely the most legendary in Chiang Mai–Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (Google Maps). The landmark is treasured by locals as a relic of Lord Buddha is buried here. The legend of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep dates back to 1383 when a Lanna king sent a majestic white elephant to carry a piece of Buddha’s shoulder bone from Wat Suan Dok up to the summit of Doi Suthep. The elephant was left to wander freely, it’s route is memorialized today with the famous monk trail that can be trekked to reach the temple. The poor beast died at the spot where the monastery and temple stand today. A statue of the grand white elephant lives on at the temple to memorialize its final journey. Buddha’s relic is still buried today under the gleaming chedi.
The temple grounds are massive and there are many areas to explore including a space for Vipassana silence and meditation retreats, monk chat rooms, and if you’re lucky you’ll visit while a monk is giving out blessings. It’s easy to spend an entire day here taking in the slight chaos of the temple–Thai pilgrims circle the golden chedi clutching lotus blossoms and incense as offerings. My favorite part of visiting the sacred grounds of Doi Suthep was partaking in the fortune telling. You shake a cup of sticks until one falls out. Each stick has a number and the one that you shake out relates to your fortune which can be found in a cubby nearby in several languages. That day, mine told me not to leave, which completely broke my heart as I’d just bought a flight back to the US the day before to go home for a while to nurture my unexpected heartbreak. The fortune was true as 2 months later I found myself back in Chiang Mai picking my life back up exactly where I’d left it off.
The best way to visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is on an organized trip with a local guide from TakeMeTour. Get a 200 THB discount off of your first experience by using the exclusive discount code MFLTLTPROMO when booking on TakeMeTour.com. If you want to go at it solo you can take a red Songthaew truck for about 40 TBH per person, but you’ll have to wait until it’s completely full–sometimes they even try to squeeze in 12 passengers! It’s a bumpy hour-long ride that is also pretty uncomfortable on a motorbike. If you’re in a group it’s probably less of a hassle to just book a Grab. If the weather is bearable and you’re up for a bit of exercise it’ll be a memorable experience to trek the monks trail up to Doi Suthep, something I have yet to do myself.
WAT CHIANG MAN
I stumbled into Wat Chiang Man (Google Maps) completely on accident when my mom and sister were visiting me in Chiang Mai. Luckily something drew us inside as this is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai! This site has been a Buddhist complex since 1296 and to this day it holds some of the most important Buddhist artwork–a rare crystal Buddha, Phra Setangamani which is 1,800 years old, and a marble Buddha, Phra Sila, which is 2,500 years old. But my favorite thing about this ancient temple isn’t the glittering pagoda, it’s one of the most ancient components of the sacred grounds–a golden chedi surrounded by gigantic stone elephants at the base. I hardly came across any other tourists at the scenic temple. Wat Chiang Man is one of the most tranquil pagodas within the Old City.
WAT LOK MOLI
One of my favorite temples is the divine Wat Lok Moli (Google Maps) which just recently finished being renovated so now you can see the front of the prayer hall in all it’s black an white intricately detailed glory! The stunning complex is just north of the moat and Old City walls and is open 24 hours a day.
I often walk past here at night and take a wander around by myself, it’s glorious under the moonlight. Behind the wat is one of the most intact chedis in Chiang Mai. This chedi is significant as it holds the remains of several Lanna kings. My beautifully hand-crafted and ethically produced Celeste dress was the perfect frock to wear for a temple hop!
Across the moat from Wat Lok Moli is the delightfully red and gold Wat Rajamontean (Google Maps). I visited this temple many times but sadly lost my photos from my first few visits. The last time I went by was with Nam of Laugh Travel Eat who took the photos of me from Wat Rajamontean and Wat Lok Moli. When we visited the temple was closed so sadly I couldn’t show her the incredibly detailed interiors. Directly to the left of the temple is a seperate platform where a massive golden Buddha statue faces north of Chiang Mai.
WAT CHIANG YUEN
On the opposite side of the moat is another massive golden Buddha statue, this time facing south at Wat Chiang Yuen (Google Maps). Can you tell I have a thing for huge golden Buddhas? I really can’t get enough of how grand they are, and how important their symbolism is to Buddhist people. This wat is just around the corner from the lovely Free Bird Cafe and is usually pretty quiet. There are a few prayer halls to visit that have elaborate murals within.
WAT PHRA THAT DOIKHAM
The most majestic temple I’ve ever visited Chiang Mai is one I had never heard of. Wat Phra That Doikham (Google Maps) is a very important temple for Thai people who are buying lottery tickets or trying to start a family. There are some serious superstitions surrounding this beautiful place. I had noticed the 17 meters tall golden Buddha from Chiang Mai and asked a driver to take me there, not knowing what to expect. I absolutely recommend visiting, I was the only western when I was there and this temple was seriously packed with people. Along the way up to the temple, vendors sell garlands of jasmine, be sure to purchase a few if you plan to make a wish or buy a lottery ticket at Wat Phra That Doikham!
WAT PHAN TAO
Wat Phan Tao (Google Maps) is one of my favorite temples to visit at night. Often times there are hundreds of paper streamers hanging from a massive bodhi tree. Underneath the branches sits a humble golden Buddha statue that reflects in the lake below and glows by night. When I close my eyes and imagine a peaceful scene, this is where my memory always goes.
The temple itself is much more famous as it’s one of the only remaining fully teak wood temples in Chiang Mai. It’s location right next to Wat Chedi Luang isn’t a coincidence, this space was actually a storage area for building materials for the neighboring grand chedi. In fact, the meaning of Wat Phan Tao is temple of a thousand kilns.
WAT SRI SUPHAN
The Silver Temple’s proper name is Wat Sri Suphan (Google Maps). This is another temple that has a ticketed entrance but with the price of the ticket includes a cold water and access to musical performances at the temple. Wat Sri Suphan does indeed a silver temple, which is incredibly impressive, at least from the outside! Within the temple grounds is also the world’s first silver sanctuary, so if you’re a fan of this shiny metal you won’t want to miss a visit to Wat Sri Suphan!
For the reasons already explained above women aren’t allowed inside the ubosot. Luckily outside there’s a beautiful Ganesha statue that captured my attention. Around the outside of the temple are metal carvings of fascinating scenes and along the back various names of large cities are seen–including New York City! But I’m not really sure why they are there or what they mean.
WAT CHEDI LUANG
Wat Chedi Luang (Google Maps) is a must while in Chiang Mai. It’s one of the top three temples to visit in Chiang Mai and recently started charging foreigners a small entry fee of 40 THB, but it’s well worth the price. The towering temple is one of the largest in Chiang Mai and probably the most visited. Although it isn’t visible from afar within is a gigantic crumbling chedi. Construction of the chedi began back in 1391 but the structure wasn’t fully erected until 1441. It was an astonishing 82 meters tall but lost the majority of the top of the structure at some point in history–there’s no written record of what happened. Some believe it was due to an earthquake that occurred in the 16th century, others think the damage came from a cannonball. Either way, it’s distressed state only adds to its allure. Similar to Wat Chiang Man the base of Wat Chedi Luang is guarded by elephants, most of which were renovated in the 90s, one of which is original from 1441.
The complex is home to many other temples, prayer halls, monks quarters, and more. Some areas are restricted to men only, an outdated sexist regulation put in place to protect sacred relics from Buddha from losing their power, which is what Thai people believe would happen if women visited the buildings built over where the relics are buried. There is also a monk chat here which I participated in back in 2015 followed by my first blessing by a Buddhist monk inside the vibrant prayer hall, Wat Ho Tham. Visit with a local guide to learn more about this fascinating wat.
WAT U MONG
Wat U Mong (Google Maps) is a venerable Buddhist Aranyawasi or forest temple. The complex is located far from the Old City in a quaint neighborhood where I lived for a few weeks. The old structure is atop a hill surrounded by lush woods and secret ancient tunnels. It dates back to 1297 and originally went by the name Werukattatharam which means temple of eleven clumps of bamboo. I loved learning this, as 11 is my lucky number! The original eleven structures that were built here served as homes for Buddhist monks. Today there is plenty to explore around the grounds including sacred proverbs once spoken by The Buddha lovingly painted on wood plaques and nailed to trees to remind you that: “All conditioned things are impermanent, when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering.” Be sure to climb to the top of the stairs to view the spectacular round bell-style chedi.
The lavish Wat Buppharam (Google Maps) is located near the Ping River on Tha Pae Rd. This is a fascinating temple to visit as it has a Burmese-style chedi. Did you know that the Old City walls were built to defend Chiang Mai from the Burmese? They ruled for two centuries and left behind many traces of their architecture and food customs! There are also many other gorgeous temples along this lane but sadly I lost my photos from that day. Exploring this area is a great way to do a temple run that’s just slightly off-the-beaten-path.
WAT CHET YOT
Another fascinating temple to visit that’s outside of the Old City is Wat Chet Yot (Google Maps). I was especially keen to visit this wat as it’s dedicated to those born in the year of the snake, like me! All around the complex are images of snakes and pilgrims even leave tiny snake statues here as an offering. There’s a serene garden that tells the tale of The Buddha’s life and quite a few chedis and prayer halls to explore here.
WAT PHRA SINGH
In the Old City is one of Chiang Mai’s most famous temples, Wat Phra Singh (Google Maps). The stunning complex dates back to the 14th-century and features an assortment of golden Buddhist structures that are seriously photogenic. The temple was originally built by a Lanna king as a mausoleum for his father’s ashes. When I first visited in 2015 the chedi’s were all white, but in 2016 they were doused in gold making Wat Phra Singh one of the glitziest temples in town.
WAT SAEN MUANG MA LUANG
One of the most breathtakingly beautiful pagodas in the Old City is Wat Saen Muang Ma Luang which is also known as Wat Hua Khuang (Google Maps). The massive Buddhist buildings seem larger than any others in Chiang Mai, I believe some of them are classrooms for monks. The attention to detail here will seriously blow you away so take your time to explore, there’s something extraordinary around each corner. This would be a special place to witness monk chanting which takes place every day at sunrise and sunset.
There you have it, 15 of my absolute favorite temples to explore in Chiang Mai! Which of the 245 wats that I didn’t cover do you love? Tell me in the comments so I can visit them when I return to my beloved Thai city in the fall! If not then maybe it’s time to tour more obscure Chiang Mai temples with a local Thai guide.
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