Chiang Mai is a historical city and the capital of the medieval Lanna Kingdom. You can admire its city walls, historical buildings and innumerable temples dating from as far as the 13th century. Discovering the elaborate temples of the city could easily take you two days.
Chiang Mai Temples
Temples within Chiang Mai’s city walls
Wat Chedi Luang is the most visited of the temples within the city walls, located right at the heart of Chiang Mai. The enormous main hall is glittery inside out. In the early morning and during the sunset, sun rays make the golden decoration glimmer. The interior reveals black gilded columns and multiple golden Buddha statues. Don’t miss a smaller building to the left of the main temple. Although women aren’t allowed to enter, it’s possible to peek at the pillar inside, which is considered the exact centre of Chiang Mai and the Lanna kingdom. Behind the main hall, there are ruins of once enormous and still imposing chedi. Chedi is a Thai term for a stupa – structure containing relics of Buddha. Chedi is decorated with nagas (serpents) and elephants as well as Buddha statues. Behind the stupa, there are some new but very traditional-looking buildings housing wax figures of famous abbots.
To the right from the chedi, you can sit and chat with novice monks. It’s a perfect opportunity to ask questions about Thai culture, Buddhism, meditation and more. I spoke to a plain-clothed formal monk and an English teacher. This thoughtful and knowledgeable man answered my questions about monks’ lives and about Theravada Buddhism. Over a long chat, I heard his life story. Born in a family of six, he was sent to his far relatives to ease the economic burden for his parents. The relatives didn’t treat him well, so he got convinced by a monk to join a monastery. He was 9. Chatting with the novices was far less interesting. Most of them joined monkhood for just a few months, as it’s believed to bring good fortune to the parents.
On the other side of the road from Wat Chedi Luang stands Wat Phan Thao. This temple is made of unpainted, teak wood. The only golden decoration is a peacock hovering above a dog at its entrance. Inside, it is also much more austere looking than most Thai temples, with dark, unpainted wood walls and just a single Buddha figure. Behind the temple, there is a golden chedi and a small pond reflecting both the chedi and the temple.
Wat Jedling/ Chet Lin, located near the south gate, is equally peaceful. It looks modest from the outside but houses a large, golden seated Buddha statue. Behind the temple, there is an old, brick chedi. A path past the chedi leads to a pond covered with water lilies. You can cross it with a creaky bamboo bridge.
Another famous temple complex is Wat Phra Singh, located close to the eastern gate. Deceptively, the main temple is not the most interesting building in the complex. There’s a fee to enter this imposing temple housing an important bronze Buddha statue. Directly behind the main hall stands an old library. This unpainted, wooden building with an exquisitely carved entrance is free to enter. Inside, the central altar contains statues facing four cardinal directions. A bit further, lies a small but beautiful, old temple with a fancy roof and naga statues. An impressive gilded altar contains golden seated Buddha statues, while wall frescoes show daily life in the 16th century.
One more must-see temple within the city walls is Wat Chiang Man. It is the oldest temple in the city (1296). The complex’s most striking feature is its stone chedi decorated with figures of elephants and covered with a golden tip. The interior of the larger, more recent hall awes with red walls with golden gilded paintings. The smaller one houses two ancient Buddha statues: the Crystal Buddha and the Marble Buddha, sadly barely visible behind bars. Both statues are a few thousand years old.
If you’re already in the area, you could have a peek at the nearby Wat Lam Chang, used in the past for housing the royal elephants. You can find elephant theme decorations throughout the complex.
Temples outside the city walls
Walking out through Tha Pae Gate would take you to a beautiful Wat Mahawan temple. Its most characteristic features are white stucco lion statues standing at the gate to the compound, around the white chedi and in front of the intricately decorated doors to the temple. There is also a smaller initiation hall and a wooden library within the compound.
A little further down the same road, towards Warorot Market, Wat Bupparam also deserves a glance. It was built in Burmese style and boasts very ornamental chedi and a small, old wooden temple with a wonderful facade and an old Buddha statue inside.
Outside the southern gate, on Wua Lai road, you can find Wat Sri Suphan, famous for its silver-covered shrine. Mind you, most of the temple is very recent and you have to pay to get in. Furthermore, women aren’t allowed inside the shrine. There are lots of metal and silverwork workshops on the neighbouring streets.
Outside the northern gate, Wat Lok Molee has a complete 14th-century brick chedi. However, the beautiful wooden temple is actually brand new.
It’s a 1 km walk from the eastern gate to Wat Suan Dok, one of the most important temples in Chiang Mai. A couple of city buses and red songthaews pass by the temple if you don’t fancy walking. There is a fee to enter the main hall. However, Wat Suan Dok is the most famous for numerous white-washed stupas containing the ashes of the Lanna (North Thailand Kingdom) royalty.
Chiang Mai’s city walls are actually a 19th-century reconstruction of the original 13th-century structure. The restored four gates set at four cardinal directions: Tha Pae (west), Chang Puak (north), Chiang Mai (south) and Suan Dok (west) gates help to navigate the way around the city. A moat filled with water and a belt of greenery surround the walls.
It’s hard to miss the characteristic Monument of Three Kings, standing at the very centre of the old town. Kings Mengrai, Ramkamhaeng and Ngam Muang are purported founders of Chiang Mai. Behind the sculpture stands an old provincial administration building, housing Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Center.
If you’re interested in art, visiting Chiang Mai’s three museums: City Arts and Cultural Center, Chiang Mai Historical Centre and Lanna Folklife Museum (all within a close vicinity) might be a good option. There is a combined ticket to see all three. Lanna Architecture Centre, housed in a 120 years old building combining Lanna and European style presents changes in Lanna architecture over centuries. I haven’t visited any of those museums, but they tend to get good reviews.
Walking towards Wororot Market you can see many old residential buildings.
How to get to Chiang Mai?
See: Back to Thailand: Bangkok to Chiang Mai
Prices [in Thai Baht as of March 2019]
280 THB a decent room with a shared bathroom
100/110 THB night in a dorm
40 THB entrance to Wat Chedi Luang
20 THB entrance to Wat Suan Dok and Wat Phra Singh main hall
30 THB simple meal in a cheap eatery
15-20 THB city bus to a bus station
1 THB one drinkable water re-fill from a water-purifying vending machine on the street