A Tour of Chiang Mai’s Temples

Buddhist temples are one of the most important institutions in Thai society. As the centre of the community, they have, since ancient times, had a strong influence on the social relations, values and behaviour of the people.

Thais regard the temple as a sacred spot, a place where love, compassion and understanding exist, a place where there are no thoughts of anger or oppression. It is a refuge in times of physical and mental suffering. As a centre where rites and rituals are performed for the benefit of the deceased, the temple serves as a link between the world of the living and the world hereafter. The temple also serves as the community centre, the foundation of mental calm for the people, the place where traditional obligations are fulfilled. Most temples, built on the faith of royalty, nobility and the common folk, are found, on the periphery of villages and communities so that the required religious ceremonies and practices can be carried out with convenience.

Chiang Mai, capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom, at its peak a centre for art, culture, religion, literature and tradition, has survived and prospered for some 700 years. The city is renowned for its numerous temples. Some of these temples date back to the founding days of the city, others have undergone renovation and restoration through different periods. A survey conducted in 1897 showed that within the walls of the old city alone there are 100 temples. Another 51 stand outside the walls on the edge of the city. Altogether there are 373 temples within the city district of Chiang Mai. Some of the original temples have existed independently to this day, while others have linked up with other temples to form a new major temple. Wat Chedi Luang, for example, comprises four different temples constructed within the same precinct, while Wat Suan Dok has absorbed the former Wat Phra Chao Kao Tue. There are also many other temples which have now been lost to time. Traces of some of ancient temples can still be seen, however, in archaeological ruins and broken chedis. Included amongst these are Wat Sadeu Muang which stands adjacent to the monument to the three kings, the chedi of Wat Chetsatha which stands in the grounds of Phuthi Sophon School, the chedi of Wat Pan Sat adjacent to Chang Puak Bus Terminal, and the chedi of Wat Lok Moli on Maneenoparat Road. These ancient monuments are testimony to the glorious past and serve as important historical records.

Apart from being major archaeological sites displaying the evolution of the past into the present, these monuments are also a treasure house where various types of artistic excellence such as architecture, sculpture, craftsmanship and literature are stored. This heritage of local cultural is a combination of the traditonal values of many different ethnic groups including the Tai Yai, Tai Yuan, Tai Lue, Tai Khoen, the Lawa, and the Burmese all blended into one to create what is today identified as Lanna.

Because of their importance, a visit to the temples should not be overlooked. According to Buddhist beliefs to pay respect before the image of the buddha is a blessing. It also helps to penetrate the heart of Chiang Mai during your visit. It should not be forgotten, however, that the temple is more than just an archaeological site, The temple should be preserved along with the Buddha images and the monks who reside there. These things are held very sacred by Buddhists. When visiting temples, proper respect should be paid, dress should be appropriate and behaviour should be composed. Generally, the first thing that a Buddhist does on entering a temple is to pay respect to the principle Buddha image enshrined in the ceremonial hall.

There are too many temples in Chiang Mai to mention each one separately, and it is not possible to visit all of them. There are, however, some, ancient temples that we would like to suggest you visit, particularly those within the walls of the old city, which can easily be reached by walking. These are:

Wat Chlang Mun Situated on Ratpakinai Road within the walls of the old city, Wat Chiang Mun is the first temple built in Chiang Mai lt was constructed in the year 1296 AD at the same time that King Mengrai established the city of Chiang Mai. The king donated his original residence as the principle building in the temple and ordered the construction of the Chang Lom Chedi. Built on a square shaped pedestal and decorated with stucco elephants protruding from the body, this chedi is a fine example of Lanna architecture. Behind it are the sleeping quarters of the king. Two very important Buddha images are enshrined within the ceremonial hall at Wat Chiang Mun. The first of these images is known as Phra Kaeo Khao which is made of white crystal and was the personal Buddha image of Queen Chamadevi, the first ruler of Muang Haripunchai (Lamphun). This image was made by Mon craftsmen sometime between the 6th and 12th centuries AD. The other image is the Phra Phuttha Sila image which was the personal Buddha image of King Mengrai and was made by Indian craftsmen of the Pala Dynasty sometime between the 8th and 12th centuries AD.

Also within the grounds of Wat Chiang Mun is a stone tablet inscribed in the Lanna script relating the construction of Chiang Mai and Wat Chiang Mun.

Wat Phra Singh Located on Samlarn Road and officially known as Wat Lee Chiang Phra, this temple was constructed in 1343 AD to enshrine the relics of Phaya Kham Fu, the 6th ruler of Chiang Mai. The Chiang Saen style image Phra Phutta Sihing, which is the symbol of the city of Chiang Mai, is enshrined in this temple. Exquisite examples of traditional Lanna architecture can also be found within the precincts of this temple. These include the Viharn Lai Kham, the scripture repository, the Principle Viharn, and the Great Chedi. The gable of the Viharn Lai Kham is, adorned with elaborately carved ornamentation while the walls are decorated with murals depicting stories based on Buddhist belief.

Chedi Luang This temple, which is situated off Prapokklao Road, is so named because of the giant chedi which stands in its grounds. Phaya Saen Muang ordered that the chedi be constructed as a tribute to his late father Phaya Kuena and intended that it should be visible within a radius of 2,000 wa (1wa = 2m). He died before its completion, however, and construction was not finished until the year 1401 AD. The Great Chedi is a fine example of the Lanna school of Art based on the metal palaces of Sri Lanka. The top of the chedi was destroyed during a major earthquake in the year 1545 AD. The City Pillar, known as Sao lnthakin, is also stored within the grounds of this temple. This pillar is highly respected by the local people, particularly during the 6th lunar month of each year when a festival known as sai khan dok is held to worship it with flowers, incense and other offerings.

Wat Phan Tao This ancient temple can be found at the Klang Wiang intersection adjacent to Wat Chedi Luang. Within the precincts is a Lanna style wooden ceremonial hall elaborately decorated with exquisitely carved wooden ornamentation. Of particular interest is the carved wooden peacock adorning the gable which has retained its pristine condition.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Located at the top of Doi Suthep just outside the City, this temple has become an important symbol of Chiang Mai. Phaya Kuena ordered the construction of the chedi to house relics of the Buddha wich had been presented as a gift from the Kingdom of Sukhothai. To make the temple more easily accessible, Khruba Sri Vichai, a highly revered monk of the Lanna Kingdom, gathered his followers to construct a road to the top of the mountain. People from all over the northern region joined together and, without the help of machinery or equipment, completed construction in a period of 5 months and 22 days. Today, a monument to this great monk has been established at the base of Doi Suthep.

Wat Photharam Viharn This temple is known locally as Wat Jed Yod after the seven-pinnacled chedi which stands in its grounds. King Tilokaraj ordered the construction of this chedi as a copy of the chedi at Bodh Gaya, India, where the Buddha attained enlightenment. The chedi, which is made of laterite and is smaller than the original in India, is decorated with graceful figures of celestial beings in stucco. Construction was completed in 1455 AD. This temple was chosen as the site for the 8th Buddhist Council. The relics of King Tilokaraj, who ruled over Lanna during its golden age, are enshrined in the large chedi in this temple.

Wat Suan Dok Constructed at the same time as Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, this temple was originally a botanical garden during the reign of King Kuena, the 8th ruler of Chiang Mai. The King ordered the construction of the temple and a chedi to house relics received from the Kingdom of Sukhothai. Many ancient Buddha images are currently enshrined in this temple. Among them is the image known as Phra Chao Kao Tue, a bronze Chiang Saen style Buddha image of the Sukhothai period considered to be the most beautiful in the northern region.

Wat U Mong This is another ancient temple situated at the base of Doi Suthep behind Chiang Mai University. The temple is known for its peaceful atmosphere and heavily wooded environment. There is also a man-made tunnel which has been dug for use as a meditation area. The walls of the tunnel are decorated with paintings showing floral and bird designs in the Yunnanese style. There is also a large chedi in the Sri Lanka style.

Wat Ku Tao There is no clear evidence as to the background of this temple which has an unusual shaped chedi in its grounds. The chedi has the appearance of several up-turned bowls of different sizes placed one on top of the other thus earning it the name Chedi Ku Tao. It is believed that the design received influence from Burma at the time that Chiang Mai fell under Burmese rule.

In addition to the temples mentioned, there are other temples of interest. These include Wat Saen Fang, Wat Bupharam, and Wat Maha Wan, all in the Thapae Road area, Wat Prasai opposite Wat Phra Singh, and Wat Phuak Hong which is near Chiang Mai Gate.

Apart from using motorised transportation such as car, tuk tuk, or motorcycle to visit the temples within the city walls and nearby area, visitors can also go by foot. We would like to suggest two routes:

Route 1 (Temples within the city centre). Commence at Wat Chiang Mun on Ratpakinai Road, and proceed to Prapokklao Road passing the Three Kings Monument and Wat Sadeu Muang. Continue on until you reach Wat Phan Tao and Wat Chedi Luang. Reverse back to Ratchadumnern Road, turn left and proceed to Wat Phra Singh and Wat Prasat.

Route 2 (Temples along Thapae Road). Leaving Thapae Gate and proceeding southwards along Thapae Road you will pass many interesting temples particularly Wat Maha Wan, Wat Bupharam and Wat Saen Fang. Continue on to the Night Bazaar area which is a popular market area where you can purchase gifts and souvenirs.

If you visit temples during September, you may be lucky enough to happen upon the Tan Kuai Salak festival. This is a festival which the people of the north have preserved since ancient times. Each household prepares dried foods and other items which they place in a kuai (traditionally a woven can basket which has nowadays been replaced by a plastic container for greater convenience). A slip of paper or palm leaf bearing the name of the person to whom the merit made from the offering is to be dedicated is attached to the container. In most cases this is a relative who has passed away. Early in the morning the containers are taken to the temple and placed in a row. The slips of paper are gathered and placed in front of the principle Buddha image in the ceremonial hall. They are then distributed among the monks in the temple. Each monk in turn reads the name on his slip of paper and the donor takes the kuai and presents it to that monk.

The Tan Kuai Salak festival is considered a major festival and is not organised by any one temple. It is jointly organised and held in old, important temples. As it is held in the oldest temple first, Wat Chiang Mun is the first temple to celebrate the festival each season. This is followed by other temples according to age. Smaller temples organise the festival jointly with older temples in their vicinity.

Despite the changes that have taken place in Chiang Mai since its founding days, the people have well preserved their customs and traditions. Temples not only serve as interesting tourist attractions, but also act as a centre where traditional values, beliefs and lifestyles are preserved. From visiting temples, we can learn more about the values and lore of the founding fathers of Chiang Mai. It is only fitting, then, that these temples be preserved for future study.

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