Top 11 Temples in Chiang Mai
Walking or driving around Chiang Mai, it is impossible to not see them. Temples, from small shrines to sprawling temple complexes are a defining feature of this beautiful city. And in part, it is what makes it beautiful! You can easily spot Thai Buddhist architecture: the distinctive roofs sticking out against the sky and the walls with religious symbolism surrounding almost every temple.
You might be a bit overwhelmed planning a temple sightseeing tour. There are so many options and of course you want to see the most impressive and beautiful ones. That is why we tried to make you a Top 10 list of temples in Chiang Mai. But we couldn't even cut the list down to 10, so it is actually our Top 11! Mind you: these are our favorites inside and around the old city. There are some very worthwhile temples to visit a little farther out, like for example the (modern) temples in Chiang Rai and the Twin Pagodas on top of Doi Inthanon.
What? A wat! Your Thai Buddhist temple beginners guide
Temples are the churches of Buddhist. And as with Western-style churches, Buddhist temples have many defining features that are particular to a religious branch, sect or region. For example, in Cambodia, Buddhist temples are mostly of the Khmer style. Temples in Thailand and the surrounding countries are referred to as a Wat, or 'enclosure' (from Sanskrit). In Thailand, a Wat is a royal or public temple, endorsed with special status (wisungkhammasima) by royal decree. 'Unofficial' temples are called Samnak song.
A Wat includes several structures. The most fundamental of these are the chedi (also called stupa or pagoda), ubosot (or: bot) and viharn and that's why these are erected first. The chedi is the most sacred part of the temple. In Thailand they are often bell-shaped towers: a spiral with a broad base. They were originally used to house relics of Buddha and latter the ashes of the royal family.
An ubosot is the main prayer building. You can recognize because it is always surrounded by 8 sacred boundary stones called sima (or sema). These stones or markers take a wide variety of shapes and forms so sometimes you cannot spot them easily!
The viharn is similar to the ubosot but do not have sima boundary stones. Also, there can be multiple viharns at one temple complex.
The chofah are the birdlike images adorning the rooftop edges, sometimes grasping nagas (mythical intelligent snake-like creatures), as they are sworn enemies. Some think the chofa is inspired on Garuda, Lord Vishnu's mythical flying mount in Hindu legend. Together, the chofa and naga protect the building.
Chiang Mai Temples: Lanna style (and others)
You may wonder what the difference between Chiang Mai temples and any other in Thailand is. Northern Thailand used to be a separate kingdom, the Lanna kingdom. The Lanna culture also has its own architectural style, which incorporates influences from Myanmar and Laos. In temples, you can see this style in that the roofs have multiple tiers or layers, and windows can be quite small. This is because of the colder climate and greater amount of rain in this region.
This style is particularly visible in the older temples. A good example is the ubosot at Wat Chiang Man, Chiang Mai's oldest temple (see picture below).
We could easily dedicate an entire website to just Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai. All the symbolism in architecture, statues, carvings, paintings and religious objects are so numerous entire studies are dedicated to them. And so, when we give you a list of Top Temples in Chiang Mai, this is very subjective. You may appreciate architecture, but your traveling partner may think decorations are what makes a beautiful temple. Others may be more interested in the story behind the temple and its religious or cultural significance. Take this blog as your starting guide and decide for yourself which is your favorite!
So, with that disclaimer out of the way, here is..
OUR TOP 11 TEMPLES IN CHIANG MAI
Wat Chiang Man
This is the oldest temple of Chiang Mai, and its construction was part of the city's founding. King Mangrai had the temple built in 1296 and used it to supervise the construction of Chiang Mai from. It has a very recognizable elephant chedi, as the animal played an important role in Lanna culture and history. You can read more about the role of the elephant in Lanna and Thai culture here.
The temple houses two important Buddha images: one is a 1000-year old Sri-lankan (Singhalese) Phra Sila Buddha image. It is believed to hold the power of rain and therefore connected to Songkran rituals. The other is known as the 'Crystal Buddha'; made of quartz and believed to be even older.
Location: Very close to our own PM Tours office, the temple is located in the north-east quarter of the old city and easy to find. From entering the old city through Chiang Phuak gate, turn left on Ratchaphakhinai Soi 1. Keep going until you reach the main road (Ratchaphakinai Road), turn right and you are at the entrance.
Wat Chedi Luang: Size matters
It's in the name: what sets Wat Chedi Luang ('temple of the great stupa') apart is its massive chedi. Construction of it lasted almost a century, starting in 1391 and completed in 1475. It features stairs that lead to huge elevated gates. It used to be even taller, but an earthquake knocked the top part off. The ubosot opposite it was added only last century, but it too is huge, and one of the most impressive in Chiang Mai.
Location: Right in the middle of the old city. The temple is located on Prapokklao road., a couple of blocks south of the Three Kings monument, just past the intersection with traffic lights. Don't confuse it with Wat Pan Tao, which is directly north of it! Wat Chedi Luang has a big gate with two big red markers. There is a small entrance fee.
Wat Phra Singh: The most beautiful
You can't miss this temple smack in the middle of the old city. Surrounded by stark white walls all the way around, it is the largest temple complex inside the city. It is often referred to Chiang Mai's most beautiful temple, not just because of its architectural elegance but because it is in great shape. Several buildings inside the grounds are notable, not the least the Viharn Lai Kham, a beautiful three-tier roofed building in typical Lanna style. It houses the Phra Buddha Sihing statue (or, possible a copy because two other temples in Thailand claim to have it) which during Songkran is carried through the streets during the new year’s procession. The ubosot of the temple is of the song (meaning 'two') style, having both an entrance for the monks and one for the nuns. The chedi was first built in 1345 and has been enlarged since.
There is a small entrance fee to the temple, to be paid to the right after entering through the main gate. Several shops offer temple souvenirs on the left side of the gate. During weekends and religious holidays there is a nice little morning food-market inside the temple grounds, right next to the ubosot.
Location: one block east of the west gate of the old city. The entrance is on Samlarn road.
Wat Phan Tao
Wat Phan Tao is a little bit special. The ubosot is a beautifully hand-carved wooden building and is alone worth the visit. But during special days, particularly Loy Krathong, the monks and locals turn the temple garden into a mosaic of colors. They hang up hundreds of lanterns of different colors, creating a sort of magical wonderland. We don't get tired of seeing it every year. And of course, the opportunity for great photos is magnificent!
Location: Right next to Wat Chedi Luang, a couple of blocks south of the Three Kings monument. When you go south from the monument, it is the first temple you see (to the right) directly after passing the traffic lights on Prapokklao road.
The ubosot and some viharns at Wat Buppharam stand out because of their gold-painted patterned exterior. The lion-themed chedi is a 1958 rebuild of the 1497 original one. The temple architecture and imagery is an interesting combination Lanna, Thai and Myanmar styles. One of the highlights is the teak-wooden Buddha adorning the main hall. Fun fact: there are some donated statues of Disney characters behind the temple.
Location: the temple is located on Tha Pae road, in between the river and Tha Pae gate, the historical eastern entrance to the old city. Over the centuries, the temple would have welcomed (international) visitors coming into the city that arrived by boat, as it is closest to the old harbor.
Wat Sri Suphan: Silver spectacle
Known as the Silver Temple, this is arguably one of the most beautiful temples in the city. Covered by hand-crafted silver, the temple was constructed in 1501-1509 by a descendant of King Mangrai. When Shan refugees settled in the area around 1600 and it became a silversmith village, they started adding piecemeal silver decorations to the temple. Only recently (2008) was the entire main ubosot covered in silver and still the monks and locals continue work on decorating the temple. The area is still known for its silver work and is also called the Silver District. It is not just the outside that will stun you with the beauty of its intricate decorations; inside is just as impressive.
Downside: women are not allowed to enter the inner shrine of the temple, and that is why this temple is not higher on our list.
Location: the easiest way to find the Silver Temple is by exiting the old city through Chiang Mai gate and turning unto Wua Lai road. and following it a couple of blocks south. Turn right into Wua Lai 2 Kho and you see the temple to your left.
Wat Jed Yod: The odd temple out
Wat Jed Yod, or 'Seven Peaks Temple', is somewhat of an oddity. Its seven chedis on top of a square viharn is unusual in Thailand. That is because the temple, constructed in the mid-15th century, is modeled after the Maha Bodhi temple in Bodhgaya in India. It hosted the 8th World Buddhist Council in 1477, during which important texts of Buddhism were verified.
The temple grounds spot several other chedis and an assortment of donated naga (snake) statues. The temple grounds are dotted with large trees, providing welcome shade during the hotter days. Because it is a little out of the way, its often overlooked by tourists and therefore a good place to escape any crowds or lines.
Location: right next to the Superhighway, just a little north of Maya Mall on the corner of Nimmanahaeminda (Nimman) rd. and Huay Kaew rd.
Wat Chedi Liam at Wiang Kum Kam
This is actually the site of an earlier attempt to found a city on the banks of the Ping river. Wiang Kum Kam was founded in 1286 but after severe flooding proved the spot a bad choice, King Mangrai founded Chiang Mai on the opposite bank of the river. The ruins of the settlement and other temples were excavated and the main chedi, when you walk around the ruins, you cannot escape a sense of awe at the history around you.
Wat Chedi Liam (or Wat Chediliem), was restored in the early 20th century. Other temples such as Wat Si Bunruang and Wat Pa Poe are part of the same area and also worth a visit. Wat Chedi Liam is a Mon-style chedi dating from 1288, but the restoration introduced Burmese elements to it. The surrounding buildings are much newer, but not less worthwhile to visit, particularly the three-tier roofed ubosot.
You can rent a horse and cart here, which we recommend because there is much more to see than just Wat Chedi Liam.
Location: Southeast of the city. By car you can take the Superhighway heading east. Turn right at Tha Sala (unto the 1141) and take the second left after you pass K-Park (you'll see a KFC drive-through). Follow the road until Wat Chedi Liam is on your left.
Wat Lok Molee: The local favorite
Constructed sometime during the 14th century (the exact date is unknown), this temple has played an important role in Chiang Mai's history. The large chedi was constructed in 1527 and the first viharn in 1545 under one of King Mangrai's descendants. The current viharn however is from 2003. The ashes of some of the Mangrai royal family are interned within its chedi. The massive chedi is bare except for some naga decorations, but that does not mean it loses out against the more opulent temples.
Wat Lok Molee is still very important to the local population. Special events, such as the new years celebration, bring more people to pray than the temple can house.
Location: Right across the western-most bridge across the northern moat (around the old city). From the northern gate (Chang Phuak gate), walk north and cross the moat and turn left to walk alongside it. Wat Lok Molee will be on your right, before you reach the second road across the moat.
Wat Umong: The cave temple
You want to escape the city and have some breathing room while you appreciate a temple with a unique setting? Wat Umong has several acres of forest surrounding the structures, and deservingly called aranyawasi, or 'forest temple'. Like Wat Yod Yed, it is somewhat overlooked so never too crowded. What makes the temple unique is that its temple structures runs into the mountain. The 'meditation tunnels' dug into the mountainside of Doi Suthep lead to underground shrines, and these are some of the oldest structures around Chiang Mai (1297). You will find the echoing sound of monks chanting in the tunnels something special.
A visit to Wat Umong is included in our night-time tour to the temple complex on Doi Suthep.
Location: in the Suthep neighborhood, west of the old city on the slopes of Doi Suthep. Starting from the west gate of the old city, follow Suthep rd. past Chiang Mai University Hospital and keep going straight after crossing the main intersection and canal. Only at Soi 4 Wat Umong (across from Chiang Mai University campus) do you turn left and follow it all the way to the temple.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep: Definitely the best view
The slopes of Doi Suthep dominate the view to the west from Chiang Mai. The mountain is closely linked to the city's origin and the legend of the royal white elephant (as we've written about in our elephants in Thailand blog). The temple plays an important role in the locals' religious life, with many of them visiting the temple on Buddhist holidays to give merit. But not just them; Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a pilgrimage site for Buddhists from across Thailand and the world.
The temple complex is sprawled on top of one of the mountain's peaks and accessible by a single road coming out of the city. The old pilgrimage trail is still there and accessible: crossing the road several times, there is a cute temple sitting right on a stream-crossing halfway up, Wat Pha Lad. The trail culminates in decorated staircase leading up to the temple itself, flanked by protective naga spirit statues.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep includes many buildings, among which a gold-adorned 24 meter high chedi. Also important and hard to miss are several elephant statues, symbolic of the city and its history, and Thai culture in general. Did you know it is considered good luck to walk under the elephant 3 times?
On the outer terrace, you can catch a great view of the city. During the night-time, the monks light up the temple with hundreds of lanterns, creating a magical atmosphere. You can experience the temple by night yourself by joining our Doi Suthep by Night tour.
Our day trip to Doi Suthep Temple also visits the ‘hidden’ Wat Pha Lad Temple and the beautiful Sticky Waterfalls (Bua Thong Waterfalls).
Location: from the northwest corner of the old city, follow Huay Kaew road. past Chiang Mai Zoo all the way up to the mountain.
Important: Do’s and don’ts at Buddhist temples
While visiting Thai temples, it is important to be respectful. General rules that go for visiting any religious site of course apply, such as not shouting, littering and being generally obnoxious. Don't photograph monks or people working at the temples without their permission.
Here are a couple of particulars to Thai temples:
Dress appropriate: this includes covering knees, shoulders and midriffs. Sexy, revealing clothing is not suitable. Wearing the color white however is.
Remove your shoes or slippers when entering a temple building. Leave them on the side of the steps or next to the entrance of the temple. When sitting down in the temple, it is good form not to show off the bottom of your feet. That is why you see Thai people sitting with their legs folded sideways.
Take off your hat and sunglasses as well.
Turn off your phone and when photographing, be respectful and use common sense.
Don't step on the ubosot boundary: the line that the sema stones indicate also includes the doorstep. The doorstep, often made from thick wood or stone, should not be disturbed and stepped over, not on.
If something is offered to you, such as a candle, a written prayer or blessed stones, when accepting please understand that a small donation to the temple is appreciated in return.
We appreciate you observing these few directions. The Thai people are extremely generous to visitors and it’s only a little trouble to respect them in return. We hope you enjoy visiting many of these beautiful temples while you are in Chiang Mai!