There are over three hundred Chiang Mai temples, so how do you know which ones are worth visiting? Read on to discover some of Chiang Mai’s finest Buddhist temples, including golden mountain-top pagodas, crumbling chedis, hidden tunnels and sparkling mosaic-covered buildings. Here are our top seven Chiang Mai Temples and how to visit them.
The 7 Best Chiang Mai Temples
1. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
This mystical temple is perched high on cloud-topped Suthep Mountain. A piece of Buddha’s shoulder bone is enshrined in Wat Phra That’s golden pagoda, making it one of the holiest and most visited Chiang Mai temples. According to the White Elephant legend, the bone magically split itself in half; the first part was enshrined at Wat Suan Dok while King Keu Naone ordered the second to be mounted on a white elephant. The animal climbed to the top of Suthep Mountain, circled and trumpeted three times, then dropped dead. The King saw this as an omen and ordered a temple to be built on that very spot in 1383.
The magnificent Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Today a zigzag road will take you 15 kilometres up to the temple, which sits at an elevation of 1,073 metres, overlooking panoramic views of Chiang Mai. A set of 306 stairs flanked by colourful serpent statues, which Buddhists regard as a symbol of protection, leads up to the temple. At the top an outer terrace contains statues, bells, shrines, a meditation centre, museum and a statue of the white elephant who founded the temple. Wat Phra That is a Buddhist temple but it also contains Hindu designs, including a statue of the god Ganesh. Every day from 13:00 and 15:00 visitors can take part in Monk Chat sessions to learn more about Buddhism and allow the monks to practise their English.
You must remove your shoes to enter the inner terrace which contains the 15-metre tall pagoda holding the Buddha’s bone. The shrine is surrounded by elaborate decorations including dozens of Buddha statues, murals depicting the life of Buddha and a five-tiered umbrella which symbolises Chiang Mai’s separation from Burma and unification with Thailand. To show respect you must circle the pagoda three times in an anti-clockwise direction, the same way the white elephant did. Buddhists pray, light incense and leave lotus blossoms as offerings.
Location: Doi Suthep road, Doi Suthep Mountain. Most people take a red songthaew up to the temple, which costs around 400 Thai Baht (THB) for a round trip. You can also venture up by bicycle, motorbike or even hike up the monk’s trail, which takes around three hours and is marked by strips of orange monk robes tied around tree trunks.
Opening hours: 06.00 until 19.00
Entrance fee: 30 THB
2. Wat Suan Dok
The other half of Buddha’s sacred shoulder bone is enshrined in Wat Suan Dok’s 48-metre tall golden chedi (bell-shaped structure). This rises into the sky against the backdrop of Suthep Mountain and is surrounded by a garden of smaller whitewashed chedis which contain the ashes of generations of Lanna (Northern Thai) Royalty. This is particularly appropriate given that Suan Dok was built on a field of flowers in 1370 and the name roughly translates to ‘Flower Garden Temple.’
One of the more unique Chiang Mai Temples: Wat Suan Dok
Wat Suan Dok is one of the more unique Chiang Mai temples because it demonstrates a Sri Lankan architectural style. Next to the chedis, there’s a huge open-sided temple which was built in 1930 and holds a five-metre tall Buddha statue. Wat Suan Dok is also located right next to a Buddhist university campus so plenty of monks pass through. Visitors can join Monk Chat sessions between 5 and 7 pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Location: 139 Suthep Road. Walk east out of the Suan Dok Gate for around 15 minutes to get to the temple, or hop in a songthaew for 20 THB.
Opening hours: 06.00 – 17.00
Entrance fee: Free
3. Wat Umong
At Wat Umong, a brick chedi sits atop a tangle of prayer tunnels carved into the hillside. Monks wander the 15-acre forested complex amongst gardens of broken stone Buddha statues. All of these features make Wat Umong one of the most unusual Chiang Mai temples. King Mengrai built the tunnels and underground altars in 1297 for a revered monk named Thera Chan to meditate in. Many stories claim the tunnel walls were painted with forest scenes to contain the monk, who had a habit of wandering into the woods for days on end.
One of the tunnels at Wat Umong
Wat Umong was abandoned in the 15th Century and later restored in 1948. Now it’s an active temple complex and home to monks who live in buildings scattered throughout the forest. A copy of a stone Ashoka Pillar, built to spread the word of Buddhism, stands in the centre of the grounds and there’s a natural lake where visitors feed fish, ducks and turtles. The woodland setting provides the perfect peaceful backdrop for the onsite meditation centre and library.
The stone tunnels are the temple’s biggest draw for visitors as you can wander through, pausing to watch Buddhists light incense and pray at the decorative altars. The collection of green-tinged broken Buddha heads piled in the woods is also popular with visitors, as are the ‘Talking Trees,’ which have been decorated with Buddhist wisdom quotes such as: “Today is better than two tomorrows.” The temple hosts Monk Chat sessions every Monday, Wednesday and Friday between 5.30 and 7.30pm.
Location: 135 Moo 10 Suthep, outside the city walls. It’s best to take a songthaew to visit Wat Umong; a round-trip from the Old City shouldn’t cost more than 300 THB.
Opening hours: 06.00 – 17.00
Entrance fee: Free
4. Wat Chiang Man
Chiang Mai’s oldest temple is home to one of Thailand’s greatest treasures: a pocket-sized Buddha statue carved from quartz crystal. King Phaya Mengrai began constructing Wat Chiang Man around 1292 and actually lived in it while he was establishing Chiang Mai as the new capital of the Lanna Kingdom. The oldest structure on the temple grounds is the Chedi Chang Lom, which is made of 15 life-sized stone elephants that appear to be carrying a gold-peaked roof on their backs.
Chiang Mai's oldest temple: Wat Chiang Man
Over the years a collection of temples have been constructed around the original chedi in various architectural styles. These include a library and prayer halls, the largest of which displays the oldest dated Buddha statue in the city, which has been inscribed with the year 1465 and depicts Buddha holding an alms bowl. As well as the precious crystal statue, a beautiful marble Buddha is on display at Chiang Man temple.
Location: Ratchaphakhinai Road, inside the city walls.
Opening hours: 06.00 – 18.00
Entrance fee: Free
5. Wat Chedi Luang
This Chiang Mai temple is famous for its crumbling brick chedi which once stood 82 metres high. The structure was the tallest in the Lanna Kingdom until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1545. King Saen Muang Ma began building the chedi in 1391 as a place to bury his father’s ashes, but it took 84 years to complete. On all four sides of the chedi, a staircase guarded by serpent and elephant statues rises up to an alcove containing a Buddha statue. For years one of the holiest Buddhist images, the Emerald Buddha, was kept in the eastern niche but it has now been replaced by a black jade replica.
Wat Chedi Luang
Although Wat Chedi Luang is now under reconstruction, it’s still one of the most popular Chiang Mai temples. The bustling temple grounds also house the sacred city pillar which once stood in the middle of Chiang Mai and symbolised the centre of the universe for ancient Lanna people. Right next to it stands a huge gum tree, one of three thought to protect the city from catastrophes. There’s also a wooden structure opposite the chedi which shields a giant reclining Buddha statue.
Chedi Luang is a working temple and hundreds of orange-robed monks can be seen strolling around the grounds or praying in an ornate white temple decorated with sparkling gold mosaics, which sits directly in front of the chedi. You can step inside the temple, which is adorned with hanging prayer flags, red carpets and three huge Buddha statues sat behind an altar. Visitors can join the daily Monk Chat sessions between 09:00 and 18:00.
Location: 103 Prapokkloa Road, inside the city walls.
Opening hours: 06.00 – 18.00
Entrance fee: 40 THB
6. Wat Phra Singh
Wat Phra Singh is famous for its mysterious lion statue, which is rumoured to have been stolen and replaced with a copy in 1922. The temple was built by King Phayu in 1345 to hold the ashes of his father and originally named Wat Li Chiang Phra. However, once the lion statue arrived from Sri Lanka, the temple was renamed Singh, which is derived from the Sanskrit word for lion. Several other temples in Thailand claim to possess the original lion statue but despite the controversy, in 1935 the Thai King declared Wat Phra Singh a royal temple and awarded it first-class status, making it one of the most sacred Chiang Mai temples.
Wat Phra Singh, home of its mysterious lion statue
There’s a collection of temples at Wat Phra Singhwhichare known for their traditional Lanna-style architecture. This includes gold-tipped winged roofs, detailed wooden carvings, mighty Buddha statues and wall murals depicting local life in ancient Lanna times. Over 700 monks live and study in the Wat Phra Singh complex and there’s a learning centre and library on site which contains historic manuscripts. During Songkran, the Thai New Year water festival, Wat Phra Singh’s lion statue is carried through Chiang Mai and sprinkled with water by locals for cleansing.
Location: The west end of Ratchadamnoen Road, inside the city walls.
Opening hours: 05.00 – 20.30
Entrance fee: 20 THB
7. Wat Ched Yot
Wat Ched Yot is known for its seven-spire temple which incorporates a mix of Indian, Lao, Thai and Chinese architectural designs, providing a striking contrast to most Lanna-style Chiang Mai temples. King Tilokarat ordered Wat Ched Yot to be built in 1455 following the same design as the Mahabodhi temple in India, where Buddha famously achieved enlightenment after seven weeks of meditation. The temple is a rectangular, windowless structure with the cone-shaped spires balanced atop a flat roof. The outer walls are decorated with 70 painstakingly-carved mythical creatures called Thewadas.
The seven-sphire temple Wat Ched Yot
Today the temple is surrounded by hundreds of tiny serpent statues as it has become a site of pilgrimage for people born in the year of the snake. King Tilokarat’s ashes are buried in the largest of the chedis which have been built around the main temple. In typical Thai style, each chedi contains an alcove on every side which holds a Buddha statue. In 1977 Wat Ched Yot held the eighth World Buddhist Council and is one of the least touristy temples in Chiang Mai, set outside the city in a leafy complex with a pond.
Location: Jed Yod Road, north-west of the old city, just outside the superhighway. Take a tuk-tuk or songthaew, a return trip from the old city will cost around 300 THB.
Opening hours: 08.30 – 17.00
Entrance fee: Free
Rules for Visiting Chiang Mai Temples
Make sure you show respect for Thai Buddhist culture by following these rules when visiting Chiang Mai temples:
1. Dress appropriately. Clothes should cover your shoulders and knees; this is especially important for women. Some larger temples like Chedi Luang have sarongs you can borrow, but it’s always best to bring your own. Remove hats and sunglasses when you enter.
2. Be quiet and respectful. Don’t run, smoke, talk loudly or use your mobile phone while visiting a temple.
3. Displaying affection in temples is forbidden so don’t hug, kiss or hold hands.
4. Take off your shoes when entering a temple and step over the wooden threshold rather than on it.
5. Don’t point your fingers or feet at a monk or a Buddha statue. When you approach an altar, kneel down and when you rise, be careful not to turn your back on the Buddha.
6. Don’t disturb people who are worshipping at temples.
7. Don’t touch sacred objects, climb on ancient buildings or sit on chairs meant for monks. You should also take care not to raise yourself higher than a Buddha by, for example, sitting on a wall to take a photo.
8. If you wish to join a Monk Chat session or interact with monks, show respect by bowing your head and sitting lower than them, with your feet beneath you. Women should never touch a monk or his robes and men should use their right hand when giving or receiving something from a monk.
9. Buying statues or images of a Buddha’s head is considered disrespectful.
10. You can spend weeks temple hopping around the city, but if you only have time to visit a select few, then these top seven historical Chiang Mai temples are a great place to start.
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