There are literally hundreds of temples in Chiang Mai, more than most tourists can reasonably visit during a brief stay. Try to see too many, and temple fatigue will set in. So how do you decide which temples in Chiang Mai to prioritize? This guide highlights six of the most significant.
Temples in the Old City
Wat Phra Singh
This bustling temple is one of the most important in Chiang Mai. It holds the Lion Buddha, a sacred gold-and-copper Buddha image said to have come from Sri Lanka in the 14th century. Other noteworthy structures on the temple grounds include the raised teak library and a golden chedi which houses of the ashes of the then-king’s father. One of the more interesting features of Wat Phra Singh is the collection of wax monks inside the main pavilion. The figures are so life like it’s creepy! Try to visit in the late morning to witness a prayer service and the living monks at their mid-day meal.
Wat Chedi Luang
This ancient and crumbling red brick temple once held the sacred Emerald Buddha that now resides in Bangkok. An earthquake heavily damaged the impressive structure in the 16th century, reducing its height considerably. Restorations to the façade include the elephant sculptures and naga staircases. The newer additions to the temple complex are also worth exploring. Wat Chedi Luang offers a “monk chat” for those who are curious to learn more about Buddhism or the monks’ lifestyle.
Wat Phan Tao
This beautiful wooden temple once served as a royal residence. A gilded mural of a peacock standing over a sleeping dog, the astrological sign of the former owner, adorns the front entrance. Twenty-eight solid teak pillars support the chapel, which is home to antique Buddha images. Monks tend a garden beside the chapel and hold important festivals here.
Wat Chiang Man
Thought to be the oldest in the city, Wat Chiang Man contains two important Buddhist relics in a small sanctuary to the right of the main hall. One of the images is a green crystal seated Buddha and the other is a standing Buddha made of marble. Thick glass and double security bars make them difficult to see.
Temples Outside the Old City
Wat Doi Suthep
If you go to only one temple in Chiang Mai, make it Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. This magnificent temple dates to the 1380s and is one of the most sacred in northern Thailand. It sits atop a mountain and, on a clear day, offers unbeatable views of the city. According to legend, a white elephant was carrying a sacred Buddhist relic and died on the mountaintop. A golden shrine was erected to house the relic, where it remains to this day. From the entrance, you will have to climb 306 steps up to the actual temple. Take a moment to admire the naga balustrade lining the staircase – it’s said to be the longest in Thailand. To best way to reach Wat Doi Suthep from the old city is to hop in a red truck taxis. If you have time, it’s possible to hike to the temple following the trail the monks use.
Wat Sri Suphan
Wat Sri Suphan is better known as Chiang Mai’s Silver Temple, and it’s immediately clear why as soon as you reach the gate. Gleaming silver covers nearly every surface! At the time of its founding in the 16th century, this was the main temple for a village of silversmiths. Due to some obscure Buddhist rule that I’ve never seen enacted anywhere else, women forbidden from entering the silver shrine. Not to be deterred, I sent my partner in with my camera. Inside he found a very curious map etched in silver and featuring aliens flying around the world in spaceships.
Tips for Visiting the Temples in Chiang Mai
Dress modestly, which means no bare shoulders or legs for women or men. Most temples will let you rent or borrow sarongs if you need to cover up.
Take off your shoes before entering the temples. You can leave them outside, though I recommend putting them inside a bag so you can carry them around with you. Don’t tie your shoes to the outside of your bag as they could accidentally brush up against someone.