Wat this, wat that, what the... ? Yes Chiang Mai city's numerous Buddhist temples, or wats, can be overwhelming for travellers. The city is famous for them and any guide -- including our own -- will proffer extensive lists of must-see temples, prestigious Buddha images and not-to-be missed Lanna-style religious architecture. We lost count at 35 wats within the old city walls, and there's at least that number again in the surrounding downtown area -- and probably a similar number in the 'burbs. So what to do? Choosing which ones look the best is purely subjective, but we can at least place them in order of importance in terms of prestige and historical significance and suggest a few routes. Here we go.
It's a toss up between Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh when it comes to naming Chiang Mai's "most important" temple, so if you're only going to see two downtown wats these are probably the ones. Chedi Luang is the largest and was the old royal temple of the Chiang Mai kings, so we've put it first -- but the good news is it's only a five-minute walk from its rival. It's also conveniently close to the city's museum district.
Exit Chedi Luang, turn left, then left again on Ratchadamneon (see our Chiang Mai map here), and you'll reach the strategically located Wat Phra Singh. Popular among locals and tourists, its convenient location makes it a good choice for a Sunday afternoon as it can be combined with a late afternoon wander down the walking street market.
Thais say if you haven't seen Wat Doi Suthep you haven't seen Chiang Mai, and insofar as a visit to this mountaintop temple provides a view of the entire city below, there's some truth to the statement. Another highly prestigious site with a choice of steps or funicular taking you from the car park to the temple itself, it's located on an outcrop just below the actual mountain summit but with tremendous views looking east over the Ping valley and city itself. You'll need a songthaew (red pick-up taxi) to get up there but it can be combined with a visit to the Doi Suthep national park, Doi Pui or perhaps Chiang Mai Zoo at the foot of the mountain.
An interesting 15th century wat set in a spacious garden and containing several photogenic Mon- and Indian-style ruins, Wat Chet Yot is set just off the superhighway and is perhaps a good one to combine with Wat U Mong and or the zoo again, since you can cover these sites by tuk tuk without having to venture up Doi Suthep. Its name means "Temple of Seven Chedis" -- and no prizes for guessing it boasts a soaring seven-spired chedi, set atop a brick platform adorned with sitting Buddha images.
It's worth heading to Wat U Mong as being a forest temple, it has a very different feel to it from the others we've mentioned. Despite being well known among local visitors, it's not so frequently visited by foreign tourists. Set in woods at the foot of Doi Suthep, it's quite overgrown and dilapidated, with lots of trees and old Buddhist statues dotted about, making it an interesting place to just wander. Situated at the top end of Suthep Road, we'd recommend a stop on the way here at the excellent Don Phayam Market.
Back into the old city for Wat Chiang Man, which frequently figures, after Chedi Luang and Phra Singh, on any suggested temple tour and is significant as it's the oldest temple in Chiang Mai -- supposedly King Mengrai stayed here while directing the city's construction at the end of the 13th century. It's classic Lanna style, and its location in the old city's northeast quadrant near Somphet means it's a short walk from many of the town's guesthouses.
The above covers Chiang Mai's essential temples so we'll move on to a few of our personal faves among the remaining more than 100 or so -- mostly selected by virtue of their being easily combined with adjacent sites.
Wat Sri Suphan, or the "Silver Temple", is unique and well worth a look if you're in the area --it’s really quite astounding, with the main feature being its silver ubosot, or ordination hall. It's right next to the Saturday walking street market, so combine the two if you can.
Largely constructed out of teak, Wat Pan Tao is one of the city's oldest and is located right next door to Chedi Luang so it's easy to stick your head in -- and it's blissfully free of the trappings of many other city temples.
Wat Pansao is another temple travellers often overlook. Small and atmospheric, it's tucked away off the moat road, west side, close to Central and adjacent to Chiang Mai Ram Hospital. It's very pretty with some interesting legends behind it as well.
By Mark Ord
Last updated on 27th May, 2015.