Chiang Mai's oldest wat (probably)
Published/Last edited or updated: 24th August, 2017
Located inside the moat in the northeast corner of the Old City, this is probably the oldest surviving Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai. Thought to have been built in 1296 during the reign of King Mengrai, Wat Chiang Man served as a temporary home to the ruler while his new city of Chiang Mai was under construction.
The main hall boasts classical Lanna features, including huge, ornately decorated teak columns supporting a multi-tiered roof. Although it contains an impressive seated gold Buddha image, the true stars of this wat are two glass-enclosed Buddha statues. These are stored inside the smaller viharn (worshipping hall) to the right. The larger of the two, Phra Sila, or Stone Buddha, is a gold-painted bas relief thought to have been imported from Sri Lanka some 2,500 years ago. The smaller counterpart, Phra Sae Tang Kamani, or Crystal Buddha, stands at just 10 centimetres and is said to originate from Lopburi around 1,800 years ago.
The Crystal Buddha image has a very interesting history. The quartz image is said to have been originally carved for a king of Lopburi, though a variation has it being offered to the King of Lawa, an early northern Thai kingdom. It then somehow ended up in the possession of the legendary Mon Queen, Jamadevi, who installed it in her capital of Haripunchai, the former name for Lamphun.
Consequently, when Mengrai arrived during the 13th century to conquer the Mon kingdom of Haripunchai, he had the image removed to his own new capital, Chiang Mai. The statue remained there for 11 generations before being spirited off to Ayutthaya by a shady monk. When the king of Lanna found out the statue had been moved, he encircled the city with his army until the recalcitrant Siamese agreed to return it.
During the 16th century, the King of Lan Chang, a kingdom which now comprises part of modern-day Laos, sacked Chiang Mai and took off with the well-travelled statue. It was not until King Rama I was victorious over Laos 225 years later that the statue was finally returned to Chiang Mai. Since then, it has only been moved for ceremonial display during the annual Songkran festivities.
Travel tales aside, these days Wat Chiang Man is an attractive spot. Being slightly off the main circuit means the grounds are relatively peaceful and fortunately free of most of the trappings of some of the town’s most popular temples. Two main halls in classic Lanna style are set side by side. The slightly smaller and newer of the two, on the right as you enter, houses the two famous images. Both sculptures are locked away in a cabinet and you do almost need binoculars to spot them.
Elsewhere, check out the famous elephant chedi at the rear of the halls. This is the oldest standing element of the wat and consists of a square-based chedi surrounded by supporting elephant image.
A coffee stand may or may not be open in the car park and one feature you don’t see in many wats (maybe because it is illegal) are the odious bird sellers by the temple steps. It is the pay money, get the birds released and earn some karma points deal—avoid.
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
Our top 10 other sights and activities in and around Chiang Mai