Possibly the oldest surviving temple in Chiang Mai city, Wat Chiang Man is said to have been built in 1296 under the orders of King Mengrai himself. Indeed it must have been one of the first features to have been finished, since legend claims the king lived here while he was overseeing the construction of his new capital.
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 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. Its smaller counterpart, Phra Sae Tang Kamani, or Crystal Buddha, stands at a height of just 10 centimetre. It is said to originate from Lopburi and be around 1,800 years old.
The Crystal Buddha has a very interesting and tumultuous history. The quartz image is said to have been carved for a king of Lopburi (a variation has it being offered to the King of Lawa, an early north Thai kingdom). It then somehow ended up in the possession of the legendary Mon Queen, Jamadevi, who installed it in her capital Haripunchai, which is today’s 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. With us so far? Well the story doesn’t end here.
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.
Legends 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. The tiny 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 images.
A coffee stand is in the car park and one feature you don’t see in many wats (maybe because it is actually illegal) are the odious bird sellers by the temple steps. It’s the pay money, get the birds released and earn some karma points deal — avoid.
How to get there
Wat Chiang Man is on Ratchaphakhinai Road near the moat in the northeast quadrant of the old town.
By Mark Ord
Last updated on 18th April, 2016.