While it doesn't hold a candle to Wat Doi Suthep in terms of scenery, Wat Phra Singh is Chiang Mai's most prestigious temple and therefore is the epicentre of yearly Songkran festivities among the Buddhist faithful.
It’s easy to become oblivious to things if they’re under your nose everyday, even if they are rather big and…. well there are an awful lot of temples in Chiang Mai. This is the big one though — the main city temple — the most prestigious and if you’re only going to visit one temple in Chiang Mai you may as well make it two and do Wat Chedi Luang and this one.
Wat Phra Singh ticks all the temple boxes really: pretty grounds full of old trees, some old bits, new bits, Lanna-style worshipping halls, a prestigious Buddha image, a reclining Buddha, jade Buddha and gold Buddhas, giant stupa, ‘saffron-robed’ monks, a ‘monk chat’, murals, prayer flags and last but not least, sticky rice and ice cream in the car park.
The temple complex houses no less than three viharn where Buddha images are housed, a large ordination/prayer hall, (ubosot), a Lanna-style library and a large main stupa or chedi, as well as numerous subsidiary buildings and smaller shrines and chedis set in spacious grounds.
All in all it’s a large complex and certainly a very pleasant and photogenic spot for a stroll.
The temple is said to date from the mid-14th century, built by the Lanna king Pha Vu to house his father’s ashes — so the temple is not the city’s oldest. Its name and prestige derive largely from a highly venerated Buddha image which according to legend was presented to Chiang Mai by a king of Sri Lanka — dates vary. Several copies were supposedly made of the image, so no one is now certain as to which is the original. With the sackings of Chiang Mai at various times by the Burmese, as well as Ayutthaya, the one now in Wat Phra Singh is highly unlikely to be the original and images in both the Chiang Mai and Bangkok National museums lay claim to authenticity.
Singh means lion in Thai since the image is supposed to be in a lion style, though for more details on the image itself you could check this link. The viharn is in good condition, having been recently renovated, though the interior murals are badly damaged.
A smaller viharn behind Lai Kham houses an attractive reclining Buddha image — see below.
The main stupa itself is imposing for its size but lacking in decoration and the open-air shrine behind the stupa is a popular spot for local worshippers. The odd pulley contraption (see below on right of photo) is to allow adherents — or anyone willing to pay the 20 baht — to gain merit by pouring water over the normally out of reach chedi.
The same thing can be seen at Wat Chedi Luang and is possibly a Hindu hangover from the similar pouring of water over the sacred Shiva linga concept.
Wat Phra Singh is definitely worth a look. It’s conveniently placed near the centre of the old town, at the end of Ratchadamnoen Road (the one leading from Tha Pae Gate and home to the Sunday Walking Street market), and so within a stone’s throw of most of the other old town famous wats. It is of course an active temple, so there’s no entrance fee. Of course, please remember to dress respectfully.
How to get there
Wat Phra Singh is conveniently placed near the centre of the old town, at the end of Ratchadamnoen Road (the one leading from Tha Pae Gate to the Sunday Walking Street market), and so within a stone’s throw of most of the other old town famous wats).
By Mark Ord.