Temple of kings
Built in the 14th and 15th centuries, Chedi Luang means “royal chedi” in Thai and this was the official temple of the Lanna kings.
Wat Chedi Luang rivals Wat Phra Singh for the title of Chiang Mai’s most important and prestigious city temple. While it comes a definite second for local visitors, the two temples are probably neck and neck in terms of foreign tourists, though for sheer size Wat Chedi Luang has no competition.
This royal chedi was the official temple of the Lanna kings, situated adjacent to the former royal palace. Construction began during the reign of King Saen Muang Ma in the 14th century ostensibly to house the ashes of his father, but he died before it was finished and it wasn't till the mid 15th century that it was completed. The pinnacle of the chedi was thought to have reached more than 80 metres high.
In 1468, Thailand’s most revered religious object, the Emerald Buddha, was moved to Chedi Luang from Lampang, remaining on site until 1552 when it was moved to Luang Prabang in Laos. (A replica gifted by Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej is now on display in its place.) By then a large earthquake had substantially damaged the chedi, lopping 20-30 metres off the overall height.
In the 1990s a UNESCO- and Japanese-funded restoration project got underway. This stabilised the site, but they stopped short (thankfully) of tackling the missing summit and spire as no-one is sure what it was supposed to look like.
Today, the partially ruined chedi remains enormous and must have been breathtaking before invaders and earthquakes took their toll. Indeed the main viharn is so big we couldn’t get it all in a photo (at least, without a wide-angle lens). It must be said though that the temple grounds are not as spacious as Wat Phra Singh’s so, as well as it being tricky to get an overall view of, it does lack the latter’s pleasant garden.
The pristine new brick work of the main chamber contrasts oddly with the ramshackle upper section and the new elephant statues border on the tacky but it's an interesting spot overall and if you’re ticking off important temples on a tour of Chiang Mai’s Old City you can hardly miss this one.
Some of the outlying buildings are interesting: See for example the smaller but attractive Lanna-style viharn or the impressive reclining Buddha image on the west side of the chedi.
There’s also a shrine containing Chiang Mai’s city pillar and, with a throwback to animist times, plenty of small shrines surrounding the complex contain guardian spirits. As with the standard Thai spirit house seen in any garden, or the equivalent Burmese nats or Khmer neak ta, there’s nothing particularly Buddhist about worshipping spirits or house gods that are associated with geographical locations.
Chedi Luang does often have a few token touts hanging around so, without being too cynical, beware of over-helpful locals.
Address: Phrapokklao Rd, next door to Wat Pan Tao and a short walk from Wat Phra Singh
Coordinates (for GPS): 98º59'15.33" E, 18º47'13.17" N
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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.
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