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Essential temples

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The sheer number of Chiang Mai’s ancient Buddhist temples, or wats, can be overwhelming for visitors. Here’s our take on the highlights of the city’s temple scene.

Any guide will offer extensive lists of “must-see” temples, prestigious Buddha images, historically significant chedis and not-to-be missed Lanna-style religious architecture. We lost count at 35 wats within Chiang Mai’s Old City walls alone, with at least that number again in the surrounding downtown area—and even more scattered throughout the suburbs. To help you keep your sanity, and hopefully reduce temple fatigue, here’s what we reckon are the town’s essential temples, plus a few of our own lesser known faves.

Classic rooflines at Wat Phra Singh. Photo taken in or around Essential temples, Chiang Mai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Classic rooflines at Wat Phra Singh. Photo: Mark Ord

The biggies
It’s a toss-up between Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh when it comes to naming Chiang Mai’s most important temple. If you’re only going to see two downtown wats, these are the ones to make a beeline for. They are the most popular among visitors, so be aware of touts and unofficial guides at both of these busy Old City temples.

Wat Chedi Luang was the old royal temple of the Chiang Mai kings. Check out the spectacular 700-year-old partially ruined, partially restored chedi that gives the wat its name as well as the classic Lanna-style worshipping hall and a lovely old reclining Buddha image. Wat Chedi Luang is also conveniently close to the city’s museum district. Exiting Chedi Luang, turn immediately left, then left again on Ratchadamneon, and you’ll reach Wat Phra Singh. Popular among locals and tourists alike, its central location makes it a good choice for a Sunday afternoon visit as it can be combined with a late afternoon stroll down the adjacent walking street market.

Scenes of life at Wat Chedi Luang. Photo taken in or around Essential temples, Chiang Mai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Scenes of life at Wat Chedi Luang. Photo: Mark Ord

Moving slightly out of the town centre, a local saying is that if you haven’t seen Wat Prathat Doi Suthep then you haven’t seen Chiang Mai. Insofar as a visit to this mountaintop temple provides an extensive view of the entire city and east across the Ping Valley, there’s some literal truth to the statement. This is another highly prestigious site, reached by either climbing steps or taking a cable car. The wat is perched on an outcrop just below the actual mountain summit and you’ll need to catch a songthaew (red pick-up taxi) from outside Chiang Mai Zoo to get up here. Combine the trip with a visit to the Doi Suthep National Park or perhaps Chiang Mai Aquarium at the foot of the same mountain. If you’re heading up on a rental bike go carefully: The road is very steep in parts and has been the downfall (literally) of many over-confident tourists on motorbikes.

On your way or way back stop at the interesting mid-15th century temple Wat Jet Yot. This picturesque temple is set in a spacious garden and contains several photogenic Mon and Indian-style ruins. Its name means Temple of the Seven Chedis—and no prizes for guessing it boasts a soaring seven-spired chedi. It’s set atop a brick platform adorned with ancient seated Buddha images. Located just off Chiang Mai’s Superhighway, you could also combine a visit here with another important slightly out of town temple, Wat Umong.

Ancient stucco at Wat Jet Yot. Photo taken in or around Essential temples, Chiang Mai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Ancient stucco at Wat Jet Yot. Photo: Mark Ord

Wat Umong is a forest temple, so has a very different feel to your average Old City temple. Despite being well known among local visitors, it isn’t anywhere near so frequented by foreign tourists. Set among teak groves and by a small lake, it features an old underground shrine, (umong means tunnel in Thai), plenty of ancient Buddhist statues and an impressive brick chedi, making it an interesting place for a wander. Found at the top end of Suthep Road, we’d recommend a stop at the excellent Don Phayam Market on the way here.

Back into the old city, Wat Chiang Man frequently figures, after Chedi Luang and Phra Singh, on any suggested old town temple tour. It’s significant for being the oldest temple in Chiang Mai—supposedly King Mengrai himself lodged here while directing the city’s construction at the end of the 13th century. The wat displays classic Lanna-style temple architecture and the location, in the old city’s northeast quadrant near Somphet Market, means it’s a short walk from many of the town’s guesthouses.

Gorgeous Wat Chiang Man. Photo taken in or around Essential temples, Chiang Mai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Gorgeous Wat Chiang Man. Photo: Mark Ord

Other less known faves
Wat Sri Suphan, or the Silver Temple, is well worth a look if you’re in the area. The main feature is its astounding silver-coated ubosot, or ordination hall. The wat is right next to the lively Saturday walking street market, so combine the two if you can.

The small but recently renovated and very attractive Wat Lok Molee is a short walk from Central Department Store on the north side of the old town moat. It’s very cute, beautifully restored and sees very few visitors. If you’re heading here on a bike beware of the almost daily police checkpoint out front—they’ll find something to fine for you for.

Silver-work at Wat Sri Suphan. Photo taken in or around Essential temples, Chiang Mai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Silver-work at Wat Sri Suphan. Photo: Mark Ord

Largely built out of teak, Wat Pan Tao is one of the city’s oldest and is located right next door to Wat Chedi Luang so it’s easy enough to stick your head in—and it’s blissfully free of the trappings of many of the better-known city temples. The setting and small gardens are some of the cutest of any Chiang Mai temple.

Flags at Wat Pan Tao. Photo taken in or around Essential temples, Chiang Mai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Flags at Wat Pan Tao. Photo: Mark Ord

Tiny and slightly tucked away, Wat Pansao is another temple travellers often overlook. Small and atmospheric, it’s located among tall trees just off the moat road—this time west side—close to Central Huay Kaew Mall and adjacent to Chiang Mai Ram Hospital. It’s a very attractive and peaceful site.

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