Chiang Mai’s myriad famed Buddhist temples, or wats, can be overwhelming for visitors. Any guide will proffer 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, here’s a brief rundown on the town’s essential, must-see temples, plus a few of our own lesser known faves.
It’s a toss up between Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh when it comes to naming Chiang Mai’s most important temple, so if you’re only going to see two downtown wats, these are the ones to make a beeline for. Be aware of touts and unofficial guides at both of these popular old town 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 conveniently close to the city’s museum district.
Exiting Chedi Luang, turn immediately left, then left again on Rachadamneon, 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.
Moving slightly out of town, a local saying is that if you haven’t seen Wat 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 looking east over the Ping Valley, there’s some truth to the statement. This is a highly prestigious site, reached by either climbing steps or taking a funicular. It’s perched on an outcrop just below the actual mountain summit. You’ll need to catch a songthaew (red pick-up taxi) to get up here. Combine a stop with a visit to the Doi Suthep National Park, Doi Pui or perhaps Chiang Mai Zoo 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.
Wat Jet Yot
An interesting mid-15th century temple, Wat Jet Yot 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, combine a visit here with Wat Umong.
Locally famous, Wat Umong is a forest temple, so it has a very different feel to your average city temple. Despite being well known among local visitors, it isn’t so often 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. It 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.
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 Malee 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.
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.
Wat Pansao is another temple travellers often overlook. Small and atmospheric, it’s tucked away off the moat road again — this time west side — close to Central and adjacent to Chiang Mai Ram Hospital. It’s very pretty and peaceful.
Fifteenth-century Wat Suan Dok is another renowned among locals — stop off here on your way to or from Wat Umong. Don Phayam market is a short distance further up the same road. With a forest of white-painted chedis, Suan Dok is a particularly good one to catch at sunset.
By Mark Ord.
Last updated on 11th September, 2016.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.