Having grown up in austere protestant American churches conspicuously devoid of ornate or lavish decoration, I never felt particularly connected to those holy places. My personal spirituality always manifested in elaborate, intricate, and shamanically hypnotic self-made shrines and environments. A visual language that more fit the internal beauty that I experience the world as, half reverent, half euphoric, one that defied accurate description, and solidly eschewed any sort of plainness or fear of excess. I never had many filters and I experience the world all-at-once, a tsunami of senses and structures and meaning, all overlapping.
When I first visited Thailand, I had some street food then went straight to a temple. This explosion of mythical creatures, bright colors, collaged reflective glass in a psychedelic palette. Buildings guarded by enormous green giants or fearsome snake spirits. Altars piled with every sort of golden Buddha statue. This madness was much more in line with my own internal spiritual language. And I immediately fell in love. Unlike the precisely simple Zen Buddhist temples I had visited in Japan, Thai Buddhism was clearly something else. And had a language that I had yet to understand.
So I’ve assembled my photos of various Chiang Mai temples to help communicate this and hopefully a bit of context to the photos to provide a bit more meaning. I had originally planned a more calculated exploration of Chiang Mai temples but there are over 300 temples in the city and I didn’t feel up to the task, it could easily be its own blog. But hopefully this will cover many of my favorite temples and help you plan your attack when you visit the city for yourself.
Most of my experience with Buddhism is with the Japanese manifestations and particularly Zen Buddhism. But Thai Buddhism is definitely its own thing and has its own historical influences. In Thailand, Buddhism incorporates not only traditional Buddhist teachings but includes Brahmanism/Hindu teachings and mythology, along with older traditional animism and ancestor worship. In Chiang Mai specifically, different cultural flavors from Burmese, Khmer, and Siamese rule have mixed with Lanna specific beliefs to form a complex and dynamic religion and the local temples reflect all of this rich complexity.
Key elements of a Thai temple
Thai Buddhist temples are rich with mythological iconography and sculpture. I began to see repeating motifs but felt unsatisfied without knowing the meanings behind these creatures. So here’s a brief list of some of the more common ones.
It can be a bit tricky to research because Thai Buddhism draws from a broad historical influence and many depictions are more traditionally associated with other practices or certain elements might be depicted differently in Lanna vs Burmese traditions and both might appear in the same temple.
The Makara – You’ll see these interesting guys in most temples. The makara were the mount of Varuna, the Hindu god of wind and sky and Ganga, the goddess of the Ganges River. Either shown as half fish, half mammal like a large fish with a monster’s head or a long serpent-like body with a flat face with lots of teeth. Traditionally these creatures were part crocodile, part elephant, and part other animals. You’ll often see the large serpent like Naga creatures guarding the gates of temples but if look a bit further down, there’s usually a makara disgorging the naga. Both the makara and naga are associated with passing through the seas of samsara between the illusion of reality and enlightenment.
The Naga – The naga is a semi-divine serpent used as protectors of temples and are common in both Buddhist and Hindu religions. Or sometimes depicted as a guardian of Buddha. The single headed naga seems to be the most common but 3, 5, and more headed nagas can be found like at Wat Phra Singh.
The Singha or Chinthe in Burma – These are also common temple guardians though usually not a divine creature, the singha is a stylized depiction of the common lion. The Lanna vs Burmese depictions can be a bit different but are essentially the same.
The Yaksha – These giant and menacing looking temple guardians are said to be benevolent creatures who strive to make sure good wins out over evil. They are supposed to protect temples from malevolent spirits as well as being intimidating.
The Garuda – The garuda is a half man, half bird creature with a beak that is Vishnu’s mount. King of the birds, garuda is the enemy of the naga. Garuda is also the national symbol of the Thai kingdom and is the emblem of the national authority.
The Kinnari/kinnara (female/male) – With the top half of a celestial human and the bottom half of a celestial swan, this mythical pair are the embodiment of eternal lovers and grace.
The Khochasi – Most common in northern Thailand, these lion/elephant hybrids are both wise and strong and are temple guardians. These guys have a great look. You can find a large pair at Wat Lam Chang.
Jong/Hamsa – This mythical swan can often be seen at the apex of ceiling vaults and in other decorations.
Phra Mae Thorani – You’ll see shrines dedicated to this female figure with a long top braid that she holds onto with both hands. Thorani comes from a story about the Buddha who was being tempted by Mara, the Evil One, to not attain enlightenment. Phra Mae Thorani sprung from the ground to protect the Buddha, wringing water from her hair (symbolizing the Buddha’s perfection of generosity), washing away Mara.
Other Brahman/Hindu gods – Hinduism was prevalent in northern Thailand when the Khmer Kingdom ruled the area for 200 years. Shrines and sculpturary dedicated to Hindu gods are common across all Thai Buddist temples and have been fully incorporated into the Buddhist practice with their own Thai names. Especially common are Brahma the four faced god, and Ganesh the elephant-faced god of fortune.
Wat Phra Singh Woramahaviharn
This beautiful temple began construction in 1345 by the fifth King of the Mangrai dynasty to house the ashes of his father King Kham Fu. Originally named Wat Lichiang Phra it was renamed in 1367 when the sacred Buddha statue Phra Buddha Singh was brought to the temple.
This temple is built on the western side of old town where the main street Rachadamnoen Road crosssects the city ending in the western gate. This is the main street where the Sunday market is organized.
This is also the most chill temple to spend some quiet time in my opinion. With lots of green space with benches and a small cafe (when it’s open). There are also lots of Buddhist sayings translated on signs throughout the greens to inspire you.
Wat Chedi Luang
Literally, temple with the large chedi or royal chedi. Construction began in the 14th century by King Saen Muang Ma to house the ashes of his father and continued by his widow ten years later. Not finished until the mid 15th century, this chedi was the largest structure in Lanna. In 1468 the chedi became the home of the Emerald Buddha until the upper portion collapsed in 1545 during an earthquake. In the early 1990’s the chedi was reconstructed with help from UNESCO and a replica Emerald Buddha made of black jade was installed.
In this same complex you can find the “city pillar”, the sacred heart of the city. Katy was understandably miffed to learn that women are not allowed to enter this temple due to fear that menstruating women could harm the magic of the pillar.
This temple is right in the middle of old town just off of Rachadamnoen Road.
This small temple is right beside Wat Chedi Luang with an interesting front gate and a golden chedi in the back. It’s right at the heart of the Sunday walking street. If you see one you’ll probably see the other. Originally founded in the 14th century it was previously used as a monk’s residence for Chedi Luang, a royal palace, and now an autonomous Buddhist temple.
Foremost, this temple was near our first residence, and so we walked by it often. I’m not sure I would have ever seen it otherwise. It’s not on the top ten list of temples, but I found the Burmese style architecture very engaging, and at sunset the place absolutely stunning. The statuary was less elaborate, just simple white stucco, but the depth of representation of different spirits and creatures was some of the best. Plus no one was ever there so you pretty much have the place to yourself. It’s a small temple but very photogenic.
The temple dates to about 1865 and the Burmese style chedi is quite lovely.
Wat Ket Karam
This temple is just across the river in the Chiang Moi neighborhood near the east gate. There’s a pedestrian bridge at Worrarot market and the temple is just across the street. We passed here on our way to a khao soi restaurant and I made special effort to return. Built in 1428, this temple is dedicated to the year of the dog and is a pilgrimage site to those born on those years. This is a beautiful temple well worth the visit.
Wat Chiang Man
Wat Chiang Man is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai and was directly across the street from our second apartment. It was built by King Mangrai, the 25th king of the Ngoenyang kingdom (1261-1292) and the first king of the unified Lanna kingdom (1292-1311). Mangrai used the temple as his residence while he constructed the new capital of his kingdom, Chiang Mai (literally “new city”) moving from the original location in Chiang Rai.
The main temple houses a Buddha statue, the oldest surviving Lanna sculpture.
Wat Lam Chang
“The temple of the tethered elephant.” This temple is just across the street from Wat Chiang Man and the grounds previously housed the royal elephants in medieval times. The elephant motif can be found throughout the temple grounds in decorative patterns and statuary. There are two chedis, one the remains of the original 14th century chedi which is mostly just brick with a tiny amount of evidence of the previous sculptural decoration, and the second a newer Lanna style chedi with Burmese style hti and elephant gaurdians.
If you walk through the back gate you’ll be on a narrow road with lots of shops and restaurants.
Wat Lok Moli
This temple is located near the north gate just on the other side of the canal from old town. It was quite close to our third apartment and the first temple we saw during our first visit to Chiang Mai. It features two great yak guardians at the gate, a black teak temple, and an enormous chedi in the back. Along the left side of the site you’ll find shrines dedicated to Brahma, Ganesh, Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy) among others.
The temple was already active in the first half of the 14th century as King Kuena invited Burmese monks to move to the temple to teach their style of Buddhism in the second half.
The large chedi houses the remains of royal members of the Mengrai Dynasty and features a golden bird on wires that carries holy water to the top that can be poured from the bird with another wire.
Wat Ratcha Monthian
– across the street from Lok Moli
This temple sits directly across the canal from Wat Lok Moli and is quite new, built in 2010. Some people call it the dragon temple or the red temple. The decorations are quite elaborate and impressive and the main temple features a very large seated Buddha that can be seen from the street.
Wat Khuan Khama
– beside rajamontean
Immediately beside Wat Ratcha Monthian is another older temple. This temple was founded in 1492 when a horse groom and soldier’s horse died, decided to donate his land to its memory and establish the temple. The temple grounds are quite small and the chedi was under repair when we visited but the buildings have very ornate and striking decoration that I quite liked.
Wat Saen Muang Ma Luang
We passed by this temple shortly before it closed so we didn’t get much time to explore but it was a great temple and worth visiting. It is extremely ornate in dark red and gold with very new looking buildings and an ancient chedi. Apparently the temple buildings are usually locked and not open to the public and the few monks seen around wear the red Burmese style robes. But building exteriors are well worth the visit.
Wat Yang Kuang
I found this temple in the less touristy Haiya neighborhood south of old town while visiting a khao soi restaurant. Apparently the remains of a 700 year old temple had been found here and they have been attempting to reconstruct it. The narrow streets here are dense with businesses and tucked in with the buildings you’ll find several displaced ancient looking chedis. I’m assuming that these once belonged to a larger temple complex. During the 200 years of Burmese rule many temples in Chiang Mai were abandoned and fell into ruin. I really liked the enormous lion guardians at the entrance though the site was still under construction. I am unclear on whether the temple buildings immediately next door are part of the same temple or separate but I could only find a designation for this temple so I’ll group both together.
Wat Umong Mahathera Chan
Honestly I just snapped this photo from the sidewalk but I regret not exploring the temple more. Established in the 14th century this temple is in the middle of old town and apparently has meditation huts that can be scheduled.