Chasing the Emerald Buddha: Part One

Last Updated on: 23rd December 2019, 11:43 am

Battles have been fought over it. Multiple temples have been named after it. Chronicles detailing the history of its journeys have been found on ancient palm leaf manuscripts in numerous languages. Today, it’s revered as the protector of an entire nation and a symbol of a powerful dynasty. Despite being a carving of only 66 centimeters tall, one could argue that the Emerald Buddha and its journeys have greatly altered the history of Southeast Asia.

Presently, the statue sees countless visitors on a daily basis. It’s currently the centerpiece of Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok’s most prominent temple and tourist destination. If you’ve visited Bangkok before, there’s a high chance you’ve seen the Emerald Buddha statue. But while we all know where its journey ends, few visitors to Thailand are aware of how it got to where it is today.

Before it ended up in its current home, the Emerald Buddha was at one point or another in the hands of civilizations like the Singhalese, the Khmer and the Laotians, just to name a few. The Burmese tried multiple times to gain possession of it, but would repeatedly go home empty handed. According to some records, even the Cham of Vietnam came close to taking it once, but it ended up out of their reach.

The Emerald Buddha has traveled to so many lands, that to truly grasp its significance on both a political and religious level would require an in-depth understanding of Southeast Asian history as a whole. On the other hand, learning about the travels of the Emerald Buddha is perhaps the best way to introduce yourself to ancient Southeast Asian history in the first place.

Estimated to have been carved around the year 50 BC, the Emerald Buddha may very well be one of the oldest Buddha images in the world. Many have tried to chronicle its history and movements over the last 2000 years, but some major contradictions among the different historical records mean that we may never know the full story. Furthermore, historical accounts often get intertwined with myths and legends, making it difficult to separate fantasy from reality.

The parts of the story that are largely agreed upon, though, are the journeys of the Emerald Buddha from the early 15th century onward. We even know the particular temples where it was kept, and the exact number of years it stayed in each place.

If you’re planning a tour around Southeast Asia, you may be surprised to learn that a number of the towns and temples we’ll be covering here are probably already on your radar. As the Emerald Buddha was taken to many capitals and prominent cities of its day, you won’t have to venture far off the tourist trail to trace its movements.

We’re going to be covering the journey of the Emerald Buddha in three main parts. Part One of this series takes us around Thailand’s northern region, the area which makes up the former kingdom of Lanna.

Emerald Buddha Thailand
A map of the Emerald Buddha's movements at Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao


Since the publication of this three-part series of articles, we’ve released a new paperback travel guide dedicated to the Emerald Buddha’s journeys.

The articles will remain online for all to enjoy. But if the Emerald Buddha’s fascinating story intrigues you, you definitely won’t regret picking up the physical book.

Unlike the articles, the book traces the story back to the statue’s first one thousand years. It takes travelers to places like South Thailand, Angkor Archaeological Park, Thailand’s overlooked Isaan region and the ruins of Siam’s former capitals.

Additional in-depth research was carried out for the creation of the book, and many of the locations were revisited to capture new and improved photographs.

Furthermore, you’ll learn the best ways to plan out your itinerary and piece your travels together. More than just an account of the Emerald Buddha’s story, the book works as a standalone travel guide to an entire region.

Learn more here.

A Chance Discovery in Chiang Rai

Wat Phra Kaew Relief
Carvings depicting the Emerald Buddha's rediscovery

As the storm picked up in intensity, a sudden flash of lightning struck the golden stupa, causing it to crumble to the ground. Once the heavy rain eventually subsided, a monk discovered a Buddha statue under the rubble. Covered in what looked like cement, it appeared to be much like any other image. The monk placed the statue together with the numerous other Buddha images at Wat Pa Yeah Temple and went about his business. But as the temple abbott would soon discover, this was no ordinary statue.

Later on, the abbot of the temple noticed that the nose of the recovered Buddha image was starting to crumble. But the statue itself wasn’t falling apart. All along, the outer layer had been hiding what was really inside – an intricately carved statue of magnificent gold and green. There was no mistaking it. This was the highly revered Emerald Buddha image which had been believed to be lost. The year was 1434.

Emerald Buddha Closeup

Arguably the best-looking Emerald Buddha replica in Thailand

Visiting Wat Phra Kaew

As chronicled above, the Emerald Buddha was found at a temple called Wat Pa Yeah in the far northern Thai city of Chiang Rai. Modern-day Thailand didn’t yet exist then, of course, but Chiang Rai was a city in what was known as the Lanna Kingdom.

Today the same temple is known as Wat Phra Kaew, named after the Emerald Buddha statue itself. In the Thai language, the Emerald Buddha is called ‘Phra Kaew Morakot,’ and this is just one of several temples in Southeast Asia to be named after it.

It should be pointed out that the original statue isn’t really made of emerald, but jade. As ’emerald’ is used generally in Thai to refer to things that are green,  the “Emerald Buddha,” and not the “Jade Buddha,” is the name that stuck.

Visiting Wat Phra Kaew in Chiang Rai today, you can come face to face with one of the Emerald Buddha statue’s most detailed and accurate replicas. Considering the fact that you can only view the real one in Bangkok from a distance, this is a real treat. The replica is housed in a special building referred to as the Haw Phra.

The replica there today is rather recent, having only been installed in the temple in 1991. Carved of jade like the original, it was purposely made to be just slightly shorter – by only .1 cm – than the original carving.

Emerald Buddha Vertical 2

Around The Temple

Despite its centralized location, the Wat Phra Kaew temple compound is quiet and peaceful. Noticeably missing are the tourist groups you’ll invariably encounter at other Chiang Rai landmarks like the White Temple or the Black House.

Aside from the Emerald Buddha image replica, Wat Phra Kaew is also known for its Lanna museum. Covering two stories of a structure built in traditional Lanna architecture, you’ll find all kinds of Buddha images and other relics from the era of the Lanna kingdom. Though the museum doesn’t contain any English information, it’s still well worth a look.

Wat Phra Kaew Chiang Rai

Inside Wat Phra Kaew’s Lanna Museum

How to Spend Your Time in Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai is an increasingly popular tourist destination thanks to unique landmarks like the White Temple, the Baan Dam, and more recently, the Blue Temple. These modern temples are all well worth seeing, and you can learn more about them right here. The white and black temples are both located outside the city but in opposite directions, so keep this in mind when planning out the logistics of your trip.

Wat Phra Kaew, in contrast, is located in central Chiang Rai, which means you may even be able to reach it on foot from your hotel. Another significant temple in the city center is Wat Phra Singh, once home to the Phra Sihing Buddha image. Like the Emerald Buddha, the Phra Sihing has done a fair amount of traveling and has more than a few temples named after it. We’ll learn a little more about this golden Buddha statue later down below.

If you have more time to spend in the region, the Mae Fah Luang Botanical Gardens on top of Doi Tung make for a great getaway from the city. You could also visit the massive Guan Yin statue at Wat Huai Pla Klang.

Wat Phra Singh

After it’s rediscovery, the Emerald Buddha remained in Chiang Rai for just a couple of years until . . .

A Stubborn Elephant Makes a Detour to Lampang

Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao Lampang Elephant 2

Learning of the discovery of the Emerald Buddha in Chiang Rai, Sam Fang Kaen, the ruler of the Lanna Kingdom, ordered a hasty delivery to the capital of Chiang Mai, some 200km away.

The statue was placed on top of an elephant – a common means of transport in those times. But there was a problem. At the intersection near Lamphun, the disobedient elephant suddenly broke free of the convoy, heading toward the town of Lampang in the opposite direction from Chiang Mai.

Leading the rogue elephant back into the rest of the pack, the convoy again started heading for Lanna’s capital. But just as before, the elephant broke free and headed in the wrong direction.

Emerald Buddha Elephant

The leader of the group even tried assigning the task to a new elephant. But inexplicably, the same exact incident repeated itself yet again. Learning of what happened, the king even sent one of his own elephants to carry out the task. He finally gave up when the same thing repeated itself.

It must be an omen, the king decided. And thus, the Emerald Buddha was transported to the town of Lampang, where it would remain for the next 32 years.

Visiting Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao

Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao is situated in the middle of Lampang, a small city of about 60,000 people and the capital of Lampang Province. The temple was constructed for the very purpose of hosting the Emerald Buddha, although older temples previously existed on and around the site. Confusingly, local legends also refer to another Emerald Buddha that was hosted at the same temple and for the same number of years. But more on that later.

Architecturally, the temple has been influenced by the different styles of Lanna’s neighboring kingdoms. A Burmese prayer hall, for example, sits in front of the chedi, although it only dates back to the early 20th century. Burmese style architecture, in fact, is a common sight all over Lampang.

Meanwhile, the large white chedi itself stands at 50m high and is said to enshrine a hair of the Buddha. Supposedly, the chedi is the only remnant of the former temple that stood there before the arrival of the Emerald Buddha.

Two small Emerald Buddha replicas can be found inside the main prayer hall, while a model of the stubborn elephant(s) that insisted on carrying it to Lampang is displayed outside. 

Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao is a large complex rather than a single temple, and exploring the different structures, outdoor shrines and monuments could easily occupy a couple hours of your time. You can read more about the rest of the complex here.

Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao Lampang

The interior of the main prayer hall contains a pair of Emerald Buddha replicas

The Watermelon, the Stone and the Curse of Mae Suchada

A local Lampang legend has it that a woman named Nan (or Mae) Suchada once offered a watermelon to a monk. But this was no ordinary watermelon. Opening it up, the monk discovered a large green stone inside. Suspecting some sort of powerful sorcery or witchcraft, the locals were so intimidated by this woman and her watermelon that they went as far as beheading her. Before her gruesome death, she made sure to put a curse on the town.

Any misfortunes or disasters befalling the town since have been attributed to Mae Suchada. Small statues of her can now be found all over Lampang, from temple grounds to shops and houses. In many Southeast Asian cultures, offerings are often made to vengeful spirits in order to keep them satisfied, hopefully encouraging them to offer protection rather than cause harm.

In addition to the countless small idols of Mae Suchada, she even has her own temple called Wat Suchadaram, which itself is part of the same Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao temple complex.

And what about the green stone? According to legend, the monk hired a sculptor to turn it into a Buddha statue, also referred to locally as “the Emerald Buddha.”

Furthermore, the two Emerald Buddha’s both remained at Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao for the exact amount of time: 32 years.

Nan Suchada presents her gift to the monk

Strangely, the local legend does not seem to acknowledge the tale of the original Emerald Buddha directly. We also don’t know the reason why the two Buddha statues happen to look exactly alike, but both legends are acknowledged at the Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao, albeit separately. The ‘watermelon’ carving now resides at a temple called Wat Phra Tat Lampang Luang, about a thirty minute drive away.

Though everyone in Thailand is familiar with the journey of the Emerald Buddha, the legend of Mae Suchada and the watermelon seems confined to just Lampang. This is just one of many examples, however, of the Emerald Buddha’s story becoming intertwined with local legends.

Mae Suchada figures like these can be found all around town

How to Spend Your Time in Lampang

Despite being only a 90 minute drive from Chiang Mai, the city of Lampang receives hardly any foreign visitors. Most of the tourist infrastructure is intended for domestic Thai travelers, and even the Chinese group tours have yet to stop here. That makes Lampang a great option for those looking for a place that’s both easy to get to while also being off the common tourist trail.

There’s plenty to see in the city to fill up a weekend. Some of the main landmarks (other than Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao) include the House of Many Pillars, Wat Chedi Sao Lang and the local night market. One place you absolutely shouldn’t miss is about 30 minutes outside the center, but is easily one of the most interesting temples in all of Thailand. And it should also be of special interest to those following the path of the Emerald Buddha.

Wat Phra That Lampang Luang is a large temple complex that happens to be the current home of the “other” Emerald Buddha – the one which supposedly came out of a watermelon. There’s plenty more to see around the complex, though, and you could end up spending an entire afternoon exploring.

Also within Lampang Province is the impressive mountaintop temple of Wat Chalermprakiat.

The Lampang Emerald Buddha is kept locked up and only taken out for special ceremonies
Wat Phra That Lampang Luang
A photo of the local Emerald Buddha
Emerald Buddha Lampang
A replica on display - but of which carving?

Wat Phra That Lampang Luang

Arrival in The Capital

With the influence and might of the Ayutthaya kingdom to the south continually growing, Lanna’s new ruler felt the need to strengthen his kingdom. But not just militarily – culturally, too. The omen revealed by the white elephants should’ve been ignored, he thought. The Emerald Buddha always belonged in Chiang Mai. In 1468, King Tilokaracha insisted that the Emerald Buddha be removed from Lampang and finally taken to the capital.

The Emerald Buddha would remain in Chiang Mai without much drama for the next 84 years. That is, until, the lack of an heir would result in a foreign-born prince becoming ruler of the Lanna kingdom. It would be this prince who would eventually take the Emerald Buddha out of Lanna for the first time since its rediscovery.

Wat Chedi Luang Emerald Buddha Replica

Visiting Wat Chedi Luang

Though the Emerald Buddha is long gone, Wat Chedi Luang remains one of Chiang Mai’s most unique and most-visited temples. Its defining characteristic is its massive stupa, built in the Singhalese style and originally intended to house the ashes of King Saen Muang Ma’s father.

Construction began in the late 14th century and, due to a number of complications, lasted almost 100 years. That means that the structure was still being completed when the Emerald Buddha was brought here in 1468. Visitors to the temple will also notice that a good chunk of the stupa has been destroyed – the result of a 1545 earthquake. Fortunately, the Emerald Buddha, which was housed in the chedi’s eastern niche at the time, survived unscathed.

Today a relatively unimpressive bronze replica is kept in the same spot, while a few other green replicas can also be found around the temple grounds.

Aside from being the former home of the Emerald Buddha, Wat Chedi Luang is significant to Chiang Mai locals for being home to the City Pillar Shrine. In Southeast Asia, a number of cities have special pillars, which are, quite literally, actual pillars which are believed to protect the town. The paintings inside the city pillar shrine are spectacular, but this one part of the temple complex can only be accessed by men.

Wat Chedi Luang Emerald Buddha
A bronze replica where the Emerald Buddha once sat
Chiang Mai City Pillar
Inside the stunning City Pillar shrine

How to Spend Your Time in Chiang Mai

There’s plenty to do and see in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city after Bangkok. To the west of the city is the impressive mountaintop temple Doi Suthep. If you’re into shopping and hanging out at trendy cafes, you may want to check out the Nimman district. The city is also a great base for outdoor activities like elephant camps, white water rafting or zip-lining tours.

Wat Chedi Luang is inside what’s referred to as the “Old City,” a walled city built during the Lanna kingdom’s heyday. Forming a perfect square, the Old City is surrounded by a moat to this day, and even parts of the wall and old gates remain intact. The Old City is also where you’re going to find many of Chiang Mai’s other prominent temples, like Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chiang Man.

As mentioned above, there’s also a Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Rai. In fact, there are a number of them throughout the country, all of which have hosted the Phra Sihing Buddha image, said to be Sri Lankan in origin. This golden Buddha image may even be the second most significant statue in Thailand after the Phra Kaew. Interestingly, while the Emerald Buddha’s replicas are merely regarded as replicas, there are a few different versions of the Phra Sihing which all seem to be equally revered.

One of the significant Phra Sihing images is in Chiang Mai, which is paraded around the city every year during the Songkran Water Festival. While some even claim that this is the original, most sources say that the real Phra Sihing is either the one kept in the Bangkok National Museum or in the southern district of Nakhon Si Thammarat.

Notably, the original Phra Sihing (whichever one that is now) was kept in Chiang Mai at the same time as the Emerald Buddha. And they were even taken out of the city together. In fact, the two statues would be neighbors many other times throughout history – in Chiang Rai, Ayutthaya and Bangkok, just to name a few.

Wat Phra Singh

Phra Sihing Songkran
The Phra Sihing being paraded around Chiang Mai during Songkran

The Significance of Buddha Statues in Southeast Asia

Buddha statues can be found nearly everywhere in Southeast Asia, and it would be hard to imagine countries like Myanmar, Thailand or Laos without them. But for the first several hundred years of the religion’s existence, Buddha was not symbolized by statues. He was either represented in abstract form, such as by a pair of footprints, or oftentimes not at all.

While we can’t pinpoint the exact rise in popularity of Buddha statues in the religion’s native India, the tradition likely grew due to Greek influence. Menander I, the Greek ruler who controlled much or northern India between 160 and 130 BC, was himself a convert to Buddhism. And it was perhaps the Greek tradition of immortalizing both their celestial gods and respected human philosophers in stone form that gained traction throughout India around that time.

In fact, it was the monk Nagasena, often credited with being the creator of the Emerald Buddha, who convinced Menander to convert to Buddhism in the first place. But more on the Emerald Buddha’s origin story in another section.

Ask a Theravada Buddhist monk today what the purpose of a Buddha statue is, and he will likely tell you that it’s not an object meant to be directly worshipped. Rather, its purpose is to remind people of the Buddha’s teachings and to do good deeds. From a purely orthodox Buddhist perspective, this is true. But the reality of Buddha statues’ roles in Thailand and neighboring countries is a little more complex.

While being a predominantly Theravada Buddhist nation on the surface, many aspects of traditional folk religions remain deeply ingrained in the hearts and minds of Thai people. Additionally, the influence of ancient Hinduism can still strongly be felt. In these systems, physical objects can sometimes take on mystical powers, even acting as a vessel for spirits or gods. A physical object of great significance can even act as the protector of entire cities – or, in the case of the Emerald Buddha, entire nations.

Sometimes, certain things can upset a particular Buddha image, or it might not “get along” with another powerful statue situated nearby. In such cases, as we’ll learn more about in Part Two, disaster may even strike.

Clearly, Buddha statues in Thailand are much more than mere metaphors or symbols. This helps explain why so many rulers of the last couple millennia tried so hard to gain possession of the Emerald Buddha, considered to be the most powerful Buddhist relic of them all.

Wat Phra That Lampang Luang

Next in Part Two: The Emerald Buddha leaves Thailand when a young ruler takes it back with him to his native Lan Chang.

Additional Info

The three cities mentioned in this article are all easily accessible by bus, and both Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai have their own airports. Logistically, it doesn’t make sense to visit these cities in the exact order which they appear in the legends of the Emerald Buddha, because Chiang Mai is located in the middle.

You could fly to Chiang Rai, visit Chiang Mai and then head on to Lampang. Or, if you’re coming from Bangkok, you can even take a train directly to Lampang. After that, you can reach the two other cities by bus.

Or, if you’re based relatively long-term in Chiang Mai like I was, both Chiang Rai and Lampang are easy weekend trips you can embark on from the city’s Arcade Bus Terminal near Central Festival Mall.

The Greenbus company operates bus routes connecting most of the cities in the north. These rides are comfortable and affordable, but not always punctual.

There is a regular Greenbus connecting Chiang Mai and Lampang, which is how I returned to Chiang Mai. But on my way to Lampang, I asked someone where the right bus was, they directed me over to an unmarked minivan that was already full of passengers (roughly 10 people) and just about ready to go. Since it all happened so fast, I’m not even sure who the operator was, but it only cost about 70 baht for the 90 minute ride. 

In short, getting around Northern Thailand is pretty painless.

Chiang Rai’s numerous attractions are spread out all over the district, so you might as well look for accommodation in the city center. This will give you easy access to Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Phra Singh, and landmarks like the clock tower. The city center is also where you’ll find the bus terminal and the night bazaar.

I stayed at a hotel called Regent Lodge Lampang, nearby the Wang River. Lampang is divided into two sections: the old part (north of the river) and the new part (south of the river). While Regent Lodge is south of the river, it’s an easy walking distance from the bridge, making many of Lampang’s main attractions reachable by foot.

Since Lampang gets virtually no foreign tourists, you’ll have a hard time finding restaurants with English menus. Another good point of Regent Lodge Lampang is that they have a restaurant with an English menu on site. There’s also an option for a breakfast buffet.

If you’re just in Chiang Mai for a short time, staying in the Old City is probably the best idea. If you look at a map of the city, you will easily spot a square surrounded by water. Staying anywhere within, or just outside, of the square would be fine, as you can easily get around the Old City on foot. As mentioned above, most of Chiang Mai’s prominent temples and other historical sites are located here.

If you want to spend a month or more in Chiang Mai, “service apartments” are incredibly easy to rent. Just show up, ask if they have any rooms available and work out a deal for rent and utilities. Once you make an agreement and sign a contract, you can usually move into the furnished apartment from the next day. Most of these service apartments are in the western Nimman area, which refers to Nimmanhaemin Road and its adjacent side streets.

Chasing the Emerald Buddha: Part One

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