Chiang Mai is a city of over 300 temples. While not quite as many as Bangkok’s 400, consider the size difference. The capital has roughly 55 times more people than Chiang Mai! With so many temples concentrated in such a small area, how does one choose where to go? While the historical temples of the Old City are a must, you may want to check out 4 special temples that are quite unlike anything else in the country. And conveniently, unique temples like the Silver Temple and Wat Ched Yod are well within reach.
The Silver Temple
Chiang Mai’s stunning Silver Temple is officially known as Wat Sri Suphan. Located just south of the Old City, the temple complex is centuries old. But what makes Wat Sri Suphan so special is one structure in particular – its ubosot, which was completely covered in silver in 2008.
While the temple dates back to around the year 1500, it was mostly destroyed during the war of independence from Burma at the turn of the 19th century. Though Lanna successfully liberated itself from Burmese rule, Chiang Mai was deserted for a couple of decades following the fighting. Local ruler Chao Kawila was then tasked with revitalizing the city. And he decided to make the area just south of the Old City a new hub for silversmiths.
But Chiang Mai had no silversmith community of its own at the time. Chao Kawila had to resettle craftsmen from the Shan states of Burma (which, at some points in history, were under Lanna control). And the area, known as Baan Wua Lai, has been the home to Chiang Mai’s silversmith community ever since.
And in recent years, perhaps after witnessing the popularity of the White and Blue temples in neighboring Chiang Rai, local artists set out to create the Silver Temple in response.
While the ubosot, or ordination hall for monks, is not very large, it’s teeming with intricate detail. So much so that a keen observer could easily spend hours there. Before your visit, though, understand that only men are allowed to enter the structure. Occasionally in Thailand, females are barred from going into certain sacred spots due to the belief that a menstruating woman could diminish its sanctity.
Though women are allowed in most ubosots in Thailand, the fact that certain amulets and other holy objects were buried under the ground hundreds of years ago is the temple’s explanation for the rule.
Does that mean you shouldn’t visit the temple if you’re a woman? No. There is much to admire all along the exterior of the ubosot, while you can also get a pretty good view of the interior from the outside.
Along the walls, you’ll find scenes from the Buddha’s life are carved into the walls, while common mythological creatures from both Hinduism and Buddhism make appearances. On one of the doorposts, for example, check out the Garuda eagle that appears to be holding silversmith tools!
But is it really all made of silver? No, not quite. Though pure silver was used for certain carvings and objects, other cheaper metal alloys were used in other parts. But this doesn’t take away from the overall splendor of the ubosot, and you’re unlikely to even notice.
The interior looks like something right out of a big-budget fantasy film. The centerpiece of the room is a Buddha image made of gold, which makes for a striking contrast with the rest of the room.
Decorative elements like a tiered chandelier and lightbulbs within the walls themselves, meanwhile, give this ubosot a feel unlike any other in Thailand. Ever the floor is entirely silver-colored!
Back outside, the sides and the back of the structure are worthy of close examination. You’ll find large scenes of entire towns, which are just as detailed as any painting.
And the back of the temple, which shows various scenes from the Buddha’s life, again makes use of the interplay between gold and silver. The Buddha, who’s always shown in gold, is depicted meditating and giving sermons to his disciples.
And there’s still more to explore around the rest of the temple complex. In addition to a viharn and a chedi, you’ll find a large silver and gold Ganesha idol, not to mention places to purchase silver crafts and souvenirs. And there’s also a small cafe serving coffee.
Note that the Silver Temple is located right by the Saturday Walking Street, so you might want to combine the activities by arriving at the temple on a Saturday evening,
Situated in a forested area at the base of Doi Suthep mountain, Wat Umong is the oldest temple on this list. It was first established in the late 13th century by none other than King Mangrai, the founder of the Lanna Kingdom. Its original name was Wat Werukattatharam, and it was designated as a forest temple for monks from Sri Lanka.
But the temple’s series of unusual tunnels, for which it’s mainly known today, were later added by King Kue Na (r. 1355 – 1385). This is the same king who founded Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, and whose ashes are enshrined at Wat Chedi Luang.
Overall, the entire complex is huge, covering an area of over 15 acres. But the tunnels are what most visitors come to see. On the way there, notice the Ashoka Pillar replica. The famous king of India, who ruled in the 4th century BC, set the standard for the idyllic ‘righteous king’ concept of the Buddhist world. Many Buddhist monarchs have aspired to be like him ever since.
And before entering the tunnels, don’t miss the area full of old and broken Buddha statues. They were recovered after the temple had fallen into a long period of neglect.
Next, it’s time to enter the tunnels. But why are they here? As mentioned, they were added in the 14th century by King Kue Na. According to legend, a very old and highly respected monk once lived at the temple. But to the dismay of the local community, he suffered from dementia and began wandering off and getting lost in the forest for days at a time.
These tunnels, then, were a way to allow him to walk around as he pleased but within a confined environment. If you look closely, you can see faded old mural paintings on the tunnel walls, some of which helped the old monk feel as if he was actually outside. Despite how highly respected this monk was, it definitely seems like quite the project for the sake of just one person!
Along each tunnel are various niches containing Buddha statues. They’re all lit up by lamps on the floor, helping create a mystical ambiance. As the temple doesn’t get visited by tour groups (at least not yet), you’ll likely have the chance to traverse the dimly lit caverns all by yourself. There’s simply nothing else in Chiang Mai like it.
Exiting out the other end, a staircase leads to a platform on which stands a large chedi. The detailed chedi is believed to date back to the 15th century, and was likely placed here around the same time as the tunnels.
Look out for the statue of an ’emaciated Buddha,’ which likely represents the Buddha’s early years as a forest ascetic. Early on in his quest for enlightenment, he took extreme measures by nearly starving himself in the forest. But it wasn’t long before he realized that going to such extremes would not help him attain nirvana.
If you have time to spare, there’s more to explore around the area. In addition to a small museum with recent renditions of ancient artwork, the temple grounds are also home to a large fish pond. Dozens of pigeons also like to gather here, too.
The temple is most easily reached by hiring a Grab car, though it’s also possible to walk from the Nimman area. Consider combining Wat Umong with a visit to the Baan Kang Wat artists village.
Wat Ched Yod
While Wat Ched Yod (a.k.a. Chet Yot or Jed Yod) is certainly unique within Chiang Mai, but it’s not exactly one of its kind in the world. The main structure, in fact, closely resembles the shape of Mahabodhi Temple in Bihar, India, built on the spot where the Buddha attained enlightenment. But this is by no means a modern kitschy replica. It was built over 500 years ago and for a very special purpose.
King Tilokarat started the temple in 1455 as a place to host the eighth world Buddhist council in 1477. These councils involved monks and leaders from all over the Buddhist world who gathered to discuss stances on certain doctrines. (It was at the 2nd Buddhist council where the sects of Theravada and Mahayana officially split).
In addition to the Indian-style viharn, the large bodhi tree is said to have been planted from a sapling of the very tree under which the Buddha meditated.
But that’s not all about this temple that stands out. There’s also an octagonal chedi reminiscent the Ratana chedi in nearby Lamphun. This appears to be a clear homage to the ancient kingdom of Haripunchai, which long predates the founding of the Lanna Kingdom.
The largest chedi in the center of the complex, meanwhile, houses the ashes of King Tilokarat himself. But who was Tilokarat?
Tilokarat ruled over Lanna from 1441-1487, and his reign is widely regarded by historians today as the kingdom’s Golden Age. He brought Lanna to its greatest height of power, expanding it to its largest ever size. Even parts of present-day Yunnan, China, were conquered during his reign.
And Tilokarat also played a major role in making Lanna a hotbed of religion and culture in Southeast Asia. In addition to hosting the Buddhist council mentioned above, he forged closer ties with Sri Lanka to further strengthen the role of Theravada Buddhism in his kingdom. He’s also the one to finally complete Wat Chedi Luang in the Old City, placing the Emerald Buddha there in 1468.
Nearby you’ll also spot a small and simple ubosot, clearly a more recent construction. There’s also a fairly standard viharn that you can step inside of. Furthermore, don’t miss the spacious pond area. And you can even find stalls selling snacks near the temple entrance.
Around the complex, you’ll also notice 7 areas which represent places where the Buddha stayed for seven nights each following his attainment of nirvana. These are marked by signs and statues, and are a temple feature thought up by Tilokarat himself.
Located along highway 11 just north of Nimman, Wat Ched Yod is best reached by Grab car. Though not that far of a walk from Maya shopping mall, the lack of proper sidewalks along the busy road can make getting there on foot a real headache. You can combine a visit to this temple with the nearby Chiang Mai National Museum.
Wat Pha Lat
Wat Pha Lat is situated about halfway up Doi Suthep mountain. Long before there were roads, monks would rest here on their way up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, one of the region’s most important temples. And while that temple receives a constant flow of tourists and pilgrims, Wat Pha Lat still remains somewhat of a hidden gem.
(Note: Wat Pha Lat is also featured in this article on Doi Suthep, but all of the following images are original.)
Visitors have the choice of getting there by road or by hiking up what’s known as the ‘Monk’s Trail.’ Orange cloth from monastic robes mark the path along the way, while hikers can get glimpses of central Chiang Mai on the way up. The walk should only take around 30 – 45 minutes, at least from the start of the trail.
What makes Wat Pha Lat unique is its tranquil forest setting in addition to its expressive and highly detailed sculptures. In a strange way, it feels both ancient and contemporary at the same time.
The temple is spread out among multiple levels of the mountainside. As such, there are numerous staircases throughout the complex, each of them guarded by a set of creatures from Buddhist lore. You’ll encounter guardian lions, naga serpents, human-animal hybrids and apsaras, or celestial nymphs.
Don’t miss the old brick chedi guarded by four majestic lions. Or the open-air viharns which might evoke memories of summer camp. Very little here resembles anything else you might find in central Chiang Mai – or at most other Thai temples, for that matter.
Another special feature of the temple is its on-site waterfall. As you hang out to enjoy the views of the Chiang Mai skyline, you might find yourself accompanied by local turtles, chickens and maybe some cats.
But you best get here soon. As stunning as Wat Pha Lat is visually, one of its best qualities is its serenity. Should the temple end up on itineraries for major tour groups in the near future, it may never be the same again. For now, at least, it’s one of the city’s most unique temples, and well worth the hike to get there.
If you’re just in Chiang Mai for a short time, staying in the Old City is a good idea. If you look at a map of the city, you will 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. Most of Chiang Mai’s prominent temples and other historical sites are located here.
The other best area to stay is the Nimman district mentioned in the article above. This is a reference to the general area around Nimmanhaemin Road. Basically, if you’re within walking distance of Maya shopping mall, you’re in Nimman. This is where you’ll find a lot of Chiang Mai’s trendy cafes and restaurants, while new shopping complexes are popping up all the time. At the same time, though, there’s no shortage of cheap, local eats. Furthermore, the location is conveniently located in between Doi Suthep and the Old City.
Chiang Mai is the transport hub of the north and can be reached in a number of ways. The easiest would be to simply fly. Thailand has plenty of budget airlines, and it’s easy to find a one-way ticket from Bangkok (usually DMK airport) for just around 1,000 baht (roughly $30).
You can also easily reach Chiang Mai by bus from virtually any city in Thailand. Chiang Mai is also connected to the rail system, meaning you can get there directly by train from Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Phitsanulok and other cities.
Within areas like the Old City or Nimman, Chiang Mai is easy to explore on foot. To get to one district or another or to farther away temple and art galleries, though, you’ll want some kind of motorized transport.
The easiest, most hassle free option is to download the Grab app on your phone. Grab has recently bought out the Southeast Asian branch of Uber, so you don’t have many other options nowadays. A driver should be able to come right to you within minutes, and the rides are often surprisingly cheap, especially by taking advantage of discount codes.
Another easy option is by hopping on the red songthaews. These vehicles, which are converted pickup trucks, are a mix of private and public transport and are ubiquitous throughout the city. They ride around on normal routes, not unlike a bus, but will go slightly out of the way for you if you request it.
You just flag one down like you would a taxi, and tell the driver where you’re going. If he agrees, you hop in the back where you’ll likely encounter other passengers sharing the vehicle with you. Getting off, just pay the driver a flat fee of 30 baht.
Bear in mind, though, that if you approach a red songthaew that’s already parked, they will try to negotiate with you as a tuk tuk driver would. Speaking of tuk tuks, there’s no reason to ride them anymore now that Grab exists, as they nearly always try to quote foreigners outrageous rates.
As for regular private taxis in Chiang Mai, they do exist but are a very rare sight.
At the time of writing, the city has just recently revamped its bus system and has finally made the effort to translate some the bus stands into English. This would probably be the cheapest of all the options, but also the slowest.
Of course, renting your own motorbike is also an option. Be sure to have the proper licenses, as there are many police checkpoints all throughout the city.