Temple hopping is THE thing to do for tourists in Chiang Mai. I didn’t fully comprehend the concept until I arrived, but Chiang Mai is littered with temples. You can’t really walk too far in any one direction without coming across a temple. Of course if you google Chiang Mai, you’ll come across several famous and more extravagant temples, but that by no means means the smaller (often unlisted) temples aren’t worth checking out. For this reason, we set aside an entire day just to explore Chiang Mai’s vast sea of temples.
To give our day a bit of structure, we picked out a few “main” temples to check out and left ourselves plenty of time to explore freely. Here are a few of my favorite temples.
WAT PHRA THAT DOI SUTHEP
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of northern Thailand’s most sacred temples and is generally the one temple that you HAVE to see. So naturally, we went to see it.
There are a few ways to get there, car, Songthaew, motorbike… we even saw people hiking and jogging up and down the mountain. Jogging! As appealing as trekking up a mountain for an 1 hour and 1/2 (each way) sounded, we simply had our hotel arrange a car for us.
Construction on Wat Doi Suthep began in 1386 and according to legend, the temple was built to hold a piece of bone from the Buddha’s shoulder. According to our driver, this is where people go to pray when they are in most need of a change in their stars. The distance it takes to reach the destination plus the 306-step staircase flanked by naga (serpents) that must be climbed to reach the actual temple, are a sort of way to prove your devotion.
For us, the 306-step staircase wasn’t actually too bad, but I think that’s just because we do so much walking and stair climbing in Seoul everyday. It was noticeably more difficult for others. There is actually a lift that will take you to the top, but where’s the adventure in that?
Walking along the stairs, you can see adorable hill tribe children wearing traditional clothing. For small donations they will let you take pictures with them. Most temples run on donations. You can find various donation boxes in every temple all for different purposes. Many have boxes to help take care of the stray dogs they take in. Personally, we think it’s just nice to donate some money here and there as a thanks for allowing us the opportunity to visit their beautiful temples.
Once inside, the temple premises are quite expansive. There are pavilions, pagodas, statues, souvenir shop, and even small shops for drinks and snacks. It was beautiful and there was so much to take in! So many gold shrouded structures with ornate designs and intricate statues. Sounds of bells and smells of incense filled the air. Although it was quite busy, it was still somehow peaceful. I think we spent about 2 hours there, but could have easily spent more.
- One thing to note (especially for women) is that to enter many of the temples, you must be fully covered. In hot and humid weather, it may seem like torcher, but I wore a long light maxi dress and bought a silk shawl from one of the shops at the foot of the temple and it did the trick.
- On a related note, I would never recommend purchasing a silk scarf to wear in weather that sticky, but damn did it look good in pictures! Seriously though the variety in fabrics, colors and patterns is insane! Purchasing a scarf from one of these shops makes a great souvenir, plus you get to wear it in your pictures.
- Wear comfortable shoes or sandals. There’s a lot of taking off and putting on of the shoes involved in temple hopping, so keep it simple.
- While this temple opens super early, our driver recommended not visiting any earlier than 9am since there is typically a lot of fog in the mornings.
After Doi Suthep, we had our driver drop us off at Wat Phra Singh and decided to explore on our feet for the rest of the day.
Wat Phra Singh was built in 1345, and is most well known for housing the Phra Singh (Lion Buddha), one of Chiang Mai’s most sacred relics. What caught my eye, however, was the towering gold-plated Chedi (pagoda) that seemed to sprout from the center of the temple grounds.
Originally, this Chedi was white and much smaller, as it only housed the ashes of King Kham Fu. However, as more and more royal ashes became enshrined here the decision was made to create a larger Chedi.
In front of the towering Chedi is an open air shrine surrounded with silver and gold bells and dangling charms, bunches of vibrant flowers and freshly lit incense. On a sunny day, The entire area practically comes to life in a blinding brilliance. I was completely captivated.
There were so many different halls to explore and very little to no English provided. With a place so rich in history that it’s literally painted on the walls, I was dying to know everything. I suppose a guide would have really been helpful here, but the hubby and I were pretty happy just to be able to bask in the historically rich atmosphere.
WAT PHAN TAO
Wat Phan Tao was probably one of the smallest temples we visited. It dates back to the late 14th century and is one of the oldest temples in Chiang Mai. Wat Phan Tao means “temple of a thousand kilns,” which is probably due the fact that it was used to cast Buddha images for Wat Chedi Luang, which is only a hop and a skip away.
What was really unique about this temple, however, was that its viharn (sermon hall) was made almost entirely of teak wood. We didn’t see any other temple like it. It was so beautiful it’s no wonder that it was once a throne hall for one Chiang Mai’s kings. In fact over the archway of the entrance, there’s a carving of a peacock over a crouching dog. Apparently the dog was the zodiac sign of that king.
WAT CHEDI LUANG
Wat Chedi Luang was hands down our favorite temple. Dating back to 1441, it was said to have been damaged by an earthquake in 1545 and cannon fire when the city was being retaken from the Burmese in 1775. While many of Chiang Mai’s ancient temples have been meticulously well maintained or even rebuilt so they don’t look as old as they actually are, Wat Chedi Luang’s dominating chedi looks like actual ruins. Though it had been stabilized to prevented further degradation, it hasn’t actually been restored. Mostly because no one can agree on what it originally looked like. Either way, I was in love!
I mean, as someone who once wanted to be an Indiana Jones level archeologist I was just so blown away. We both spent a good amount of time just looking at every deteriorating detail of this massive structure that had truly stood the test of time. Not to mention the totally badass looking nagas flanking the stairs on each side of the chedi.
Of course this temple has plenty of other structures and relics worthy of admiration. The viharn was far from average. The entire interior was lacquered in a deep burgundy with beautiful gold designs running along the pillars and ceiling. There were beautiful crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling which only seemed to the illuminate the towering golden Buddha standing at the center of the hall.
They also had beautiful colorful banners with gold zodiac animals on them hanging from the ceiling. Traditionally people buy one for their family and write the names of their family members above their respective animal for good luck. We decided to buy one for our little family of three (furbaby included) and hang it up. It was a nice little way to take part in the culture.
One thing that was a bit disappointing about this temple was the pavilion that housed the City Pillar. There was a sign outside of it that read “women are not permitted.” Typically this is due to the belief that the “polluting” power of menstruating women ruins the sacredness of the site. This is not the first time I’ve come across this sort of situation when traveling and I’m sure it won’t be that last, but still, it always sucks to see.
I’m not going to lie, temple hopping will really test the will power of your feet, but it’s totally worth it. We only saw a handful of the beautiful temples Chiang Mai has to offer, but that just left us wanting more. Believe me, we’ll definitely be back for more.