The Wats of Chiang Mai: A Photo Essay image

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There are over 300 wats (temples) in Chiang Mai. As you wander around the city you find one around every corner. Some are large and showy and full of visitors. Others are hidden down quiet backstreets with not a soul in sight. Some are working temples of shimmering gold with hundreds of novice monks in glaring orange robes streaming past and Thais lighting incense in front of giant gold Buddhas. Others are long neglected, chedis crumbling and being taken over by tropical vegetation.

In the bigger wats you’ll be sure to find monks, young and old. Perhaps meditating quietly, perhaps chanting, or more surprisingly, listening to their iPod or chatting on their mobile phone.

There are moments when the sounds of chanting, the powerful scent of incense, and the ancient buildings take you back to another time, but then the modern world reveals itself. In the bigger temple complexes we found ATMs, mobile phone adverts, and a ice cream motorbike vendor. Buddhism in Thailand is an active part of ordinary life.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

The most popular temple in Chiang Mai is the mountaintop Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. We rode our moped up the windy mountain roads higher and higher as the temperature dropped. To reach Wat Phra That Doi Suthep you must first weave your way through the souvenir vendors and food stalls before climbing the 309 steps of the dragon staircase.

We began by wandering around the outer grounds where you can admire the view of Chiang Mai far below and explore the various temple buildings, pagodas and bells. Colourful lanterns hang from the trees and a shock of pink flowers blossomed on the trees. Young visiting monks sat chatting in a small cafe.

The elegance roofs of Thai wats never fail to impress us.

Wat Phra That Doi SuthepWithin a garden of sunflowers we found this sign that monks don’t take themselves too seriously.

Wat Doi Suthep monk statuesAfter removing our shoes we entered the main temple complex where many pitched-roof buildings surround the central golden chedi.

Wat Doi SuthepGlowing in the sun against the blue sky, the chedi is an impressive sight.

Wat Doi Suthep ChediDespite the crowds creating a rather lively atmosphere, the wat is a sacred place for Buddhists, a place of worship. Lotus flowers are placed on the altar and three incense sticks are lit as offerings.

Wat Doi Suthep prayerWat Doi Suthep lighting incenceWat Umong

If the crowds are Wat Phra That Doi Suthep are too much for you then head to Wat Umong for a completely different experience. You won’t find any soaring gold temple buildings here but instead of the glitz is a peaceful forest temple where monks live and work.

The grounds are extensive and as you stroll through the trees you’ll come across monks’s quarters and their colourful robes drying on a line; underground cave temples; a small lake where Thais come to relax; and an ancient crumbling chedi. Your soundtrack will be monks chanting mingled with the crows of roosters and dogs barking in the distance.

Wat Umong ChediAs you explore Wat Umong you’ll come across the motivational signs you often find in Thai temples offering words of wisdom.

Wat Umong motivational signsThe most unusual sight at Wat Umong is this disturbing statue of the fasting Buddha which represents him at the end of his long fasting period before he gained enlightenment.

Wat Umong Fasting BuddhaWat Suan Dok

We visited Wat Suan Dok many times as inside the grounds you’ll find our favourite vegetarian restaurant Pun Pun. The wat is unlike any others in Chiang Mai and worth a visit. There is also a popular Monk Chat building near the restaurant where you can meet, and yes, chat with the monks.

The unusual feature of Wat Suan Dok is the many white mausoleums that contain the ashes of various members of the Thai royal family, against the backdrop of the green peaks of Doi Suthep.

Wat Suan Dok mausoleums

The main gold chedi at Wat Suan Dok towers above at 48 metres high. The domed white entrance gate that leads to it felt almost Islamic.

Wat Suan DokWat Chedi Luang

Moving inside the walled old city you’ll find the greatest concentration of wats. One of the largest is the Wat Chedi Luang temple complex. This gold temple with tiered roof is typical of the many wats you’ll come across in Chiang Mai.

Wat Chedi LuangThe central chedi is huge and partially destroyed. The five elephant sculptures have been restored.

Wat Chedi Luang

The inside of the main temple building is grand, dominated by the standing Buddha and his two disciples.
Wat Chedi Luang insideAround the temple grounds you’ll find various chapels and Buddha statues. This one is in stark contrast to the fasting Buddha we saw at Wat Umong.

Wat Chedi Luang BuddhaSometimes at the altars of Thai temples a monk will be seated cross-legged amongst the Buddha statues, so still that we never know if he’s real or not. We certainly hoped that this monk wasn’t real.

Wat Chedi Luang monkWat Chiang Man

Wat Chiang Man is believed to be the oldest wat in Chiang Mai, dating back to 1297. Although smaller than some of the other temples we liked the quiet garden setting and the giant chedi surrounded by elephant sculptures.

Wat Chiang ManWat Lok Moli

By the end of our stay in Chiang Mai we had visited all of the most popular temples but there were still hundreds more we hadn’t seen. We often drove past Wat Lok Moli on the northern side of the moat road and one day decided to stop in. It isn’t a famous temple but it reminded us that even with so many wats in the city each has their own unique features. What struck us first about Wat Lok Moli were the cheerful animal figures on the temple’s lawn.

Wat Lok Mali pigWat Lok Moli has two main features – the multi-tiered teak ordination hall and the huge stone chedi with orange-clad Buddha images seated in the alcoves. It was the details that stood out to us though.

If you are visiting Chiang Mai take the time to explore some of the smaller wats in the city as well as the big attractions. Every temple has its own unique features and provides an insight into Thai culture.


  1. Your pictures & recap are great. Funny enough my husband & I were thrown off by the real looking monk in the case too!

    Reply ↓

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