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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.
Within a garden of sunflowers we found this sign that monks don’t take themselves too seriously.
After removing our shoes we entered the main temple complex where many pitched-roof buildings surround the central golden chedi.
Glowing in the sun against the blue sky, the chedi is an impressive sight.
Despite 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.
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.
As you explore Wat Umong you’ll come across the motivational signs you often find in Thai temples offering words of wisdom.
The 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 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.
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 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.
The central chedi is huge and partially destroyed. The five elephant sculptures have been restored.
The inside of the main temple building is grand, dominated by the standing Buddha and his two disciples.
Around 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.
Sometimes 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 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 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 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.
Your pictures & recap are great. Funny enough my husband & I were thrown off by the real looking monk in the case too!
I just got here to CM, so loving all the tips here on the blog! cheers.
Your photos are incredible and remind me why Chiang Mai is one of my favourite cities to explore. I always recommend taking a bike and wandering the town – you never know what you’ll find! Thanks for sharing.
Great photos! Loved exploring all the Wats when we were in Chiang Mai! My favorite one is probably Wat Chiang Man, but I also loved Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Lok Molee. And Wat Suan Dok of course (not just because of PunPun ;-) )
Incredible photos with that blue sky. When were you there? We were in Chiang Mai and had a totally different impression of the place, mostly because the pollution was so horrid that we cut our visit short.
Larissa and Michael
We were there from mid October to mid March so luckily took most of these before the haze came in mid Feb. Sorry it ruined your experience – it is particularly bad this year.
I have never seen so many beautiful temples, this is amazing, I am sure that you were breathless when visiting so many creations of art!
Thank you for sharing your beautiful photos of these Wats. The sky looks so clear in the photos. Are these recent photos? I’ve been reading about the air pollution around Chiang Mai in March. We may reschedule our trip to Chiang Mai next year to avoid Feb. and March, the slash and burn months in the north.
We were there from October to March so took most of these when the sky was clear. I would visit before mid-Feb if possible to avoid the haze. November was a great month, especially if you are there for the yee peng festival.
Thanks Erin for another great photo essay. I have 10 more days left in Chiang Mai and will definitely go check out these temples. I have been wanting to go to Wat Umong since I arrived. I’m also planning a trip to Chiang Rai to see the White Temple. Cheers, Alison
There are so many temples to enjoy in Chiang Mai. The White Temple was a definite highlight though (and we’d recommend the Black House while you are there too). Have fun!