Loy Kratong has just finished and it’s starting to feel chilly at night. This means only one thing: winter has arrived in Chiang Mai. In Chiang Mai, Loy Krathong is one of the most impressive festivals you’ll experience anywhere in the world. However, I wish someone would tell the young guys in my village it’s finished, because each night they are still letting off fireworks late into the night.
Chiang Mai is a city of temples, and these temples are at the historical and cultural heart of the city. In fact, one houses the City Pillar which gave the city its cosmological chart and hence the blueprint for its construction in 1296 by King Mengrai . There are hundreds, but for this blog, I will write a personal guide for some of the ones I enjoy visiting. First though, a short review of temple lexis:
The chedi (stupa): In Chiang Mai there are two basic forms: the bell and the prasart, or stepped, style. Temple complexes were traditionally built around a chedi. The chedi, which houses relics of pious kings or monks, is built of brick or laterite and covered with stucco. As other buildings in the temple were generally constructed of wood with earth walls, chedis are often the only remaining evidence of temples built many years ago. According to Brahmanic-Buddhist cosmology, the chedi stabilizes the world, as it is the point where heaven and earth meet.
The ubosot: This is a relatively small consecrated ceremonial hall that performs functions only involving monks. There are 8 boundary stones and women are generally not allowed to enter.
The viharn: This is usually much larger than the ubosot as ceremonies here involve lay people and monks. It’s often located to the east of the chedi with its front entrance facing east and the morning sunrise. Buddha statues are housed in the viharn and ubosot. Often networks of string link them in order to spread the blessings and power of the images.
At the end of Ratchdamnoen Road (walk of the King) is one of Chiang Mai’s most famous temple complexes: Wat Phra Singh. Just about any Thai visiting the city will want to visit this temple before heading home; and because of its close proximity to Tha Pae Gate, it’s also an essential stop on any farang tourist’s to-do list. Thais tend to visit to make merit. They will wai the Buddha images, meditate for a few moments and often make an offering to a monk. To a Thai the temple has a function. To many farang visitors, they make great photographs.
Wat Phra Singh’s construction dates back to the years shortly after the founding of the city. Its chedi was constructed by King Pha Yu to house the bones of his father, King Kam Fu, around the middle of the 14th century. The ubosot was added around the time King Kawila repopulated the city in the early part of the 19th century after 200 years of Burmese occupation. The main viharn was added by Khru Ba Srivichaiin the 1920s. It was bestowed the Royal temple of the first grade in 1935.
The temple’s name comes from the Phra Sihing Buddha statue. This is an especially elegant image which is based on the lion of Shakya, a statue originally housed in the Mahabodhi Temple of Bodh Gaya, India. Every Songran festival, the statue is carried through the streets allowing people to show their respect by gracefully pouring water over it.
According to local belief everyone has a temple that they belong to according to the year they were born. I am a ‘dragon’; hence, my temple is Wat Phra Singh. The viharn I need to visit to make merit is the small one just behind the large one that most people visit. Fortunately for me, this viharn (Lai Kham) is exceptionally beautiful and usually quiet. Its internal walls are covered by the remains of paintings representing everyday life in the north and the ways of the Burmese court. I guess the walls were painted during the 200-year occupation of the city by the Burmese. The north wall shows the fable of Prince Sang Thong of the Golden Conch and the south one shows the fable of the Heavenly Phoenix.
A few hundred meters away is another impressive temple complex. Wat Phra Chedi Luang was built during the 14th century by King Saen Muang Ma to enshrine the relics of his father. The chedi was originally an amazing 82 meters tall before an earthquake toppled the top in part in 1545. Despite this, it was the tallest building in Chiang Mai for a total of nearly 500 years.
This temple houses the City Pillar in a small building to the left as you enter the compound. The smell and smoke of burning candles and incense indicates that even today it, and the city’s guardian spirits it houses, are highly respected by the local population.
Northern Thai Buddhism is heavily influenced by animist and Brahmanic beliefs. When King Mengrai founded the city in 1296, his astrologers used this City Pillar to write the city’s cosmological chart, and then this chart was used to plan the construction of the city. Gates and corners of the city are located at significant points and usually reflect a purpose. For example, Chang Puak (White Elephant) gate faces north, and this is the only gate the King can use to enter the city. Each year around April, there are small ceremonies at each gate and corner that pay respect to the guardian spirits that protect the city.
This temple also houses the northern campus of Mahamakut Buddhist University. Monks here are very enthusiastic to meet and talk in English with foreign visitors. They run a very popular ‘Monk Chat’ program that allows anyone to walk in off the street and have a chat with a monk. Just about any topic can be discussed including questions about religion and spiritual belief. However, the monks have no intention to convert anyone to their religion, as a person’s karma decides which spiritual belief system they follow.
As you walk around this complex, you will see signs warning tourists of touts. While I was taking a picture of the reclining Buddha, I witnessed a tout at work. They dress and speak English well. They are friendly and initiate seemingly harmless conversation about a tourist’s background and plans. This ‘sizing up’ allows the tout to create trust and formulate the best strategy to separate the tourist from his or her baht. My advice is if you meet one: be polite but firm, whatever you say. Do not allow them to take you anywhere such as a jeweler’s shop, travel agent or tailor. But remember that they will not separate you from your money, unless you allow them to.
The home of the Saturday Walking Street is Wu Lai Road. Strolling around this area you will hear the sound of hammers working silver, as many people in this area earn their living from making and selling silver ware. It is also home to one of the most spectacular sights in the city: a full-size ubosot made of silver within the Wat Phra Srisupan temple complex. Work is on-going, and the temple offers an opportunity to visitors to donate money to help support its construction.
Wat Phra Suan Dok to the west of the city heading towards Doi Suthep Mountain was established in 1371 by King Ku Na who offered the royal flower garden (suan dok) to a particularly pious monk from Sukhotai in order for him to bring Sri Lankan Buddhism to Chiang Mai. The monk also brought with him an especially auspicious holy relic which broke into two pieces when he reached Chiang Mai. One part is now housed in the chedi of Wat Phra Suan Dok and the other in Wat Phra Doi Suthep.
Just west of the main viharn are many white chedis, and these house the remains of Northern Thai royals. They were brought to this temple from different parts of the city by Princess Dara Rasami in 1909.
Probably the most atmospheric and mysterious temple in Chiang Mai is Wat Phra Umong Suan Puthatham. This temple is located in formerly dense jungle at the base of Doi Suthep Mountain south of Suthep Road. Its origins are unclear, but it’s thought it may have been constructed by the founder of Chiang Mai, King Mengrai, to accommodate visiting forest monks from Sri Lanka. It’s now a famous meditation retreat heavily influenced by the teachings of Buddhadhasa Bhikkhu.
The chedi is located on a large flat raised area walled in by brick. Under this are three inter-connecting tunnels used in the past for meditation and prayer. In front of the raised area are many Buddha statue heads scattered across the ground. I’ve never discovered why.
Not long after I first arrived in Chiang Mai, I was exploring the grounds on a very hot and still April day. The ground was hard and covered by a scattering of large brown and parched teak leaves. As I was walking across the flat raised area above the meditation tunnels, a teak leaf on the ground in front of my path flew up into the air, over my head and landed just behind me. It was extremely strange as there was no breeze and these leaves are relatively heavy. Just about every Thai person who listens to my story believes that I had a connection with one of the temple’s guardian spirits that day.
I have intentionally not written about the most famous temple in Chiang Mai. Near the top of Doi Suthep Mountain and at the end of a beautiful windy mountain road built by khru Ba Srivichai in 1935 is Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. At the top of the steps leading to the entrance is a sign written only in English that states (western) foreigners should turn right to pay an admission fee. And that’s full-stop for me on this one.
These are just a few of my favourite temples in and around the city. Whether a person is spiritual, or not, I feel they will enjoy the calmness and quiet within most temple compounds. The buildings themselves are fascinating and are the links that connect the founding of the city in 1296 to today. A day visiting temples is a great day out.
First published November 18th, 2011 on ajarn.com.