With over 300 wat’s (temples) in Chiang Mai, Thailand it can be a little overwhelming as to which one(s) to visit. If you google the most popular, all the lists will pretty much have the same top 10. After a month of being in Chiang Mai, I have still only visited half of those on the list. Instead I wandered the Old Town and went into each one I passed. This could often lead to a two hour walk home because they are literally on each street corner! What I love about some of them is that you can be walking down a busy main street, pop into a wat and it’s almost as if the grounds are sound proofed. Not that Chiang Mai is a particularly busy city, especially if you compare it to the likes of Bangkok but everything just feels a little less chaotic and a little more still. Unless you visit Doi Suthep on the top of the mountain overlooking Chiang Mai – which is the noisiest, most over crowded temple I have visited. Ever.
Anyway, I have digressed already. Each wat has a similar set up just varying in size, age and bling-ness. There will be a vihara – the prayer hall, which could be open or closed, may or may not allow women to enter and may have one or many Buddha statues inside (see Wat Inthakin below for my favourite). The ubosot is the ordination hall – or the hall used for ceremonies, they are like smaller vihara’s (see Wat Dubphai below). Naga’s often line either side of the staircase up to the vihara and/or ubosot (see any of the wat’s below!). Naga’s are mythical dragons which are believed to be the guardians of Buddhism. They look fierce. There will be a chedi (Thai for a stupa) in varying forms, a bell tower and probably a spirit house or two. Spirit houses are miniature houses, with miniature statues that sit on a pillar where people will bring daily offerings. They are found everywhere, outside homes, businesses, on the hill on the way up to Doi Suthep…
Some wat’s are more opulent than others, some are hidden away, some have random things at them which I’m sure isn’t random but I have no idea why they are there! So instead of giving you the most popular wat’s to visit here are some of the hidden gems I found and caught my eye for one reason or another.
The one with the big Buddha. One of my favourites, it’s on my walk into the Old Town in the north west corner, along the moat, opposite Wat Lok Molee. I had walked past several times but with my head down checking my maps I hadn’t even noticed that there is a big Buddha perched up above the wall. The Buddha was only added in 2010 so it’s not old by any means but I like popping in on my way past to say a quick hello.
Wat Kuan Kama
The one with the zebras. Next door to Wat Rajamontean the walls of Wat Kuan Kama are lined with golden horses. So why do I refer to it as the one with the zebras? Because identical toy zebras amongst other small items, but zebras definitely dominate, have been placed around the chedi and I have no idea why. The temple was built on the garden of a horse groomer and soldier. When his favourite horse died he donated his land to build a temple in memoriam of the horse. But why zebras?? Had they run out of miniature toy horses in the local shop and resorted to zebras instead?
The one with the mythical panda. Wat Jetlin, or Wat Chedlin, or Wat Nong Chalin it can be a bit confusing with so many different names for the same place! Have you heard about Sihuhata – a five eyed panda that eats coal and poos out gold nuggets? Nope, neither had I till I visited this one. There’s also a sunglasses wearing skeleton that chants. Literally no idea why.
The one with the discarded deities. Wat Umong is a little out of town, easily reached by songthaew (red shared taxis) or take a Grab (same as Uber), you can easily get another one back so you don’t need to negotiate a price for them to stay and wait. The 700 year old temple is set in the forest at the foot of Doi Pui Mountain. The temple is a set of four tunnels which run underneath the main chedi. I’m a huge fan of things underground so had to visit. Now this one does get mentioned in all the must see lists but there are two things about this complex that rarely gets mentioned. First, the walk from the car park to the temple entrance was lined with boards with pictures of dogs with accompanying inspirational quotes… I only took pictures of my two favourites because some of them quite frankly would have been taken down by Instagram for violating their terms…
The second is the garden outside the tunnel. At first your eye catches the giant Buddha heads placed in the garden. Then you notice that there are smaller Buddha statues but without their heads. Then there’s the rockery to the side which looks like the last resting place for broken deities and spirit houses. Heads are missing, Ganesh is missing a hand. There’s a place like this in Hong Kong, along the coast which is now home to thousands of discarded deities which have been fixed and are looked after on a daily basis by a caretaker. It started off as a garden with a few dozen and now it’s turned into a “sky full of gods and Buddhas”. I hope this one does too.
Wat Chiang Man
The one with all the elephants. Another wat based in the north side of the Old Town but in the north east corner this time. This isn’t just any old wat though, this is the oldest wat in Chiang Mai. Dating back to 1297. I found walking into the grounds quite spectacular, the palm trees, the vihara, and the chedi which has 15 elephants carved out of stone around it, seemingly holding up the upper platforms. The grounds are lovely to stop in, sit and relax, and it would seem the local dogs would agree.
The one with the pastels and dragons. If you’re going to visit the popular Wat Phra Singh (the gold temple) then pop along to this one too. I visited several times and it wasn’t until I was writing this post and did a bit more research that it was actually the ubosot that I took a shine too, I thought it was just a really small temple. I’ve never seen it open but the outside is stunning. For a start – it’s pink! and because it’s small the naga’s seem to me more fierce and protector like. It sparkles in the sunlight and has the most beautiful blue fresco across the entrance.
The one with all the Buddhas. Wat Inthakin is literally alongside the road, you can’t miss it. It almost looks like it’s in the middle of the road. Being made from wood gives it a dark colour, flanked with gold ornate embellishments – it’s certainly not my usual multi coloured sparkly go to! Two silver magnificent naga’s lead the way into the vihara which houses not one, not two but five Buddhas. I’m not sure if it was because I was visiting around Chinese New Year but they were surrounded by a beautiful array of flowers and were wearing very sparkly clothing.
The one with Ganesh. Not a wat but still a temple. What resembles a shop front is the entrance to a small Hindu temple with a large Ganesh at the end of the corridor. There are instructions outside on how to worship in the temple, or you can just take your shoes off and simply pop in and marvel at one of the greatest statues of Ganesh I’ve ever seen.
Finally… The one with the roosters. Also not a wat but if you are visiting Wat Lok Molee (opposite Wat Rajamontean, the one with the big Buddha), then walk round the back of the chedi and out of the eastern gate, turn back on yourself so you are walking alongside the wat complex and on your left will be this… You’re welcome.