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Exploring the Best Chiang Mai Temples

Article by GVI


Posted: April 10, 2023

Chiang Mai, a city rich in culture and history, boasts some of the most beautiful and unique temples in Thailand. This guide will take you on a journey through the fascinating history of Chiang Mai’s temples, introduce you to the top temples to visit, highlight their distinctive features, and share tips on temple etiquette and important festivals. Let’s embark on an adventure to explore the best Chiang Mai temples.

A Brief History of Chiang Mai Temples

Chiang Mai’s temples, or “wats” as they are known locally, date back to the founding of the city in 1296. They have played a significant role in shaping the city’s culture, with each temple having its own unique story and architectural style. To truly appreciate these spiritual sanctuaries, we must first explore the two historical aspects that have greatly influenced their development: the Lanna Kingdom and Buddhism.

The Lanna Kingdom and its Influence

The Lanna Kingdom, founded by King Mengrai, was a powerhouse in Southeast Asia from the late 13th century to the mid 16th century. As the ruling dynasty of Chiang Mai, the Lanna Kingdom brought with it distinctive architectural and artistic styles that have left an indelible mark on Chiang Mai’s temples. The Lanna style, characterised by its intricate wood carvings and tiered, sloping roofs, can still be seen in many of the city’s most revered temples.

The Role of Buddhism in Chiang Mai

Buddhism has been an integral part of Chiang Mai’s culture since its early days. The city served as a vital religious and spiritual center for the region’s predominantly Theravada Buddhist population. Monks and novices from all over Thailand and neighboring countries would come to Chiang Mai to study and practice their faith. As a result, countless temples were established in and around the city, serving as places of worship, learning, and meditation.

Top Chiang Mai Temples to Visit

With over 300 temples scattered throughout the city, choosing which ones to visit can be overwhelming. To make your decision easier, we have narrowed down the list to the top five must-visit temples in Chiang Mai.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Arguably the most famous temple in Chiang Mai, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a stunning example of Lanna architecture. Perched atop Doi Suthep mountain, the temple offers panoramic views of the city below. The temple complex features a golden chedi (stupa), beautifully ornate sculptures, and murals depicting the life of the Buddha. The serene atmosphere and breathtaking surroundings make it a top pick for visitors seeking a moment of calm and reflection.

Wat Chedi Luang

Located in the heart of Chiang Mai’s old city, Wat Chedi Luang is home to an immense, partially ruined chedi that dates back to the 15th century. The temple itself has a fascinating history, having once housed the revered Emerald Buddha, which now resides in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew. In addition to its historical significance, Wat Chedi Luang is known for hosting monk chat sessions, where visitors can engage in open discussions with resident monks.

Wat Phra Singh

Recognised as one of Chiang Mai’s most important temples, Wat Phra Singh houses the revered Phra Singh Buddha image, which is believed to have originated from Sri Lanka. The temple’s main viharn (assembly hall) features stunning murals depicting the Buddha’s life and the Lanna Kingdom’s history. With its impressive chedi, intricate wood carvings, and serene atmosphere, Wat Phra Singh is a must-visit for anyone interested in Chiang Mai’s rich cultural heritage.

Wat Suan Dok

Founded in the late 14th century, Wat Suan Dok’s most striking feature is its large, whitewashed chedi that stands in stark contrast to its golden counterparts throughout the city. The temple grounds also house a unique garden of white mausoleums known as “chedi ku.” These honor the ashes of Chiang Mai’s former royal family members. Visitors can also enjoy the monks’ evening chanting sessions, which add to the peaceful ambiance of the temple.

Wat Chiang Man

As the oldest temple in Chiang Mai, Wat Chiang Man was established during the city’s founding in 1296. The temple houses two highly revered Buddha images: the Phra Sila, a marble Buddha, and the Phra Satang Man, a crystal Buddha. The temple’s chedi is adorned with 15 life-sised elephant statues, adding to its unique charm. With its rich history and serene environment, Wat Chiang Man is a must-visit destination for history buffs and spiritual seekers alike.

Unique Features of Chiang Mai Temples

Chiang Mai’s temples are not only renowned for their historical significance and breathtaking architecture but also for their distinctive features that set them apart from temples found elsewhere in Thailand.

Intricate Wood Carvings

One of the standout features of Chiang Mai temples is the intricate wood carvings adorning their doors, windows, and roofs. These detailed and skillfully crafted designs often depict scenes from the life of the Buddha, as well as floral patterns and mythical creatures.

Lanna-style Architecture

As mentioned earlier, Chiang Mai’s temples showcase the distinctive Lanna architectural style, with tiered, sloping roofs, and ornate decorations. This unique style reflects the influence of the ancient Lanna Kingdom and gives Chiang Mai’s temples a charm all their own.

Serene Temple Gardens

Many Chiang Mai temples feature beautifully landscaped gardens that provide visitors with a peaceful, serene environment for meditation and contemplation. These gardens often include ponds, bridges and quiet corners where visitors can sit, reflect and take in the calming atmosphere.

Temple Etiquette and Tips for Visitors

When visiting Chiang Mai temples, it is important to respect the religious and cultural sensitivities of the locals. This section provides essential etiquette tips and advice to ensure a respectful and enjoyable experience at these sacred sites.

Dress Code and Behavior

Visitors should dress modestly when visiting temples, with shoulders and knees covered. Remove your shoes before entering prayer halls and refrain from touching Buddha statues and other sacred objects. Be quiet and respectful, as you are entering a place of worship and meditation.

Making Offerings and Participating in Rituals

Offerings, such as incense, flowers, and candles, can be purchased at temple grounds to show respect and support for the temple. When participating in rituals, observe how the locals perform them and follow their lead. Always remember that if you are unsure about what to do, it is best to ask for guidance from a local or a monk.

Photography Guidelines

While photography is generally allowed in Chiang Mai temples, ensure that it is done respectfully and without disrupting others. Avoid taking pictures of monks without their permission, and always adhere to any posted photography restrictions.

Exploring Chiang Mai’s Temple Festivals

Chiang Mai’s rich cultural heritage is best experienced during its vibrant temple festivals, which attract both locals and visitors alike. These festivals represent a unique opportunity to witness the city’s spiritual and cultural traditions first-hand.

Loy Krathong and Yi Peng

These two festivals, celebrated simultaneously in November, are characterised by the release of lanterns into the sky (Yi Peng) and floating candlelit offerings on the water (Loy Krathong). This magical spectacle takes place at numerous temples, rivers, and canals throughout the city.


Songkran, or the Thai New Year, is celebrated in mid-April and is marked by water splashings, which symbolise cleansing and purification. Temples play a central role in these festivities, as Buddha images are bathed and sacred water is sprinkled on monks and elders for good luck.

Inthakin City Pillar Festival

The Inthakin City Pillar Festival, held at Wat Chedi Luang in May, is a lesser-known but equally important event. Locals give offerings and prayers to the city pillar for protection and prosperity throughout the year.

Chiang Mai is a vibrant city with a rich cultural heritage and a wealth of experiences to offer visitors. Whether you’re interested in exploring the city’s ancient temples, trekking through the jungle, or simply soaking up the atmosphere in one of its many cafes or markets, there’s something for everyone here. And for those who are interested in giving back while traveling, volunteering with GVI in Chiang Mai is an excellent way to do just that. By supporting community-led projects that promote sustainability and conservation, you can make a meaningful impact while immersing yourself in the local culture and gaining valuable experience. So why not consider joining GVI’s team in Chiang Mai and making a difference in this incredible part of the world?

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