When I visited Chiang Mai, Thailand, my favorite activity was exploring its Buddhist temples. Thailand boasts over 40,000 temples, and in Chiang Mai alone, there are approximately 300 active temples. What struck me the most about these temples was their uniqueness, each boasting vastly different stories and designs.
- Wat: means temple in Thai
- Chedi/Stupa: terms used interchangeably to describe architectural structures that sit outside of Buddhist temples & contain relics.
Table of Contents
1. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is the most visited Buddhist temple in the Chiang Mai area. You’ll also see it referred to as Wat Doi Suthep. The temple is golden, a color commonly used in Thai architecture and relics. Buddhists believe that gold symbolizes happiness, knowledge, enlightenment, and purity.
To reach the temple, you’ll need to rent a scooter, hire a driver, or take a songthaew (a popular caravan-like public transportation method in Thailand). The temple is situated atop a small mountain, and you’ll have to climb 309 steps to enter its grounds.
Various buildings are scattered across the temple grounds, creating a small village-like atmosphere. The temple grounds are perched at a high elevation on Doi Suthep Mountain, providing an excellent vantage point to view Chiang Mai City.
My favorite activity at Wat Doi Suthep was receiving a personal blessing from a monk. Monks sit inside one of the buildings on the grounds and offer blessings on a daily basis. I found this to be a truly special and unique way to partake in traditional Buddhist practices.
2. Wat Pha Lat
Wat Pha Lat is one of my favorite temples in Thailand. I love this temple because it’s somewhat hidden within a jungle, making it challenging to access and, therefore, a little more rewarding to visit than other temples in Chiang Mai. Visitors must hike up a secluded trail on Doi Suthep Mountain to reach the temple. The hike, known as the Monk’s Trail, was one of the most unique hikes I’ve ever experienced. Orange garments from monk robes line the walkway to guide visitors to the temple, and aside from the robes, there’s no indication that the temple is nearby. It takes about 40 minutes to walk the trail one way. The temple is nestled at the top of the trail, and the area and grounds it occupies are filled with lush greens, vibrant flowers, and flowing water. All you’ll hear once you reach the temple are the sounds of the surrounding jungle. It’s a great place to reflect and relax.
The temple was built in 1355, around the same time as many other Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai. The name Wat Pha Lat means “monastery at the sloping rock” because of the rock formation it’s situated on, which leans on a slant. The temple was constructed to serve as a rest stop for Buddhist monks during their pilgrimage to a larger temple located deeper in the jungle. In 1935, Wat Pha Lat became a meditation site for monks.
I wholeheartedly recommend the Monk’s Trail and a visit to this temple. It’s a great escape from the bustling city of Chiang Mai, and in my opinion, it’s one of the best temples in Chiang Mai. If you go, be prepared to encounter lots of tiny snakes and spiders on the Monk’s Trail—they’re harmless, but startling if you don’t know to expect them.
3. Wat Suan Dok
Wat Suan Dok holds a special place in my heart. I participated in the silent meditation retreat offered at the temple, and it proved to be one of the most insightful experiences of my life, thanks to the wisdom and authenticity of the monk who led the retreat. Besides the meditation retreats and courses offered at the temple, its grounds are also well worth a visit due to their beauty, structure, and historical significance.
The temple is situated on the outskirts of Chiang Mai city, near the University and Niman area. Originally built as a retreat center for monks in the 14th century, it later transformed into the temple and retreat center it is today. Its name, Wat Suan Dok, translates to “flower garden temple.” Upon arriving at the grounds, you’ll notice large stone monuments adorned with floral offerings. It’s surprisingly tranquil, especially considering its proximity to the bustling streets of Chiang Mai. Adjacent to the white stone monuments is the temple itself, where monks conduct daily practices.
4.Wat Chedi Liam
Wat Chedi Liam stands as one of the most beautiful temples in Chiang Mai. Built in the year 1287, it originally served as a residence for the then king of Thailand. The five-tiered Chedi, a white structure located outside of the temple, is guarded by stone lions. Sculpted into the Chedi are 60 Buddhas, each displaying various hand gestures, believed to commemorate the 60 wives of the King of Thailand.
A visit to this temple will be relatively quick, as there are only a couple of architectural sites to see and not many on-site activities compared to some of the other temples in Chiang Mai. Nevertheless, it’s well worth the visit, given the temple’s unique history and exquisite beauty in person. Visitors can plan to allocate about an hour for a visit to this temple.
5. Wat Chedi Luang
Wat Chedi Luang is one of the most historic temples in Chiang Mai. It’s one of those structures that you can gaze upon and truly feel the weight of history while standing in front of it. The temple, built in the 14th century by King Saen Muang Ma, the 8th ruler of the Mengrai dynasty, was not originally intended to be a temple but was constructed to house the ashes of the king’s father, Ku Na. The grounds also held a relic known as The Emerald Buddha, making it an exceptionally significant Buddhist landmark.
The monument suffered damage in an earthquake in 1545. The Emerald Buddha remained in the temple for six years after the earthquake but was then relocated for safekeeping. In the 1990s, UNESCO undertook the restoration of the structure and added elements to help ensure its preservation for the future.
Between 6-9 PM daily, visitors can engage in a Monk Chat under a tree on the temple grounds. Monk Chats are offered at various Buddhist temples throughout Thailand. During a Monk Chat, guests have the opportunity to ask Monks questions about various topics, ranging from Buddhism to the daily lives of Monks.
6. Wat Phan Tao
7. Wat Phra Singh
Within the temple grounds, several structures stand. The main temple showcases intricate decorations on its rooftop and throughout its interior and exterior. Additionally, stupas and pagodas are scattered around the temple. Visitors have the option to peer into the temple or enter the surrounding structures to observe.
8. Wat Pan Sao
Wat Pan Sao is one of the most charming temples in Chiang Mai. It’s relatively small and somewhat off the beaten path, resulting in fewer tourists visiting. What appealed to me about this temple and its grounds was their eclectic and varied nature compared to other temples in Chiang Mai. The attractions include the temple itself, a Chedi, and gardens adorned with delightful and unique statues of various animals and Buddhas scattered throughout. Additionally, there’s a cafe situated in front of the temple where visitors like to relax.
While it may be a simple temple, I found it to be one of the best in Chiang Mai due to the serenity it offered, owing to the limited number of visitors, its aesthetic, and the nearby cafe.
Temples accessible via day-trip from Chiang Mai
Below are my top two favorite temples that are not in the Chiang Mai region but are accessible via a day trip from Chiang Mai. They are situated in Chiang Rai and Pai, respectively, and each is approximately a 4-hour drive to and from Chiang Mai.
9. Wat Rong Khun (The White Temple)
Wat Rong Khun (also known as the White Temple) is situated in the Chiang Rai district of Thailand. It’s quite a distance from Chiang Mai, but many visitors like to make the journey for a day-trip. The drive to and from Wat Rong Khun is approximately four hours each way when coming from Chiang Mai. Despite the long trip, it’s undeniably worth it because the temple is truly unique in terms of its architecture and conception. It’s, without a doubt, one of the most fascinating temples within driving distance of the Chiang Mai area.
The temple’s design is highly intricate and quite distinct from what one might expect to see at a Buddhist Temple. The temple was conceived by a local artist named Chalermchai Kositpipat. It draws inspiration from orthodox Buddhist teachings concerning heaven, hell, karma, and earthly sins. Unexpected art displays are woven into the temple’s design, such as hundreds of ceramic hands emerging from the ground, resembling hands of humans reaching up from hell, and superhero icons hanging from the trees on the temple grounds.
The grounds encompass nine buildings, including a temple, a “hall of relics,” a meditation hall, an art gallery, and living quarters for monks. The site is currently active, much like many other temples in Thailand, and we observed several monks walking around the grounds during our visit.
10. Chedi Phra That Mae Yen
Chedi Phra That Mae Yenis located in the Pai district of Thailand. Pai is approximately a 4-hour drive to and from Chiang Mai. Pai is my favorite town in Thailand, and it’s worth considering spending a few days in the area if you have the time. If you’re on a tight schedule, then a day trip is doable.
The temple is situated atop a large staircase. At the summit of the staircase stands an enormous white Buddha statue that is visible from various parts of Pai. The best times to visit the temple are during sunset or sunrise. If you wish to avoid the crowds, then sunrise is the optimal time to visit the temple, allowing you to enjoy it with fantastic views, excellent natural lighting, and tranquility.
The temples listed on this page are what I consider to be the best Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and the surrounding area. There are hundreds of incredible temples in Chiang Mai, and this list barely scratches the surface but serves as a great starting point for all those who would like to explore these architectural and historical gems in Thailand.
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