Ninety-five percent of Thais are Buddhists, and, not surprisingly, Buddhist temples (wats) are everywhere in this country. In Chiang Mai alone there are reportedly over 300 temples, which would make them even more ubiquitous than the seemingly ever present 7-Eleven stores. During our recent trip to Chiang Mai, we visited four of the most historically important wats in the region.
Before I begin, it is important to understand that a wat (or temple) is not a single building. Rather, it is a number of buildings, shrines, and monuments typically enclosed in a courtyard. The most important buildings are:
- The Viharn, the place where the laity go to worship. The viharn contains an altar and at least one (usually more) statues of Buddha. While it is open to everyone, you should be dressed properly and you never wear shoes inside.
- The Chedi (or stupa), the building that contains relics of the Buddha. The chedi is often a dome-like building with a tall tower atop it. Religious teachers and leaders are often buried in the chedi. A prang is a chedi with different architectural features.
- The Bot, the ordination hall where monks are ordained. Only monks can enter the bot.
- The Ho Trai, the library that contains Buddhist scriptures and sacred manuscripts.
Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep
Doi Suthep is a mountain about 10 miles northwest of Chiang Mai. Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is a Buddhist temple on the mountain that dates back to 1383 and it is a very popular destination for tourists and Thais alike. The legend is that a Buddhist monk named Sumana placed a broken piece of relic of Buddha on the back of a white elephant that was released into the nearby jungle from Wat Suan Dok (see below.) The elephant began to climb the mountain and kept going higher and higher. When it was over halfway up the mountain, e.g., at 900 m in elevation on the 1.6 km mountain, the elephant stopped, trumpeted three times, and died. The king ordered that a golden chedi be built where the elephant died to house the Buddha relic that the elephant had carried on its back to the site.
Before the roadway to the temple was constructed in the 1930s, the only way to reach the temple was to walk up the mountain. Today, a three-lane road (highway 1004) curves back and forth as it heads up the mountain. In the map below, point A is the beginning of roadway up the mountain starting at the Chiang Mai Zoo; point B is Wat Doi Suthep. Despite the often blind curves, drivers constantly pass each other with impunity. We also saw numerous bicyclists pedaling up this mountain road.
From the roadway, Wat Doi Suthep is at the top of 300+ step staircase. Nagas (serpents) flank both sides of the steep stairway to protect the temple. The temple can also be reached by a funicular. For foreigners, the fee is 30 baht for a one-way ticket and 50 baht for a round-trip; for Thais, the ride is free. A quick calculation told me that it would cost 1 baht (3 cents) each to ride the equivalent of 10 steps, and we were soon on the tram up to the top. However, we did walk down the stairs at the end of our visit.
Even on a cloudy overcast day, the views from the temple down to Chiang Mai were fabulous.
The real highlight of this temple is the golden chedi. The original chedi was 7 meters (23 feet) tall. In the late 1500s, it was enlarged to its current size and shape — 16 meters (52 feet) tall and 12 meters (39 feet) in diameter. The chedi is surrounded by a railing and at each corner there is a golden, Burmese-style umbrella called a chat. The chedi itself is enclosed within a cloister that contains numerous statutes of Buddha, bells, frescoes, and shrines.
Wat Chedi Luang Wara Viharn
Wat Chedi Luang is in the heart of the Old City. Like Wat Doi Suthep, Wat Chedi Luang is also one of the oldest and most important temples in Chiang Mai. Although construction began in the 14th century, it wasn’t completed until the mid-15th century. When it was first constructed, it was the largest structure — 82 meters (269 feet) high and 54 meters (177 feet) wide — in the Lanna Kingdom (what is today the northern provinces of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai.)
The Emerald Buddha was moved to Wat Chedi Luang from Lampang in 1468 and stayed here until 1552 when it was moved to Laos. The top 30 meters (99 feet) of the Chedi collapsed during an earthquake in 1545 and the damage remains visible and unrepaired to this day. There are still, however, statues of Buddha in alcoves in each side of the temple.
On the southwest side of the temple, there are five elephant statues at the second tier. It looks like at some point in the past there were similar statues around almost the entire temple.
At the front entrance to the site is the viharn (the building in which the laity pray.) The Grand Viharn at Chedi Luang was built in 1928 and it contains a statue of the standing Buddha, called Phra Chao Attarot, that was cast in the 14th century. A second viharn is on the backside (west side) of Chedi Luang and this houses a 28 foot long statue of the reclining Buddha (see picture at top of posting) and a statue of Phra Sangkachai, a contemporary of Lord Buddha who was known for his ability to explain dharma in an easy to understand fashion.
Wat Phra Singh
Wat Phra Singh is located on the western edge of the Old City. The Sunday Walking Street takes place on Rachadamnoen Road between Wat Phra Singh and the Phae Gate at the east side of the Old City.
Wat Phra Singh also dates back to the 14th century. The temple, however, was abandoned for two hundred years when Lanna was under the control of the Burmese.
The most spectacular part of Wat Phra Singh is the temple library (the Ho Trai.) Because Buddhist scriptures were often written on palm leaves, it was important to protect them from humidity and insects. Consequently, temple libraries were typically built on columns to keep them away from the ground.
The Ho Trai at Phra Singh is a beautiful example of classical Lanna architecture, e.g., the building elevated above the ground, with a sweeping roof and hand carved galae at the edges. This is one of the most beautiful buildings that we have seen in Thailand. On the exterior walls there are statues of dancing maidens (thewada.) There is gilding on the top portion of the building and the roof is multi-tiered. The steps leading up to the building are flanked and guarded by lions emerging from the mouths of a makara, a mythical creature that is half animal and half fish.
At the rear of the compound is an older viharn called Viharn Lai Kham. Lai Kham means “gold patterned” and that is clear to see in the picture below. This building dates back to 1345.
Wat Suan Dok
The map below shows the three temples that we visited in Chiang Mai. Point A is Wat Chedi Luang; B is Wat Phra Singh; and C is Wat Suan Dok. Since Suan Dok was built outside the Old City, it was not protected by the moat and walls. Consequently, when it was built in 1371, it was a fortified settlement.
Wat Suan Dok was the point from which Sumana dispatched the white elephant with the Buddha relic on its back, a journey that ultimately ended with the elephant dying at Doi Suthep. What makes Suan Dok a special place to visit is the beautiful chedi and the royal tombs.
The 48 meter (157 feet) tall chedi houses the piece of the broken relic that did not go up the mountain on the back of the elephant. Next to the chedi are the white-washed tombs that hold the cremated remains of many members of Chiang Mai’s former royal family. Both the chedi and many of the tombs have colored mosaics near their tops.
Happy Labor Day to my friends in the U.S.
Just 33 days until the puck drops for the 2011-12 NHL season!
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2011 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.