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What’s Up with Wats in Chiang Mai, Thailand?

by Suzanne Fluhr on March 14, 2014 · 59 comments

Seated and standing Buddhas at Wat Suan Dok, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Protective serpents (naga) guard a Buddhist shrine in an old city Chiang Mai temple complex.

Protective serpents (naga) guard a Buddhist shrine in an old city Chiang Mai temple complex.

Our 40 hour marathon trip from Philadelphia ended in Chiang Mai, a small city  in northern Thailand. After a decent night’s sleep in a real bed and a slow morning, we set off to find out what’s up with wats in this former capital of the ancient Lanna empire. (I was on the fence about engaging in any word play with “what’s” and “wats”. Obviously, my corny less mature side won out).

Anticipating (correctly) that we might be jet-lagged and feeling lost in a country with a foreign alphabet (this was the name of our street — ถนนราชมรรคา — ), I pre-booked an afternoon guided tour of Chiang Mai’s major wats for our first afternoon. Our English-speaking guide, a young woman named Meeow, and a van driver picked us up at our hotel. This turned out to be a private tour because no one else signed up.

Novice Buddhist monks at Maha Chulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya university chiang mai thailand

Novice Buddhist monks await the start of a meeting at the Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University on the grounds of the Wat Suan Dok complex in Chiang Mai. (This University must have a nickname!)

What is a Wat?

Our first question was, “What is a wat?” Meeow explained that a wat is a Buddhist temple complex, often accompanied by a Buddhist monastery and a monk training school. She told us that most Thai males do some period of Buddhist monk training, even if it’s just for three months. Poorer families often deliver their sons to the monastery at a young age for this training as it may be their only opportunity to have an education, so you see some quite young boys with shaved heads and orange robes.

Meeow explained that close to 95% of Thais are Theravada Buddhists. As in Christianity, Buddhism is divided into “denominations”, each with a somewhat different doctrine and rules. In Theravada Buddhism there is no worship of a supreme being, per se. However, Buddha is revered as a wise teacher who ultimately managed to achieve the completely enlightened state of Nirvana. Theravada Buddhists believe that we are doomed to a constant cycle of life (and its attendant suffering), death and rebirth until and unless we achieve Nirvana (the final, true enlightenment) which can only be accomplished through meditation and living the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

Shoe removal outside a Chiang Mai wat

Meeow and I retrieve our shoes after visiting a shrine while the guy with a sleeveless “what was I thinking?” T-shirt looks for a suitable robe.

As in western cultures, it seemed that in Thailand, much treasure, human genius and toil has been devoted to religious art and architecture. To a large degree, this is displayed in elaborate wats, often built by successive rulers and maintained by donations from the faithful and support by the Thai monarchy. There are over 300 wats in the Chiang Mai area. Meeow took us to three of the most important.

If you will be visiting wats (and you absolutely should be if you are touring Thailand, Cambodia, Laos or Myanmar), do yourself a favor and understand that respect for Buddha requires that you be appropriately attired. For men and women, this means your ankles and shoulders must be covered and you will be removing your shoes. If your clothing does not pass muster, robes will be provided or available for rent.

Wat Chedi Luang

Within the confines of Old City Chiang Mai, stand the ruins of Wat Chedi Luang. Construction of this temple pagoda (chedi) started in about 1400, but it was partially destroyed by an earthquake and flood in 1545. It has been only partially restored. Many ancient wats, with their gold painted stupas (monuments) are so well maintained that they look brand new. To me, Wat Chedi Luang seemed evocative of the veneration of Buddha through the ages.

temple at Wat Chedi Luang in Old City Chiang Mai

The ruined temple at Wat Chedi Luang in Old City Chiang Mai, still guarded by its naga and elephants.

Wat Suan Dok

Our second stop was at Wat Suan Dok located about one kilometer west of the Old City Chiang Mai moat. This site is even older than Wat Chedi Luang, construction having started in 1371. The impressive, gold painted main chedi stands 157.5 (48 meters) high and is said to contain a relic of the Buddha. The next door shrine holds several enormous Buddha statues with an intricately decorated ceiling and pillars. The various Buddhas are in different positions, each signifying another aspect of Buddha’s life and teachings. This Wat Suan Dok complex also contains a field of white stupas containing the ashes of members of the Lanna royal family.

Wat Suan Dok Buddhist Pagoda Chiang Mai Thailand

The main pagoda at the Wat Suan Dok complex said to contain a relic of Buddha.

Seated and standing Buddhas at Wat Suan Dok, Chiang Mai, Thailand

A 500 year old, gold painted, bronze seated Buddha inside the main shrine at Wat Suan Dok with a standing Buddha, facing the opposite direction, visible behind him. The people in the foreground reveal the massive scale.

While being enshrined within the pagoda at Wat Suan Dok, the Buddha relic is said to have mysteriously split into two pieces. The king of Chiang Mai in about 1383, used a sacred white elephant to transport the second piece of the holy relic. It is said the elephant walked to the top of nearby Mount Suthep where he laid down. The King determined that this was a sign as to where he was meant to build the Wat to house the relic.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

The main pagoda (chedi) at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

The impressive towering chedi at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

The last Wat we visited with Meeow is perhaps the most famous in the Chiang Mai area and is the one constructed starting in 1383 where the white elephant came to rest on Mount Suthep (alt. 5,499 feet, 1,383 m.). The road to the Wat spirals upward through deciduous, and then evergreen, forests. There are scenic viewpoints overlooking the city of Chiang Mai, the center of which is 15 kms. distant.

At the top, Meeow gave us the option of climbing the 309 steps to the Wat or taking the funicular. We wimped out and opted for the funicular. This impressive Wat is a popular destination for locals and tourists and so was quite crowded.

After we walked around the Wat and visited the ornate side chapels and large bells scattered around the site, we walked down the 309 steps. At the bottom, the street is lined with food stalls run by the local mountain tribes people.  Meeow took us to a jade factory and store. Although the items were lovely, we now pretty much confine our souvenir purchases to refrigerator magnets, so we passed and kept our hard-earned baht.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

The decorative roof of a side chapel at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

Buddha statues surrounding the chedi at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Many Buddha statues in various positions surround the chedi at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep












Where have you been impressed by religious art and/or architecture?

{ 54 comments… read them below or add one }

Doreen Pendgracs March 14, 2014 at 9:36 pm

Haven’t yet been to Thailand, but would certainly like to go. I can’t help but wonder if Meeow purred at all during the tour? (forgive me, I couldn’t resist.)


Suzanne Fluhr March 14, 2014 at 10:16 pm

Ding ding ding. I wondered how long it was going to take for someone to make a “cat” joke. It didn’t take long!


Jackie Humphries Smith March 14, 2014 at 10:29 pm

We do recall the stupendous wats in Bangkok and Chaing Mai from our visits there oh so long ago. In more recent travels it is those towering cathedrals of Europe that often take our breath away. A most interesting and informative tour, you gave us Suzanne, now it is time for you to go watch Hawaii 5-0. 😉


Suzanne Fluhr March 15, 2014 at 12:28 am

I have traveled enough in my Baby Boomer life at this point to realize how religion (all sorts of religions) have inspired so much of the great art, architecture and, indeed, music in the world— from the Maya, to the Egyptians, Buddhists and Europeans.


Heather - the kiwi travel writer March 14, 2014 at 11:40 pm

I’m stopping off in BKK for a week on my way back from Europe later this year … plan on visiting a now-finished huge buddha I saw being made in situ and then find a Wat where another I saw being sculpted and poured was to to be sent to … will be a good story to to before and after photos/blog.

this was a nice memory of my time in chang-mai


Suzanne Fluhr March 15, 2014 at 3:31 am

Heather, I hope the situation in Bangkok will have sorted itself out by the time you stop off there later this year. We were able to visit some places, but others were off limits because of the protests. I’ll keep a Boomer Travel Blogger eye out for your “Buddha — Before and After” post.


Patti Morrow March 14, 2014 at 11:50 pm

I really loved visiting the wats in Bangkok and Ayutthaya. The architecture is stunning and oh, those golden Buddha’s! Chiang Mai looks like it has its share of incredible wats, too. I like that you described the different divisions within Buddhism as well as the monk training of the young men. I have a really nice photo of four very young men in the orange robes.

(I was going to mention Meeow, but I thought that might be too catty.)


Suzanne Fluhr March 15, 2014 at 12:35 am

Oh dear. Something about Boomeresque appears to bring out our inner cornyness 😉

We also went to Ayutthaya which is a different type of experience since it was left in ruins by the invading Burmese—who are also Theravada Buddhists so you have to wonder why it was ok for them to try to destroy the Buddhist structures there. It took me a long time to figure out how to present Theravada Buddhism and Buddhism, in general. As I’m sure you know, it can get very complex.


Neva @ Retire for the Fun of it March 15, 2014 at 1:23 am

How interesting to learn the history of these buildings and loved your explanation about the Wats. You made me curious about your guide’s nickname being Meeow, so I did some searching.
“Nicknames from animals, or even from the sounds animals make. This tradition is also related to protecting the newborn child from the spirits, as calling the baby as if it were an animal was thought to be an effective way of tricking the spirits into leaving it alone.”
So some traditions continue.
Okay, I just have to say it. I hope Meeow’s boyfriend’s nickname isn’t “woof” since dogs and cats just don’t get along.


Suzanne Fluhr March 15, 2014 at 5:38 am

Wow, Neva. Thanks for sharing your research about Meeow’s name. I admit, I thought it sounded like “Meow”, obviously, and I used that as a mnemonic so I could remember her name, but I admit, it didn’t occur to me that it really did have something to do with a cat. Fascinating.


Paul Graham March 15, 2014 at 7:33 am

Wat a good article! As always its great to travel beyond the capital city and see more aspects of a country’s diversity. I am a deist but acknowledge that most of my favourite architecture pre-1920 was both financed and inspired by religion. Don’t worry about your post being late. So were most of these beautiful buildings and they too were worth the wait !


Suzanne Fluhr March 15, 2014 at 7:56 am

Hi Paul– At least you didn’t succumb to the temptation to pun around Meeow’s name. I caught the “wat” though. I’m beyond a deist, but I am moved by ecclesiastical art and music. I attend the Philadelphia Orchestra’s performance of Handel’s Messiah every year! Thank you to subscribing to the better late than never school.


Irene S. Levine March 15, 2014 at 8:35 am

Your pictures of Thailand really encourage me to visit! What a beautiful country~


Suzanne Fluhr March 15, 2014 at 10:31 am

And those are the tip of the iceberg, Irene. I think I should pin some others on Pinterest boards.


Michele Peterson March 15, 2014 at 8:42 am

Wow, I’d be totally lost if my street name was ถนนราชมรรคา – good for you to have thought of taking a tour to orient yourself in Chiang Mai and learn more about the wats! I was quite moved by the churches in Russia – I lived in St. Petersburg as a volunteer for a month in the dead of winter and the Church of Spilled Blood was just steps away. The era of the tsars was beginning to undergo a renaissance so the ancient churches were being restored. Their interiors with thousands of glowing candles, warm moist air and gold embellishments were such a contrast to the frigid cold and dark nights outside.


Suzanne Fluhr March 15, 2014 at 11:50 pm

Michele, have you written about your Saint Petersburg experience? That is one place in Russia I hope to visit one day. I always visit churches, mosques, synagogues, pyramids, etc. on our travels. We usually find something interesting or beautiful.


Arleen March 15, 2014 at 10:11 am

It has been many years since I have been in Thailand but the architecture has always stood out in my mind.plentiful temples and palaces. There is such a diversity from Bangkok’s Grand Palace to seeing some the rustic simplicity of village dwellings.

I thought that Buddhist architecture that was most spectacular was Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaeo which is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This temple contains more exquisite carving and decoration. Almost every surface is decorated.

Besides all the spectacular buildings and art are the gracious people.


Suzanne Fluhr March 15, 2014 at 10:34 am

We did have the chance to visit the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the Royal Palace in Bangkok. Yes, they are quite extraordinary. Yet, even simple, poor neighborhoods had their own wats and were proud of them. We also found the people charming. I felt that returning a namaste helped me connect with people—-they just probably thought I was a crazy American clasping my hands and bowing to them all the time.


Catarina March 15, 2014 at 10:30 am

Love wats. My favourite one is Wat Po in Bangkok. Or I should rather say was. When I worked three months in Thailand about 25 years ago I used to have my chauffeur drive me there on a regular basis to have a thai massage. It was marvellous to be in a temple and look at the beautiful surroundings and at the same time have a fantastic massage.


Suzanne Fluhr March 15, 2014 at 10:35 am

In Chiang Mai I didn’t hear about an massages being done at any wats, but they were being done a the women’s prison. We passed.


Donna Janke March 15, 2014 at 10:40 am

Amazing architecture. I enjoyed reading the background you provided on the temples. Hope to see them for myself some day.


Suzanne Fluhr March 15, 2014 at 11:52 pm

Donna, I also hope you have the chance to visit Thailand. You will definitely know that you have arrived somewhere different, but where you are welcome.


Roz Warren March 15, 2014 at 10:53 am

Enjoyed the photos. It sure doesn’t look like Bala Cynwyd!


Suzanne Fluhr March 16, 2014 at 12:17 am

Yes, Roz. Our trip to Southeast Asia definitely was 4 weeks of “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Philadelphia anymore” moments.


Meredith Wouters March 15, 2014 at 11:38 am

I love the way you sensitively describe the Buddhist faith. I don’t know much about it – I didn’t know there were denominations! When I was 9, we spent a year in China, so I’ve seen my share of temples there, but these look very different. Thanks for the virtual tour!


Suzanne Fluhr March 16, 2014 at 12:19 am

As I’m sure you realize, I barely scratched the surface of the complexities of Buddhism. We had been introduced to the notion that there are different types of Buddhism during a visit to Japan, but this was our first exposure to Theravada Buddhism.


Jacqueline Gum (Jacquie) March 15, 2014 at 11:50 am

Absolutely wonderful article! How very lovely of you to take us with you! My time in Thailand was limited to Bangkok. Though it was limited, I loved my wat mahathat experience in Bangkok. So I thank you for helping me remember it 🙂 Beautiful photos!


Suzanne Fluhr March 16, 2014 at 12:20 am

You’re like me. Once I’ve been somewhere, I enjoy learning more about it through other people’s travels and experiences.


Mike March 15, 2014 at 12:18 pm

Wow, there has been some sort of travel blogger, universal intersection at Chang Mai recently in my Internet clicks on the the blogs I follow. Wat is up with that? I really haven’t had much interest in Thailand but you finally convinced me to reconsider. I like what you said here, “As in western cultures, it seemed that in Thailand, much treasure, human genius and toil has been devoted to religious art and architecture.” It answered a whole bunch of questions. I’m not a religious person but highly spiritual in a lifelong belief in my Higher Power. Yet if I ever were to study a religion it would be Buddhism. My aunt gave a gift many years ago to read – “Life and Teaching of the Masters of the Far East”. It’s a 6 book series and I LOVED them and still have them too. I like your less mature side (I like all of your sides…hmm, did that come out right?) – so more please! 🙂


Suzanne Fluhr March 15, 2014 at 11:56 pm

Mike, some of my sides are better than others — seriously 😉 Chiang Mai has become a “go to” destination for expats. The cost of living is much lower than in the US, Europe or Australia and Chiang Mai feels much more manageable than Bangkok in size and the pace of life — not to mention the climate. Being further north and higher in altitude than Bangkok, Chiang Mai is cooler, but still very comfortable.


maxwell ivey March 15, 2014 at 1:42 pm

thanks for an entertaining article about your trip to tyland. I am blind, so I couldn’t appreciate all the wonderful photos; but your descriptions were first rate. so where are you going next? I am not generally big on architecture but I can enjoy art as long as i have a good companion to describe it to me. thanks again and take care, Max


Suzanne Fluhr March 16, 2014 at 12:00 am

Thanks for stopping by, Max. After our two weeks traveling independently in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Hong Kong, we went on a cruise that visited Vietnam, southern Thailand and Singapore. So, I have lots more to write about. We then arrived in Honolulu where we’ve hunkered down as my husband is doing a sabbatical here. We certainly picked a good winter to not be in our hometown of Philadelphia.


Viv and Jill March 15, 2014 at 2:04 pm

Great photos that bring back fond memories of Chiang Mai – it’s such a fascinating place.


Suzanne Fluhr March 16, 2014 at 12:01 am

I followed along on Facebook and your blog when you were there, so I was excited to see Chiang Mai for myself.


Mike (Nomadic Texan) March 15, 2014 at 7:05 pm

I wasn’t fortunate enough to get to Chiang Mai in November, but we visited many Wats in Bangkok and Phuket on our trip. I haven’t been in Thailand in quite a while and was impressed with how kind and gentle the majority of the population is. I also noticed that the practicing Buddhists never missed an opportunity to display their reverence, by making a prayer gesture in the direction of each and every Wat we passed. We did a deep Thai massage the first day after our long trip and I fully believe it helped our jet lag. Can’t wait to visit Chinag Mai my next trip to Thailand!


Suzanne Fluhr March 16, 2014 at 12:03 am

Mike, I think you’ll like Chiang Mai. Even though it’s one of the larger cities in Thailand, it is several orders of magnitude less intense than Bangkok.


Patti March 15, 2014 at 7:42 pm

And I thought the street signs in Paris were tough! Yikes! This part of the world has never been on our radar, but I have a great appreciation for the culture and history of the area. Chiang Mai definitely seems to be the starting place for those who visit southeast Asia. And when in doubt I always believe it’s good to go with the less mature approach. 😉


Jay March 15, 2014 at 8:26 pm

very nice write up. I alays wanted to go there but I have never gottent the chance to go yet. Maybe one day so for now I will have to live with the great descriptions that you left us with. Thanks for sharing


Suzanne Fluhr March 16, 2014 at 12:07 am

Yes, I’m glad we started in Chiang Mai and were able to somewhat ease into the time zone and culture without having to deal with a major world city also. It’s definitely more confusing to get around when you do not know the alphabet in a country. In some big cities (i.e. Tokyo and Taipei), major road signs are also in English, but after that, you have to figure out a way to get around. I must say, we managed quite well everywhere we visited. People wanted to be helpful. I’m glad you weren’t offended (and even endorse) some display of slight immaturity. 😉


Corey March 16, 2014 at 5:22 pm

Terrific travelogue, and droll commentary. Pictures are fantastic. Hope Dr. Excitement enjoyed the trip as much as you have. You should submit this as an article to the Philadelphia Inquirer.


Suzanne Fluhr March 16, 2014 at 6:55 pm

Thanks. Dr. Excitement does seem to have an affinity for Wats also.


noel March 17, 2014 at 2:12 pm

It’s a good thing you only saw three temples, i was completely temptled out when I visited Chang Mai, but the golden temple and views are quiet spectacular….I remember all the amazing cheap Thai massages after those really long walks in Chang Mai


Suzanne Fluhr (Just One Boomer) March 18, 2014 at 4:38 am

Mr. Excitement kept saying he was going to get a massage “tomorrow”. Apparently, tomorrow never happened.


Becc March 17, 2014 at 8:05 pm

Unlike many Australians, I have not been to Thailand. I have pretty much had my fill of Asian countries as I have been to so many, but you may have turned my head. I have often thought about going, but somewhere else has been more enticing. Your trip looks fascinating.


Suzanne Fluhr (Just One Boomer) March 18, 2014 at 4:39 am

There’s lots to do and see on Thailand. The rest of the country is a lot lower key than Bangkok.


Jeri March 18, 2014 at 2:53 pm

I’ve yet to visit any Eastern civilizations in my travels, but this post makes me very hungry to do so. I only set foot in Asia via crossing the Bosporus in Istanbul, but that doesn’t really count…


Suzanne Fluhr (Just One Boomer) March 18, 2014 at 4:05 pm

Jeri–IMHO, it counts, but you have lots more of Asia to visit!


Tam Warner Minton March 23, 2014 at 11:36 am

I just returned from Bangkok, Phuket, and Myanmar. The wats are spectacular, there is no other word for it. The religious art and architecture is stunning. I loved being there, and I hope to return to Chiang Mai someday!


Suzanne Fluhr March 23, 2014 at 2:17 pm

We met quite a few people during our travels who recommended visiting Myanmar. I’ve seen some amazing photos of Wats there.


MightyTravels April 1, 2014 at 11:01 pm

Exploring the temples in Thailand is my favorite past time. I recently went to Wat Saket in Bangkok and loved it!

Btw – just followed you on Twitter as well – please keep it up! Torsten


Suzanne Fluhr April 2, 2014 at 9:08 pm

Thanks, Torsten. When you’re finished exploring wats in Thailand, head on over to Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. So many wats, so little time.


MightyTravels April 4, 2014 at 9:58 pm

Hehe – will do Suzanne!


Montecristo Travels (Sonja) June 28, 2014 at 6:14 pm

After finding out that getting Montecristo into Thailand would be easy … we are actually thinking of going next year! First time ever for any of us in that part of the world!


Jayashri N. Mane January 8, 2017 at 11:55 am

Just visited Thailand, Cambodia and India.
I vividly relived the places I visited in Thailand through your write up.
Keep writing, it’s informative, humorous and makes feel good inside.


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