Chiang Mai was founded in 1296 and the Old City, just one square mile, is surrounded by a moat and a few remaining ruins of ancient walls. There are over 300 Buddhist temples, or wats, in Chiang Mai and thirty of them reside within the confines of the moat. We would discover that several were just blocks from where we were staying at U Chiang Mai, a boutique hotel located on Ratchadamnoen Road where the city’s famous Sunday night street market takes place. The street-facing façade of the U Chiang Mai has a pond of water you walk through on concrete slabs, backed by a solid wall reminiscent of the walls and moat of the Old City itself, and provided a peaceful, protected retreat even at this busy, action-packed address.
Our first morning in Chiang Mai we stepped outside with a map in hand but really with the intent to just allow our feet and eyes to lead us. Only one block later we came to our first wat, Wat Phan Tao. A smaller temple, it still proved to be a fascinating example of the ornate architecture, colorful mosaics and golden Buddhas we would soon become accustomed to seeing. The viharn, which is the assembly hall, is constructed of teak panels which were formerly part of a royal residence on the site, with a three-tiered roof with gilded snake chofas, or roof finials. Wat Phan Tao is one of the oldest temples in the city, with its first structures built towards the end of the fourteenth century while the viharn was built later in 1876. The temple’s name means “temple of a thousand kilns” and is thought to be a reference to the ovens used to cast Buddha images for Wat Chedi Luang, a temple on whose grounds Wat Phan Tao occupies a corner of.
Since they are neighbors, Wat Chedi Luang, which means “temple of the big stupa,” was by default our next destination. The centerpiece is a large brick chedi, or stupa, which is a mound or semi-hemispherical structure containing Buddhist relics and ashes of monks similar to an Egyptian pyramid. This one dates back to 1391 but was left in ruins after an earthquake in 1545. Although its spire was destroyed, at sixty meters tall the ruined chedi remained the tallest structure in Chiang Mai until more recent times. A friend of a friend of a friend had told us to make sure when we visited it that we walk around to the back and look up for a surprise. We did as we were instructed and were greeted by a herd of stone elephants – recently restored in 1992 – that were standing guard to protect the chedi’s precious contents. Historically, one of the most important items stored in the chedi was the Emerald Buddha which, according to legend, was created in India in 43 BC and ended up in Thailand many countries and centuries later, and is believed to bring prosperity to those that possess it. The Emerald Buddha, which is actually made of jadeite and is called emerald because of its color and not its material, is housed today on the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
The grounds around the Wat Chedi Luang form a large complex and contain several structures, including a large viharn built in 1928 which houses a standing Buddha, known as Phra Chao Attarot, dating from the fourteenth century, while outside is a pavilion with an impressively large reclining Buddha in addition to other Buddha images, animals from the Chinese zodiac, bells and plenty of living, breathing orange-robed monks going about their daily business.
A few more blocks and a fresh fruit shake later and we found ourselves at Wat Phra Singh, Temple of the Lion Buddha, which is also home to over 700 monks and novices. The largest viharn on the grounds houses Phra Chao Thong Tip, a large image of the seated Buddha cast in 1477, while the smaller Viharn Lai Kham, built in 1345 and considered one of the finest examples of Lanna monastic architecture, houses Phra Singh, the Lion Buddha. Chiang Mai’s most revered Buddha image, the Lion Buddha is taken out and carried through the streets of the city during the Songkran festival, a celebration of the New Year, and passers-by sprinkle water on the image as a means to honor it. However, I was most mesmerized by several eerily life-like statues of venerated monks. Knowing that an experienced monk can sit for hours at a time, I had to screw up a bit of courage to get up close enough to determine for certain if I was looking at a statue or a real person sitting ever-so-still.
There’s a mood of serenity and reverence felt in Chiang Mai’s wats despite the colorful, gilded opulence and the many tourists vying for photo ops, likely because the majority of tourists appeared to be Buddhist as we witnessed them kneeling in prayer, delivering offerings, and getting blessed by the monks. It changes the atmosphere, even for the non-Buddhist visitor, knowing the structures and images hold meaning beyond historical and aesthetic interest. Nonetheless, by the afternoon in the heat of the day, we’d had our fill. We noticed a few market stalls setting up nearby so we walked down a shady pedestrian walkway and picked up some delicious Thai-style donuts for a little pick-me-up, followed by a jolt of Thai iced coffee in the air-conditioned comfort of a local coffee shop, as we made our way back to our hotel. It was time for a little rest and then to freshen up before the upcoming evening adventure – a much-anticipated Sunday night on Ratchadamnoen Road.