Chiang Mai's largest and most important temple, Wat Phra Singh, stands at what was the center of the old city, the main thoroughfare, Ratchadamnoen Road, leading directly to the precinct. It was built in 1345 by King Pa Yo whose father's ashes are preserved in the big chedi behind the wiharn.
The wiharn, built in 1518, has superb wood carvings on both gables, these however being of later origin.
The exquisite little 14th c. library, in front of the wiharn to the right, is with justice regarded as a jewel of Thai architecture. Fine stucco work, intricately patterned and also with figures, decorates the white lower section, the red and gold woodwork surmounting it being ornately carved and further embellished with inlay.
The small bot next to the chedi was constructed about 1600 and therefore during the period of Burmese occupation (which presumably accounts also for the numerous lions, typical of Burmese temple architecture, which guard the entrance to the wat). The well-preserved frescos with their lively pictures date from the 19th c. They tell the story of Princess Phra Sang Tong (born in a golden shell), while at the same time depicting the everyday lives of royalty and the household of a palace. The garments and the postures again suggest Burmese influence.
The wat's most sacred shrine is a small, well-proportioned building beyond the bot, called the Phra Wiharn Lai Kam. It was erected during the reign of King San Muang Ma (1385-1401) to house the famous, now sadly headless, Sukhothai-style figure known as the Phra Singh Buddha. According to tradition the Buddha, in the familiar "calling the earth to witness" pose, came to Thailand from Ceylon, finding its way first to Ayutthaya and then to Kamphaeng Phet, Chiang Rai, Luang Prabang and back again to Ayutthaya before, in 1767, arriving in Chiang Mai where it has been ever since. There is some doubt however as to its authenticity. Both Nakhon Si Thammarat and the National Museum in Bangkok possess identical figures and, with the experts not yet able to rule authoritatively on the matter, all three lay claim to be the original.
Also of interest are two other figures, this time dating from the end of the 15th c. Both are bronze, one large, the other inlaid with precious stones; both again show the Enlightened One in the "calling the earth to witness" pose.