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Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Chiang Mai

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Chiang Mai, Thailand's second largest city, is also unquestionably the most beautiful, its location earning it the soubriquet of "Pearl (or Rose) of the North". It sits at the foot of Doi Pui (1685 m (5530 ft)), one of the highest mountains in the Indo-Chinese range, in a sheltered, mountain-ringed and fertile basin irrigated by water from the Menam Ping.

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National Museum

Opened in 1972, Chiang Mai National Museum (a little further north along the Super Highway has many fine sculptures in the Chiang Mai, Dvaravati, Lopburi, U Thong and Sukhothai styles (mainly the former), also terracottas from Haripunchai. The footprint of Buddha with mother-of-pearl intarsia also deserves mention. The upper floor houses a collection of tools and other artifacts used by the hill tribes.
Address: Chiang Mai-Lampang Super Highway, Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai 50300, Thailand

Temples

Tall Stupa against the bright sky.
Chiang Mai has nearly 200 temples, nearly all of which warrant a visit by anyone interested in art history. This is true even of the more recently built ones, the artistry and sensitivity to form shown by modern Thai craftsmen being in no way inferior to those of earlier centuries. Only the most important and beautiful can be mentioned here, the selection nevertheless illustrating well the rich art historical and religious heritage of Thailand's northern capital.

Wat Phra Singh

Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Mai dates back to 1345.
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.

Wat Suan Dok

Wat Suan Dok.
In Suthep Road west of the city stands the famous Wat Suan Dok ("dok" means flower garden). The story of its foundation, closely linked with that of Wat Doi Suthep, is woven around with legend. The big, bell-shaped, snow-white, central chedi, Ceylonese in style, houses one half of a miraculous relic only the size of a pea. The relic was found by a monk called Sumana, concealed in a receptacle hidden away inside a series of silver and coral "Chinese boxes" contained in a bronze casket. It came into the hands of King Kuna of Chiang Mai (1355-85) who had the chedi built to house it. In 1383 the relic miraculously divided itself into two pieces, each growing back to the original size. Wat Doi Suthep was therefore built to house the second piece.
The variously shaped, glistening white chedis in the courtyard contain the ashes of members of the royal family.
The bot in Wat Suan Dok is graced by an exceptionally fine, 6-m (20- ft) high Buddha in the Chiang Mai style (cast in about 1550). The wiharn, built as an open hall in 1932, is the largest religious assembly room in northern Thailand. The interior has richly ornamented columns and ceilings, two Buddhas standing back-to-back, and various other painted images of the Enlightened One. Note also the palace-shaped reliquary containing the ashes of Phra Si Wichai, the monk at whose instigation the wiharn was built.

Wat Buakkhrok Luang

The San Khamphaeng road, along which many crafts have retail outlets, also leads to Wat Buakkhrok Luang, one of Chiang Mai's loveliest but least known temples. The wat has a wonderful teak wiharn in the Lan Na style (late 13th c.). Divided into three aisles by rows of teak columns, it houses a fine statue of Buddha in the Chiang Saen-style; the old murals and the carved doors are also superb. To the left of the wiharn stands a beautiful bot. Up until 1988, when it was destroyed in a storm, there was a replica of this temple in Phayao.

Wat Pha Pong

The magnificent Wat Pha Pong is entered through finely articulated gates. Several chedis encircle a pretty pavilion, with steps leading up to a chapel inside. The façade of the square building, adorned with round-arched windows and pilasters, shows Chinese as well as Burmese influence. In addition to its statues of Buddha, the three-aisled interior is decorated with murals.

Wat Chet Yot

Of all Chiang Mai's temples, Wat Doi Suthep (or Wat Phra That Doi Suthep,) is perhaps the most magnificent. On the way to see it, leaving the city by Huai Kaeo Road in the north-west corner, Wat Chet Yot and several other places of interest such as Chiang Mai zoo can also be visited.
Wat Chet Yot, sometimes called Mahabodharama or Photharama Wiharn, is located north-west of the city close to the Super Highway. Founded by King Tiloka in 1454 it was, for a hundred years or so, the most splendid temple precinct in the whole of Lan Na. Afterwards, having been ravaged by the Burmese, it was abandoned to the jungle, its fortunes reviving only in the 1950s when it was considered worth restoring. Tiloka's successors altered and enlarged it several times, leaving it lacking in any clearly discernible style.
Completed in 1455 the chedi with the seven spires from which the temple takes its name was modeled (though not entirely faithfully) on the Mahabodhi Temple in Buddh Gaya, the small Indian town where Buddha attained enlightenment. Many details, e.g. the decoration on the doors, reflect the Indian original. The tall central spire houses a stucco figure of Buddha, and there is a prayer room beneath. Despite centuries of neglect the surprisingly well-preserved stucco work adorning the walls (depicting deities in various poses) is quite exceptional, the detail in particular being finely executed. Tiloka's ashes are interred in a somewhat smaller square brick stupa erected by his grandson in 1486. In 1477 Wat Chet Yot witnessed a gathering of the Buddhist Council which Tiloka summoned to celebrate the bimillennium of Buddhism. This great event was probably the principal reason for building the temple.

Wat Chedi Luang

Evening at the Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai.
The ruined but nevertheless impressive brick chedi, oldest of the buildings in the spacious precinct of Wat Chedi Luang, collapsed during an earthquake in 1545. The massive base - unusually constructed in a combination of brick and laterite - gives only an inkling of the chedi's once towering height (90 m (295 ft)). Its story began in 1401 with the erection of a small chedi in memory of San Muang Ma, who died in that year. This was later enlarged, first by his widow and then again by King Tiloka his grandson (the pagoda at Bodhgaya in India being taken as a model). Fine elephant heads and carvings of Buddha can still be seen in the niches. The famous Emerald Buddha (now in Wat Phra Kaeo in Bangkok) is reputed to have stood at one time in the niche on the east side.
Guarding the entrance to the large wiharn with its triple-tiered roof and highly ornate gables, are two magnificent rhinoceros-nosed serpents, their scales made out of brightly glazed tiles. They are quite the most splendid to be seen in Thailand. As well as a number of small statues and some elaborately carved elephant tusks, the wiharn contains three bronze statues of Buddha cast in 1440.
Most of the well-proportioned chedis in the outer court house cremation urns.
Beneath a huge gum tree on the left of the entrance to the precinct stands a delightful little temple, the Lak Muang. Built in 1940 on the site of an earlier wooden building, the shrine is the abode of Chiang Mai's guardian spirit (Lak Muang). According to tradition, if the great tree should fall, disaster will overtake the city.

Wat Chiang Man

Wat Chiang Man in Ratchaphakinai Road, the oldest of Chiang Mai's monasteries, was built by King Mengrai in 1296 even before the city itself was founded. The king probably lived here while his palace was being completed.
Although restored many times over the years the wiharn still retains its original appearance. The double-tiered roof, embellished with darting nagas, falls low in a slight curve towards the ground. Note the elaborately carved gables above the main entrance, the latter flanked by two lions. A tablet with an inscription in Thai marks the spot where King Mengrai is said to have died in 1317.
The interior of the wiharn, divided by teak columns into three aisles, contains two Buddha images of particular note, the first being a large gilded statue and the second a replica bas-relief of the sacred Buddha Sila - the original of which, held in safe keeping by the abbot, is brought out only once a year for a special ceremony. Believed to date from the 8th c., and Indian in style, it is credited with rainmaking powers.
Also kept under lock and key by the abbot is the Phra Sal Tang Kamani, the rock crystal figure on a gold base known as the Crystal Buddha. It was probably presented to Chama Thevi, Queen of Haripunchai, in 663, and was carried off by King Mengrai after the fall of Haripunchai in 1281. Wat Chiang Man boasts in addition a chedi supported on a base of fifteen stone elephants, the upper section being clad in gilded copper. There is a small bot, and a modern sala.

Wat Prachao Mengrai

Founded in 1288, Wat Prachao Mengrai (in Ratchamankha Road, opposite Wat Chedi Luang) was renamed in 1953, having previously been known as Wat Kan Kawd. The wat's chief treasure, housed in a small sanctum of its own, is a 4.5 m (15 ft) statue of Buddha cast in 1320 and said to be a likeness of King Mengrai, founder of Chiang Mai. Also of interest are a Buddha image from Chiang Saen and a lovely reading desk, both in the wiharn.

Wat Chetawan

Situated a few hundred meters outside the city's east gate, Wat Chetawan is noteworthy for its three impressive, heavily articulated chedis, two decorated with fabulous beasts from Hindu mythology and all three inlaid with gold and colored tiles which sparkle in the sun. Keep a look out also for the superb wood carvings on the wiharn.

Wat Mahawan

Wat Mahawan, almost directly opposite Wat Chetawan, on the other side of Tha Phae Road, boasts a very beautifully articulated chedi in the Burmese style topped by a gilded spire. Huge statues of lions adorn the four corners of the enclosure. Both the wiharn and the small chapel are ornately carved, reliefs on the doors depicting scenes from Buddha's life.

Wat Saen Fang

On Tha Phae Road is the unpretentious entrance leading to the delightful Wat Saen Fang. A narrow alley flanked by two serpents opens into a picturesque precinct with a beautifully kept garden, lovely chedi in the Burmese style and a wiharn with richly gilded carving on the façades.

Chedi Chang Phuak

In the north of the city, 300 m (990 ft) from Chang Phuak bus station) stand the ruined Chedi Chang Phuak and Wat Ku Tao, the latter having a rather unusual chedi built in 1613. The upper section above the square, tiered base consists of a series of interlocked spheres diminishing in size (and probably symbolizing alms bowls).
Each is embellished with niches and clad in colorful glazed tiles laid in geometric patterns, the whole being crowned with a delicate spire. This curious and most unusual stupa is believed to contain the ashes of the Burmese Prince Tarawadi. Some ancient carvings survive on the gable of the wiharn. The bot is a 20th c. addition.

Wat Umong

Wat Umong, situated west of Wat Suan Dok in forested surroundings just off and a little further along Suthep Road, was founded by King Mengrai for the benefit of a much revered phra (monk). Later, King Kuna (1355-85) added an underground chamber for use by another phra, where the latter could devote himself to meditation completely undisturbed. Remains of frescos can still be seen on the walls of the vault. The monastery, belonging to a strict Ceylonese Buddhist order, has served ever since as a refuge for monks living in retreat - recognizable by their dark robes.
Part of the temple complex functions by contrast as a meeting-place for people of all nationalities interested in Buddhism. The original chedi, built when the wat was founded, has collapsed. The other buildings, which include a Pali school, monks' quarters and library, are of recent date.

Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center

Despite its name the "Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center" (on Highway 108, South) has nothing to do with the history of Chiang Mai, being the brain-child of an enterprising businessman. It is a reconstruction of a hill-tribe village, members of various tribes (Karen, Lisu, Akha, Yao) living in traditional huts, wearing traditional dress and working with traditional tools. Craft items such as jewelry and fabrics are sold in the village shops. Khan Toke dinners (as they are called), i.e. meals composed of typical north Thailand dishes, are served in the evening, accompanied by traditional tribal dancing. Many of the tours arranged by travel agencies include a visit to the Center.
Address: 185/3 Wualai Rd, Haiya, Chiang Mai 50100, Thailand

Elephant Monument

In Chang Phuak Road near the city's north (White Elephant) gate, a plain monument erected by King Saen Muang at the end of the 13th c. commemorates two loyal comrades in arms who saved his life when the elephant carrying him into battle during the war with Ayutthaya was killed. The two were afterwards ennobled. The White Elephant Gate takes its name from the monument.
Near the monument, a radio mast stands sentinel over the ruins of a collapsed 15th c. chedi, originally in the Lan Na style. Note the fragments of reliefs surviving on the central part.

Gates

The Tha Phae Gate in Chiang Mai.
The old walled city is no longer the heart of Chiang Mai today, the new town center being situated just to the east, closer to the Menam Ping. Four of the five original city gates - Tha Phae (east), Suan Dok ("Flower Garden", west), Chang Phuak ("White Elephant", north) and San Poong (south-west) - have been rebuilt from designs based on old models.

Night Market

Every evening Tha Phae Road and Chang Klan Road, between the east gate and the Menam Ping, are transformed into a huge street market with a multitude of stalls selling food, fabrics and typical local products (mainly from the hill tribes). There are also numerous small, mostly open-air, restaurants from which the colorful atmosphere can be imbibed.

Tribal Research Centre and Museum

Chiang Mai University, opened in 1965, is also situated north-west of the city on the way to Wat Doi Suthep. The university's Tribal Research Center and Museum is dedicated to the study of the hill tribes, and to ensuring their survival and that of their culture. The museum provides an interesting insight into the lives of the hill peoples. Examples of their craftwork are also on display.

Chiang Mai Zoo

The botanic garden, beyond the university, contains a wealth of exotic plants including orchids. The neighboring zoo, Thailand's largest, is well worth a visit, concentrating on native south Asian animals and rare species of birds and butterflies.
Official site: www.chiangmaizoo.com
Address: 100 Heaykeaw Road, Tambol, Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai 502000, Thailand

Wat Doi Suthep

Doi Suthep temple in Chiang Mai.
Wat Doi Suthep (altitude 1053 m (3456 ft) lies amid delightful scenery below the summit of Doi Pui (1685 m (5530 ft)). Access from Chiang Mai is by road - car or bus - along the winding 1004. A rewarding detour on foot from the car park (bus terminal) leads to the attractively situated Nam Tok Huai waterfall. At the point where the road begins to rise sharply to the temple, a monument commemorates Phra Si Wichai, the monk on whose initiative in 1934 the first road was built. He raised the money among the people of Chiang Mai, and they helped construct the road.
The final lap is completed either on foot or by the little rack railway. A huge staircase of 306 steps, adorned with copper plaques engraved with the names of donors, and flanked by balustrades in the shape of two seven-headed nagas writhing upwards, climbs to the temple's spacious terrace. From here the views over the city and the surrounding countryside are magnificent.
The wat is named after a devout monk called Vasuthep, believed to have been a hermit living on the site. According to legend, when the sacred relic in Wat Suan Dok miraculously split in two, King Kuna resolved to build a shrine to house the second fragment. The monk Sumana, who had discovered the relic in the first place, advised him to place the tiny object in an altar secured to the back of a white elephant, letting the animal roam free. Making its way up the mountain, the elephant lay down at the very place where Vasuthep lived and when the relic was taken from the altar, the animal died. So Kuna erected his temple on that precise spot and built a little chedi over the place where the elephant was buried (near the forestry office bungalow).
To the right of the platform at the foot of the great, naga-embellished staircase, stands a statue of the Earth goddess Thorani (symbol of the Earth's creative power) wringing water from her hair. Brahmanical tradition tells how Mara ("the evil one") and his demons led the meditating Buddha into temptation, whereupon Thorani appeared and, wringing water from her hair, washed the demon army away.
The entrance to the temple precinct proper is guarded by statues of two demons with, at the side, little open spirit houses. Generally only two of the six gates leading to the gallery and the chedis are open. The gallery itself is adorned with statues of Buddha in the Chiang Mai and Sukhothai styles; note also the recent paintings decorating the walls, depicting scenes from Buddha's life. Incorporated into the gallery are two wiharns, one opposite the other, both façades being embellished with superb carvings.
Wat Doi Suthep's central shrine contains a much revered seated Buddha.
Every eye is irresistibly drawn however to the glittering gold chedi, 20 m (66 ft) high and crowned with a five-tier roundel. The entire chedi is sheathed in ornate gilded copper. At each of the four corners of the railing around it stands a small, elaborately sculpted altar and graceful filigree canopy in copper gilt.
On the north side of the precinct, outside the perimeter gallery, there is a delightful, richly decorated little chapel of recent date. In the courtyard hangs a large bronze bell surrounded by three smaller ones. Note also the little altar which carried the relic on the elephant's back, and the bust of the hermit Vasuthep.
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