The temples of Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is home to over 300 Buddhist temples designed in a mixture of architectural styles that reflect the varied heritage of Northern Thailand.  Each temple is extravagently decorated with intricate woodcarvings, serpent staircases, gold trim, glass and mirror mosaic, elephants, gilded umbrellas, and buddhas in all shapes, sizes and materials.  Unlike the temples in Bangkok which are rarely more than 200 years old, many of the temples in Chiang Mai date back to the founding of the city itself, over 700 years ago.  

Outside the city, temples flank the hillsides like shiny beacons of light, including one of the most important temples in the area, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep.  Located about 20 km west of the city, this pilgrimage temple is also a popular tourist attraction.  According to legend, a Buddha relic magically replicated itself just before it was about to be enshrined in the big chedi at Wat Suan Dok. The “cloned” relic was placed on the back of a sacred white elephant, which was allowed to roam whereever it wanted. The elephant eventually climbed to the top of Suthep Mountain, trumpeted three times, turned around three times, knelt down and died. This was taken as a sign that this was the spot where the relic wanted to be, so King Ku Na built the original of the chedi on Doi Suthep at the end of 14th century.  

We visited this temple with a couple, Andy and Sue from the UK, who we met at our guest house. They invited us to join them on a day trip up the mountain and we were happy to tag along.  Leading the way on their motorbike, we putt putted behind them on our rented scooter, up the winding road to the top of the mountain where the temple was located.  Once we got the hang of it, navigating the turns turned into a lot of fun and I felt the carefree, exhilaration that motorcycle enthusiasts rave about.  

The temple sat at the top of almost 400 steps which were flanked by two green dragons that extend along the full length of the staircase.  It is said that every Thai must visit this temple at least once in their lifetime which may explain why there were so many locals and monks praying and making offerings.  The temple was beautiful, but I was a little put off by the crowds of tourists which gave the site a Disney-like appearance. 

On the way to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep,  our new friends
Sue and Andy pose with a view of Chiang Mai in the background.

The White Temple was our first stop on our way to Chiang Rai during a day trip in a rented car accompanied by Monique, our friend from our guest house, and Momo, a young man from Taiwan who we met a couple of days earlier in our Thai cooking class.  This temple was perhaps the most unusual temple we have seen thus far.  Parts of it were downright weird, like the sculpted heads hanging from the tree branches. It was beyond me what these represented.

It is a contemporary, unconventional Buddhist temple that is still a work in progress. The architect who began this project in 1996 asserts he doesn’t expect it to be completed until 90 years after his death.  True to its name, all the buildings in the temple complex are white, sparkling with mirrored mosaic tiles that are embedded in intricate patterns covering every square inch of surface.  In contrast, the building housing the toilets was made of gold.  I’m not sure if there was any significance to that.


There were plenty of other temples on the way to Chiang Rai, but it was impossible to stop for each one of them.  Our final destination on that trip was the Golden Triangle, where three countries – Thailand, Myanmar (Burma) and Laos – intersect at the confluence of the Mekong and Ruak Rivers.  Today this destination is popular amongst tourists, especially those needing to exit the country to renew their Thai visa (known as a “visa run”), but in the past, this area was the centre of one of the largest illicit opium growing regions in the world.

Monique at the entrance to a temple on the way to the Golden Triangle.

Posing with Momo, our young Taiwanese friend who we met
at the cooking class we attended. 

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3 Responses
  1. Jeanne says:

    I love following you guys , so interesting, better than any book!!
    Love you both Jeanne!!

  2. chris says:

    Thanks Jeanne! We’re glad that folks at home are still enjoying our adVennetures! Love you too!


  3. Heather Guse says:

    Phenomenal. That is all I can say. Chris…you are a photographer extraordinaire. I guess that you will consider getting Twin Motorbikes when you get back? LOL
    Take good care, as you are. You are living a dream. So happy for you!!