Chiang Mai Series: Getting Smitten by the Old City's Charm and the Buddhist Way of Life

by - 3:00 PM

wat chedi luang

As the bell tolled to signal the start of a brand new day, I found myself wandering around the streets of the Old City in Chiang Mai. We were here for just a couple of days and yet I felt I lived here for ages. So many things had happened though I think there's still more to Chiang Mai than what we've seen. 

There are no packaged tours and tourist maps that could ever pinpoint you to incredible experiences better than just allowing yourself to get lost. Because more often than not, the more you let go of the security that comes with knowing, the more you discover the joys and beauty of surprises and pleasant discoveries.

Such was the case when we stumbled upon these beautiful and charming temples (whether by accident or by purpose) as we aimlessly walked around the Old City of Chiang Mai.

Wat Saen Muang Mai Luang
wat saen muang mai luang

Arriving early morning in Chiang Mai with no plans on where to go, we decided to walk around the still quiet side streets of the Old City. The weather was cold and the people were just waking up so it wasn't that much of a problem walking around the temples completely devoid of people (except for dogs who were looking at us like we were their next meal, lol).

The very first temple we explored was Wat Saen Muang Mai Luang.
wat saen muang mai luang
Upper Picture: Even the windows of the temple have intricate gold design. Lower Left: The very impressive Wat Saen Muang Mai Luang ordination hall. Lower Right: The stupa made of bricks.
wat saen muang mai luang
Stupa = dome-shaped Buddhist structure, Wat = Buddhist monastery or temple
Otherwise known as Wat Hua Khwuang, Wat Saen Muang Mai Luang was a beautiful Burmese temple found at the northern side of the old walled city in Chiang Mai. The hostel we booked was somewhere near the northern moat so naturally this was was the first temple we chanced upon. 

wat saen muang mai luang

This huge complex houses several buildings and wats (temples) of impressive, intricate patterns and designs that made our jaws dropped in awe. The complex looked like it was recently renovated as the paint didn't looked weathered by time. I was greatly amazed at how they put so much effort designing the place down to the minutest detail.

wat chiang man

Right around the corner from Wat Saen Muang Mai Luang was Wat Chiang Man. Though less ornate than the other, Wat Chiang Man prides itself of the record as the oldest temple built in Chiang Mai. Built in 1297, the structures inside the complex were still well-preserved and were in excellent condition. 

wat chiang man, chedi chang chom, elephant chedi
At the center is the Elephant Chedi while at the back of it (right side of the picture) is the  Main Wihan.

Chedi Chang Chom 
The complex houses several important structures, foremost of which was the Elephant Chedi, also known as Chedi Chang Chom. The Elephant Chedi was built in the 15th century and was restored around the 1900s and considered as the oldest structure inside the complex. 
wat chiang man, chedi chang chom, elephant chedi

The Lanna-Singhalese style Chedi was surrounded with 15 elephants whose other half of the body seemed to be emerging out of the stupa which I didn't notice at first not until I went closer to touch it. Towards the tip of the chedi was a chamber for relics and was coated in gold. Such a beautiful structure in its own right.

Main Wihan

wat chiang manThe larger of the two wihans housed an altar that was surrounded by Buddha statues, foremost of which was a statue of Buddha dated 1465 CE. This was believed to be the oldest statue of Buddha with an alms bowl in all of Thailand and the entire Lanna Kingdom.

Small Wihan
The smaller wihan also has two important statues of Buddha -  the Phra Sae Tang Khamani and the Phra Sila. The Phra Sae Tang Khamani, also known as Crystal Buddha, was made of clear quartz crystal while the Phra Sila was a bas relief stele made up of stone.

Other notable structures inside the complex were the Ubosot, Ho Trai, and the lotus pond. In front of the Ubosot you will find a marker that shows April 12, 1296 CE as the oldest mention of the founding day of Chiang Mai. Wat Chiang Man was one of the only two temples in Old City Chiang Mai that has a lotus pond.

wat pan tao

This was probably my favorite Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai because it was way different from all the other temples we'd been to. Instead of the usual shimmery facade of red and gold, what we saw instead was a large wooden wiharn made of teak. Once I got inside, it felt like I was transported back in time.

wat pan tao

We first stumbled upon this temple on the night of the Sunday Walking Street Market but I was able to fully appreciate her beauty when I saw her just as the sun was rising in the east. A dozen or so young monks, clad in their orange robes, were entering the hall where a peacock was engraved on the entrance. 

wat pan tao

According to history, Wat Chang Man served the nearby palace along with Wat Chedi Luang, thereby making this as one of the oldest temples in Chiang Mai. The wooden wiharn was made out of recycled wood from the old palace because apparently, a new king preferred to have his own new palace made. This interesting piece of history will probably explain why a peacock was engraved at the entrance; for it is said that the peacock was a symbol of the kings of Chiang Mai. 

wat chedi luang

Wat Chedi Luang, also known as the "Temple of the Great Stupa", was probably the grandest temple we've been to so far. Grand in a way that its towering structure, though ruined, still exuded that powerful atmosphere of respect and importance. Built in 1441, this was considered to be the largest and probably the oldest temple at that time which served as a temple for the kings in the Lanna Kingdom.

wat chedi luang

The temple also used to hold the most important and revered emerald Buddha in all of Thailand for about a century before it was moved to Luang Prabang in Laos. What stood today was just a replica of the original emerald Buddha, given by the king to commemorate its 600th anniversary.
wat chedi luang

The complex also housed two wihans. The smaller one was of simpler design with intricate wood carvings while the larger wihan was much more impressive with its three-tiered roof and a facade of golden colors. On the right side of the larger wihan, we found trees lined with quotes -- a great reminder to practice the lessons taught in Buddhism. Aside from the two wihans, the site also has a small building, the Sao Inthakin, which housed the city pillar. Outside of Sao Inthakin were three really big Dipterocarp trees which were also believed to be protecting the city. 

It also came as a surprise to us that we could actually converse with monks at a certain time of the day (9am to 6pm), which for me was a great way to have a cultural exchange rather than just watching them from a distance.

Early Morning Alms Offering to Buddhist Monks 
monks, buddhism

The bright orange robes of the monks glistening against the temple's dark wooden facade caught my eye and it felt surreal to have witnessed such a wonderful cultural experience. I've been curious about how people from different parts of the world, of different backgrounds and religions, live. And it was in Chiang Mai that I was able to really fully observe the Buddhist way of life.

monks, buddhismIt was early morning on our last day in Chiang Mai when my boyfriend and I decided to walk around the Old City one last time. True enough, that time of the day showed us a different side of Chiang Mai, one that we haven't seen before.

Monks, mostly young ones, clad in their bright orange (sometimes mustard) robes were going around the Old City asking for alms from different homes and establishments. The spiritual ritual was captivating and enchanting, to say the least, and imagine that you would probably see hundreds of monks in Chiang Mai alone given the sheer number of temples in the area. 

We noticed that people were giving them various items though we couldn't figure out what those items were since we were observing them from a distance, afraid that we might disrupt this solemn religious activity. The experience was humbling and uplifting at the same time. It made me realize that there are still so many things to discover and so many things to experience in this beautiful and diverse world we live in.

monks, buddhism

Tips when Participating in the Alms Giving Ritual and when Entering Temples
  • Ask around on when is the best time to observe this and where.
  • Dress modestly. Avoid tight and revealing clothes.
  • If you want to participate in the ritual, kneel down. Make sure that your head is not higher than the monk's head.
  • Avoid making noise. This is a solemn ritual.
  • For women, don't make eye contact. Avoid touching them too.
  • Maintain a respectful distance. Avoid getting so close to them just to get that perfect shot. Avoid using flash too.
They say: "Travel and let the world change you." For 17 days, four international flights, two overnight trains, and countless hours of bus rides, I let the universe do just that. And it changed me in more ways than one.

This post is part of my Malaysia-Laos-Thailand travel series. 

Now up on the blog: 
 Other Thailand stories are still in the works so stay tuned!

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