Introduction to the Temples of Chiang Rai
As I wrote Chiang Rai has an interesting variety of old and new temples. If you do some research into the history of Chiang Rai, the old temples come to life and all have an interesting story. Temples such as Wat Rong Khun, the Blue Temple, and Wat Huay Pla Kang have been constructed this century but have become the most visited tourist sights in and around Chiang Rai. They are visually striking which is important in the age of selfies and social media.
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The White Temple: Wat Rong Khun
Since its opening in 1997, Wat Rong Khun (วัดร่องขุ่น)has become the most popular tourist attraction of Chiang Rai. Wat Rong Khun is known as the “White Temple.” Wat Rong Khun is not a temple. It is an art object in the style of a Buddhist temple. There used to be another temple, called Wat Rong Khun, at this location, and that time was in a bad state. Local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat bought the property and designed and constructed the current building. Over time many buildings have been put up around the building.
There are restaurants and several parking lots around Wat Rong Khun to cater to the thousands who visit it daily. We recommend visiting Wat Rong Khun in the early morning or late afternoon. Wat Rong Khun features in our Chiang Rai Temples, Markets, and Gardens tour. It is one of the major Chiang Rai attractions.
The former home of the Emerald Buddha: Wat Phra Kaew
Wat Phra Kaew (วัดพระแก้ว) is in the center of the city, not far from the Central Market and the Clock Tower. It dates back to at least the end of the 14th century. In 1434 the highly revered Emerald Buddha statue (aka Phra Kaew Morakot) was discovered in this temple. The image was hidden in the chedi of the temple until lightning hit the chedi. The chedi was damaged to such an extent that it revealed the statue. The Emerald Buddha is now in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok. Wat Phra Kaew has an interesting museum with many Buddhist artifacts.
Wat Saengkaew Photiyan
Wat Saeng Kaew Photiyan (วัดแสงแก้วโพธิญาณ) is in Mae Suay district, about 50 km south of Chiang Rai. This temple was recently constructed and features in our Chiang Rai White Temple Tour. The location is nothing less than spectacular. The view over the countryside is lovely. There are many statues at this temple that cover about 4,5 ha. The most striking feature of Wat Saeng Kaew Photiyan is a huge sitting statue of Kruba Srivichai, the “engineer monk”. Kruba Srivichai’s followers reconstructed more than 200 temples in North Thailand. They also constructed the road to Wat Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai in 1935.
You would most likely visit this temple on your way from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai or vice versa.
The Blue Temple: Wat Rong Suea Ten
Locals know Wat Rong Suea Ten (วัดร่องเสือเต้น), the temple of the dancing tigers, better known as the “Blue Temple.” This temple attracts a growing number of visitors. The Blue Temple is in Rong Suea Ten Village in the Rimkok District, on the north side of the Kok River. They are adding buildings and statues continuously. The temple has undergone a lot of changes since the first time we visited. There are now souvenir stalls, coffee shops, and a large parking lot at the temple.
The community temple: Wat Huay Pla Kang
Wat Huay Pla Kang (วัดห้วยปลากั้ง)is another rather new attraction in Chiang Rai. The white statue of Kuan Im, aka Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, is visible from a long distance. This sizeable complex attracts many local visitors. In the statue is an elevator which will take you to a floor in the building from where you have a nice view over Chiang Rai and its surroundings. This temple is very active in the local communities, and its founder has to be commended for this.
Wat Phra Singh
This is one of the lesser-visited temples in Chiang Rai. Wat Phra Sing (วัดพระสิงห์) is one of the oldest though, dating back to the 14th century. One of the most revered Buddha images once was housed in this temple: the Phra Buddha Sihingh. This Buddha image is now in the Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Mai. The temple grounds were under construction when I visited in November 2020. These restorations have now been completed.
The hidden gem: Wat Fang Min
Wat Fang Min (วัดฝั่งหมิ่น) is a beautiful and recently constructed temple. Behind the temple is probably one of the oldest temple ruins of Chiang Rai City. It has a chedi with a square base with four Buddha statues and a small house with more Buddha statues. Then there is a row of smaller chedis overgrown with moss. Each chedi represents a day in the week. Few foreign tourists visit this fascinating temple. This temple is not very well known, but Wat Fang Min is one of my favorite Chiang Rai attractions.
Fantastic: Wat Ming Muang
Wat Ming Muang (วัดมิ่งเมือง) is a spectacular temple, located very close to the famous Clock Tower of Chiang Rai. It dates back to the late 12th or early 13th century. Queen Ta La Mae Sri, the wife of King Mangrai, founded this temple. According to information on the Tourism Authority of Thailand website, this temple originally was a Tai Yai (Shan)Temple, called Wat Ngiao or Wat Chang Mup. It also mentions that it was first named the founder: Wat Ta La Mae Sri.
The wooden viharn is called Viharn Mai Lai Khum. Its main Buddha image is Luang Phor Phra Sri Ming Muang and is over 400 years old. The stupa’s design is a mix of Burmese and Lanna style and contains a relic of the Buddha.
I will do more research on the history of this temple. It is one of the most interesting temples in Chiang Rai because it is so different from any other in town.
Wat Phra That Doi Chom Thong
Overlooked by many people Wat Doi Thong (วัดดอยทอง) or Wat Phra That Doi Chom Thong (วัดพระธาตุดอยจอมทอง) is worth a visit. The temple is located on Doi Chom Thong, the little hill overlooking the Kok River. The temple predates the foundation of Chiang Rai. According to an ancient chronicle, a local ruler stored relics of the Lord Buddha in the chedi of the temple in the 10th century.
When King Mangrai founded Chiang Rai in 1260 he reconstructed the Wat Phrathat Chom Thong. In 1992 authorities moved the City Pillar from Wat Klang Wiang to Wat Phrathat Chom Thong. Usually, City Pillars are in a house that also houses the city spirit deity, a kind of city guardian.
Chiang Rai’s City Pillar doesn’t have a house but is in an open space, close to the temple. Wat Phrathat Chom Thong has three staircases leading to the temple. One of them is very steep.
The Shan temple: Wat San Pa Ko (Wat Thai Yai)
This temple is located just behind the control tower of the old Chiang Airport. As far as I know, it is the only Shan (Tai Yai) temple in Chiang Rai, and it is an exceptional one. It doesn’t appear on any tourists’ itineraries but is definitely worth a visit. At the temple, I couldn’t find any information on the history of the temple. Somewhat hidden on the compound is a small viharn that looks very old. According to a monk at the temple, this structure is more than 100 years old.
Wat San Pa Ko (วัดสันป่าก่อ) Wat Thai Yai (วัดไทยใหญ่) has several buildings that are of interest. There is a beautiful central building with a Burmese pyatthat style roof that was closed during my visit. Next to it is a small building with a gilded chedi on top. You can climb up for a nice view over the temple grounds. The wooden viharn is very down-to-earth and stylish. In front is a statue of Phra Upakhut. The interior of the viharn is very sober.
Some newer structures are of less interest. Wat San Pa Ko seems an active community temple for the Tai Yai people in Chiang Rai. I will certainly revisit this temple on my next visit.
Wat Doi Ngam Muang
This temple is on Doi Ngam Muang, the hill next to Doi Chom Thong. The compound contains an old brick chedi containing King Mangrai, the founder of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai.
After the passing of King Mangrai in Chiang Mai, his son King Chai Songkhram interned his ashes in a chedi at Wat Doi Ngam Muang (วัดดอยงำเมือง). This ancient chedi is unique in Chiang Rai because of its style and contains the ashes of an extraordinary person.
Wat Klang Wiang
This temple dates back to the year 1432. Wat Klang Wiang (วัดกลางเวียง) translates at the temple in the middle (Klang) of the walled city (Wiang). On websites, this temple is described as one of the most ornate and richly decorated temples in Chiang Rai. It is a beautiful temple, but it is quite similar to Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Phra Singh.
According to information at the temple, its name initially was Wat Chantalok. In 1992 the abbot and his monks decided on a new city pillar to replace the old one. They also built a stupa to cover the pillar. This is the second city pillar, apart from the one on Doi Chom Thong.
References for the Temples of Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai is only a 3 to 4 hours drive from my house, so I go there often. I visited websites and consulted Google reviews. Most information comes from plaques and texts that are at the temples. Michael Freeman has some interesting information, and Hans Penth wrote a great article about the history of Chiang Rai. Still, there is a lot to research in the future.
Michael Freeman, Lanna, Thailand’s Northern Kingdom, Bangkok, 2001
Hans Penth, Notes on the history of Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai