Wat Muen San, the second silver temple

Buddhist temple tower

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The second Silver Temple of Chiang Mai

Wat Muen San (วัดหมื่นสาร) is the second silver temple in the Hai Ya district of Chiang Mai. The nearby Wat Sri Suphan is known as the silver temple and attracts many visitors, and few people visit the nearby Wat Muen San, the second silver temple. Wat Muen San is less spectacular and developed but at least as enjoyable. By the way, the term “silver” is a bit misleading, and the metal used at these temples combines silver with nickel and aluminum. Both temples are in the Wua Lai neighborhood.

The Wua Lai neighborhood is south of the Chiang Mai gate. It is roughly between the south inner city wall and the old outer city wall. More than 200 years ago people from the Shan states(now in Myanmar) settled in this neighborhood. Some of them were war captives, others moved voluntarily. Amongst them were people skilled in silver and lacquerware. The silver handicraft workshops are still concentrated on and around Wua Lai road.

silver building
The Suttajitto Gallery

The history of Wat Muen San

Two explanatory boards at the temple give some information about the history. This temple appeared for the first time in palm leaf manuscripts dating back to 1438, during the reign of King Sam Fang Kaen (พญาสามฝั่งแกน) (1402-1441, the 8th king of the Mangrai dynasty. The construction might have taken place in this period.

The word “muen” or “mun” means 10,000, which was the rank of an official who was responsible for “san”, which means royal documents. His name was Muen Nang Sue Wimonkitti. Apparently many senior monks lived in this temple and translated royal documents.

Ganesha statue Wat Muen San
Ganesha statue

The migration of the silver smiths

After centuries of Burmese occupation and warfare, many towns and villages in the Lanna kingdom were deserted at the end of 18th century. The population had either perished or fled the fighting. Kawila, one of the nobles who helped to defeat the Burmese, became the first king of Chiang Mai in 1782. During his reign he waged wars against Keng Tung and other cities in Shan State and repopulated parts of the Lanna Kingdom with war captives from those areas.

In 1799 he brought people from a place called Ban Nguai Lai, west of the Salawin River, to this neighborhood. Amongst them were a number of skilled silversmiths, who settled in the area around Wat Muen San. They restored the temple, which became the center of their community. This neighborhood is now known as Wua Lai and is still the center of the silver handicrafts.

The Suttajitto Gallery

When you enter the temple compound you will immediately on the left see a silver building: the Suttajitto Gallery. Artisans from the Wualai area constructed and worked on the decoration of this pavillion from 2002 until 2010, so the Suttajitto Gallery predates the silver ubosot at Wat Srisuphan.

Inside there are Buddha images and three wax effigies of well-known monks. The walls are adorned with beautiful scenes craftily hammered out in silver metal plate. Here there is a silver metal sheet copy of the famous picture that was taken in 1935 at the opening of the road to Wat Doi Suthep. It shows the monk Kruba Srivichai, Luang Sri Prakad, the mayor of Chiang Mai, and many other people.

The Pagoda of Wat Muen San

This pagoda is in lanna style with Tai Yai influences. Information at the temple says that a reconstruction took place in the period 1922-1927, in which probably followers of Kruba Srivichai had a hand. There are lion statues and umbrellas on the four corners. This pagoda or chedi is the most impressive structure in the temple compound.

The Assembly Hall of Wat Muen San

Research on the assembly hall of Wat Muen San is ongoing. During most of my visits this building was closed. Recently I was lucky and took some pictures inside the building. Apart from the main Buddha image there is an interesting Shan-style Buddha image, which is from Mae Sod, the town on the border with Myanmar in Tak province.

The new pavillion

A smaller silver pavillion has been under construction for some time and is now nearing completion. It is right beside the statue of Kruba Srivichai. According to one of the monks it will house the Silver Buddha statue that is shown on an information board just outside the temple compound. I will keep you posted. Below is a picture I took in October 2022.

Silver temple Wat Muen San
The new building

The World War Two History of Wat Muen San

During World War Two Japanese troops occupied Thailand and thus also Chiang Mai. No fighting took place in North Thailand. In 1944 though Allied forces defeated the Japanese at Imphal and Kohima (India) after which the beaten Japanese forces retreated through Burma to Thailand. One of the routes of retreat ended in Chiang Mai.

The compound of Wat Muen San became a field hospital of the Imperial Japanese army where they treated wounded soldiers. There is a Japanese-Thai memorial site at the temple where  a service takes place every year on August 15. Hak Hakanson has written a story about the World War Two history of Wat Muan San.

Kruba Srivichai, the patron saint of Chiang Mai

Kruba Srivichai (1878-1939), also sometimes spelt Siwichai, is the most famous monk of North Thailand. He oversaw the repair and construction of over one hundred Buddhist temples but also of roads and bridges. He was involved in the restoration of Wat Kukut (Wat Chamathewi), Wat Suan Dok, Wat Phra Singh and many other temples. His followers built the road to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in 1935.

At many temples and places in North Thailand there are statues of Kruba Srivichai. His most visited shrine is probably the one at the foot of Doi Suthep mountain. After his passing, the followers of the monk divided his relics so they could be interred at different places. Some of his relics ended up at Wat Muen San in a small chedi. There is also a statue of the monk.

The Silver Museum of Wat Muen San

The temple has a small museum, which is in the white building which you see on your left hand side when you enter the temple compound. They built the museum in the early 70s during the tenure of the abbot Phra Kru Opas (Boonban Thammongkol). In 2014 they reconstructed the building, supported by the Wua Lai Community Project for creative tourism. There are lovely silver and lacquerware objects on display but that is not all.

For those who are interested in the history of World War Two, the museum is also worth visiting. There are photographs, uniform, helmets and other utensils of the Japanese presence during World War Two. Unfortunately, all explanations are in Thai.

White building with memorial
World War Two Thai Japanese Memorial at Wat Muen San

References for this article

I visit Wat Muen San quite often because I really like this temple. It doesn’t have the shops and the tourists of Wat Sri Suphan. For a history buff there is more to enjoy at Wat Muen San.

On the information boards at the temple and in the museum there is a lot of information. I also have to mention the website Lanna in WW2 from my friend Hak Hakanson. It contains a lot of information on the history of the temple during the war.

Man with bicycle helmet at temple
Frans at Wat Muen San

Facts about the temple

The temple grounds are open from 0600 until 1900 every day. There is no entrance fee. The assembly and ordination halls are usually closed. The museum is also closed but you can request a monk to open it for you.

Visit Wat Muen San with us

We visit the temple during the below tours. Of course we can include this temple in a customized day tour of Chiang Mai.

At this moment though we visit the temple during our half-day samlor tour and full-day handicraft tour.