Wat Muen San, the second silver temple
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The Wua Lai neighborhoodThe 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.
The silver temples of Wualai
Here we also find the two “silver temples”: Wat Sri Suphan and Wat Muen San. Wat Sri Suphan is known as the silver temple and attracts many visitors. Far few people visit the nearby Wat Muen San, which is the other silver temple. Wat Muen San is less spectacular and developed as the more popular Wat Sri Suphan but in some respects at least as interesting.
This temple features in our half day samlor tour and full day handicrafts tour. Go to this page for more information about Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai. By the way, the term “silver” is a bit misleading. The metal, which is used at these temples, is a mixture of some silver with nickel and aluminium.
History of Wat Muen San
Two explanatory boards at the temple give some information about the history. This temple appears for the first time in palm leaf manuscripts in 1438, during the reign of King Sam Fang Kan (or Kaen). 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.
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. They 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 pavilion with silver metal plate art
When you enter the temple compound you will immediately on the left see the Silver building. Inside there are a couple of Buddha images and wax effigies of 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. Wat Muen San is worth visiting as it is a bit more off the beaten track than Wat Srisuphan.
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 Phrathat 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 Muan San in a small chedi. There is also a statue of the monk.
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 Japanese field hospital to take care of wounded soldiers. There is a Japanese-Thai memorial site at the temple where every year a service takes place on August 15. Hak Hakanson has written a story about the World War Two history of Wat Muan San.
The 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. This museum has no opening and closing times. You will have to ask one of the monks to open it. For those who are interested in the history of World War Two, the museum is worth visiting. There are photographs, uniform, helmets and other utensils of the Japanese presence during World War Two. Part of the small museum is devoted to the tradition of silver and lacquerware handicrafts of the Wualai area. All explanations are in Thai.
Where is Wat Muen San?
Wat Muen San, the other silver temple of Chiang Mai, features in these tours: