Wat Phra Singh, the temple of the Lion Buddha

Wat Phra Singh, the temple of the Lion Buddha

Table of Contents

Wat Phra Singh, the temple of the Lion Buddha

The Wat Phra Singh is in the western part of the old city centre of Chiang Mai. The Thai name of the temple is วัดพระสิงห์ which translates as the monastery of the Lion Buddha. In 1367 the temple became the home of a Buddha image called the Phra Singh (Lion Buddha) and renamed Wat Phra Singh. It is one of most popular and highly visited temple in the Old City of Chiang Mai. It features in many of our tours, amongst others in the samlor evening tour. The temple is beautifully illuminated after dark. See below picture.

Bicycle taxis in front of temple
Samlors in front of the temple

History of the temple

The temple’s full name is Wat Phra Singh Woramahaviharn. King Phayu was the fifth ruler of the Mengrai dynasty of the Lanna kingdom and ruled from 1336 until 1355. He started the construction of the temple in 1345 to house the ashes of his father, King Khamfu. Initially, the temple was named Wat Lichiang Phra. Several buildings were added a few years later including a wihan. It is the assembly hall where monks and laypeople congregate. The temple may have been the first monastery to house the Emerald Buddha, which later resided in Wat Chedi Luang. This Buddha image is now enshrined in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok.

Buddhist temple Wat Phra Singh
The viharn Lai Kham and the chedi

Restoration under King Kawila

From 1558 until 1775 Chiang Mai was part of a Burmese kingdom. After the Burmese were ousted, the city was virtually abandoned until 1791. Most temples were in a ruined state. In 1782 King Kawila became the first king of a new dynasty of Chiang Mai and started to restore the temple to its former glory by building an ubosot. It is the ordination hall and the most sacred area of a Buddhist temple. Successors of King Kawila restored the Wihan Lai Kham and the elegant Ho Trai (temple library).

Kruba Srivichai, the “monk engineer”

The famous monk Khru Ba Srivichai initiated extensive renovations during the 1920s. Many of the buildings of Wat Phra Singh again underwent restoration in 2002. King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII), the older brother of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), gave the temple the status of Royal temple of the first grade in 1935. Every year, during the Songkran festival, the Phra Singh image is taken from wihan Lai Kham and carried through the streets of Chiang Mai in a religious procession during which the spectators pay respect to the image by sprinkling water over it.

Statue of monk in front of temple
Statue of Kruba Srivichai in front of the viharn

Wat Phra Singh in flux

Most Buddhist temples in Thailand are very much alive. They are not monuments. Their outlook changes. People construct new buildings, renovate old buildings and demolish others. They plant trees or add other things to the temple. Many temples in Chiang Mai and North Thailand were once in some kind of ruined state. It looks like people never have abandoned Wat Phra Singh as it is such an important temple at such a central location. Nevertheless, the earlier mentioned ‘Engineer monk” Kruba Srivichai has overseen a renovation of the temple in the early 20th century. Recently people have planted a large number of palm trees at the temple. Many temples underwent a facelift during the economic boom starting in the 1980s.

Buddhist temple with palm trees Wat Phra Singh
The temple in 2021 with recently planted palm trees. On the left the viharn Lai Kham and on the right the ubosot.

Wat Phra Singh in 1981

Even if we go back only 40 years you will see that many temples looked very different. I think there are a couple of explanations for that. First of all, the last two decades of the 20th century were a period of unprecendented economic growth in Thailand. People were able to donate much more money to temples than before. The 1980s also saw the beginning of the tourist boom, which was a major contributing factor to the two-digit economic growth in that period. Buddhist temples such as Wat Phra Singh became tourist attractions. The Fine Arts Department started putting explanatory boards at temples and gradually many temples underwent a major “facelift”. Dutch photographer, Don Oppedijk, visited Chiang Mai in 1981 and took a number of pictures of Wat Phra Singh. He gave us permission to publish these great photos on this website.

Buddhist temple
Viharn of Wat Phra Singh in 1981. Photo courtesy of Don Oppedijk.
Buddhist temple
Wat Lai Kham and ubosot of Wat Phra Singh in 1981. Photo courtesy of Don Oppedijk.

Where is Wat Phra Singh?

Wat Phra Singh features in these tours:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.