Wat Phra Singh, the home of Phra Buddha Sihing

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Wat Phra Singh, the home of Phra Buddha Sihing

Wat Phra Singh is in the western part of the old city center of Chiang Mai. The full name is Wat Phra Singh Woramahawihan(วัดพระสิงห์วรมหาวิหาร). The temple is on of the highlights in the core zone of the Chiang Mai UNESCO World Heritage project. You can easily spend at least an hour exploring the compound of Wat Phra Singh.

In 1367 the temple became the home of a Buddha image called the Phra Sihingh (พระพุทธสิหิงค์) and was renamed, Wat Phra Singh. It is one of the most popular and highly visited temples 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 the below picture.

Bicycle taxis in front of temple Wat Phra Singh
Samlors in front of the temple

The history of the temple

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, its name was Wat Phra Chiang (วัดพระเชียง) although the Chiang Mai Chronicle mentions Wat Li Chiang 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

Beautiful Viharn Lai Kham

The viharn Lai Kham is the most famous structure of Wat Phra Singh. It dates back to the year 1345, during the reign of King Phayu, the fifth king of the Mangrai dynasty. The murals are quite damaged but interesting. If you stand in front of the Buddha image, the murals on the left tell the Sangthong story and on the right the Suwanna Hong story. These are stories about the life and customs of the people in Chiang Mai in the past.

The viharn Lai Kham underwent several restorations. The 6th ruling prince of Chiang Mai, King Kawilorot Suriyawong, was involved in many temple restorations. In 1863 he restored the Viharn Lai Kham. His successor was King Inthawichayanon, after who Doi Intanon has been named. He ordered another restoration in 1886. Finally, the Fine Arts Department repaired the viharn and its murals on the occasion of the 700th anniversary of Chiang Mai.

Gilded chedi and temple Wat Phra Singh
Viharn Lai Kham

The Phra Buddha Sihing

The Phra Buddha (Phuttha) Sihing (พระพุทธสิหิงค์) is the second most important Buddha image in Thailand. The Emerald Buddha in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok is the most important.

There  are at least three Buddha images, called Phra Buddha Sihing. Apart from the one in the Viharn Lai Kham there is one in the National Museum in Bangkok and one in the Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahawihan in Nakhon Si Thammarat.

Every year the statue is taken from the wihan Lai Kham, during the Songkran festival. It is then placed on a float and taken through the streets of Chiang Mai in a procession. Songkran revellers honor the statue by sprinkling water over it.

Buddha statue in temple Wat Phra Singh
The Phra Buddha Sihing statue in the Viharn Lai Kham

The Two Sangha Ubosot

This  ubosot (ordination hall) has two entrances. In the center of the building is a pavillion (mandapa) which contains the Buddha image. According to information at the temple King Saen Muang Ma founded this ubosot but the present building dates back to 1812. King Kawila restored the temple and built this ubosot. In 1817 King Thammalangka, the brother and successor of Kawila, built the mandapa.

In January 1927 King Prajadhipok, Rama VII, visited Chiang Mai. He also visited Wat Phra Singh and raised funds for the restoration of the ubosot. He entrusted the funds then to Prince Kaew Nawarat, the last ruler of Chiang Mai, in order to restore the ubosot. The work was finished in 1929. Another major restoration was undertaken by the temple and the Fine Arts Department in 1998-1999 on the occasion of the 72th birthday of the late King Rama IX.

Buddhist temple Wat Phra Singh
The ubsot of Wat Phra Singh

The Chedi Than Chang Lom Wat Phra Singh

The most eye-catching structure of Wat Phra Singh is its giant gilded stupa with protruding elephants on all sides. Its name is the Chedi Than Chang Lom Wat Phra Singh(เจดีย์ฐานช้างล้อมวัดพระสิงห์). On the south, north and west there are three smaller gilded chedis, of which two have niches with Buddha images.

A chedi at this location dates back to 1344 or 1345 but it probably looked very different from the current one. Below photo dates back to November, 1920. It shows the US Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary George W.P.Hunt posing with the Siamese Uparaja (viceroy) of Monthon Payap in front of in front of the Viharn Lai Kham. The ruined chedi looks very different and much smaller.

It is likely that the gilding of the chedi took place after 1981, looking at the photos of Dutch photographer Don Oppedijk.

Two men in front of a temple
US Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary George W.P.Hunt in front of the Viharn Lai Kham with the Siamese Uparaja (viceroy) of Monthon Payap, November 1920
Picture of old temple
Wat Phra Singh in 1988. Picture by Willem Niemeijer.
Two golden temple towers Chiang Mai Private Tours
Big and small chedi at Wat Phra Singh in 2021

The Chedi Ku Lai

This chedi is located right behind the Viharn Lai Kham. It has a five-tiered roof and its inner chamber is connected by an “overground tunnel” to the viharn. According to the Chiang Mai Chronicle King Phra Muang Khaeo (149-1525) built the chedi. King Thammalangka, the brother and successor of King Kawila, restored it in 1817. The two brothers were involved in many temple restorations. During the restoration of the Chedi Ku Lai, workers found many valuable objects in its inner chamber but they left them there.

Chedi at the back of a temple
Chedi Ku Lai in 2021

The famous library of Wat Phra Singh

The temple has the most famous library (หอไตร) of all temples in Chiang Mai. It is a very significant and beautiful little elevated building, which is on your right hand side when you enter the temple compound. It dates back to the reign of King Muang Kaew, the 11th king of the Mangrai dynasty. It underwent several restorations, according to information at the temple: the first during the reign of King Kawilorot Suriyawong (1856-1870) and the second before the visit of King Rama VII in 1927. There are quite a few old images of the library such as the one below, which shows two young monks at the entrance of the library. I don’t know how to got there….I took a comparative photo in 2021.

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).

Temple building Wat Phra Singh
The Ho Trai scripture library Wat Phrasingh

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 Wat Phra Singh
Statue of Kruba Srivichai in front of the viharn

The mysterious Burmese style Stupa

In many old photographs, a small Burmese-style stupa appears. According to my information, a wealthy Burmese teak trader Luang Yonakarn Pichit (1845-1927) funded the construction of this stupa. “Luang Yo” was involved in the restoration of other temples as well, such as Wat Chedi Liam, the Burmese Wat Upakhut (demolished and now the Buddha Sathan Building), and Wat Saen Fang. His family also constructed the Luang Yo House and the Mosway Manor, two historic houses on Charoenprathet road. According to my information, they demolished this stupa in 1961.

Old picture of temple Wat Phra Singh
The Burmese style stupa and the library, 1930s. Picture by E.W.Hutchinson. Photograph Collection 28 of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland

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 The Burmese style stupa and the library, 1930s. Picture by E.W.Hutchinson. Photograph Collection 28 of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland
Viharn of Wat Phra Singh in 1981. Photo courtesy of Don Oppedijk.
Buddhist temple The Burmese style stupa and the library, 1930s. Picture by E.W.Hutchinson. Photograph Collection 28 of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland
The Viharn Lai Kham and ubosot of Wat Phra Singh in 1981. Photo courtesy of Don Oppedijk.

Wonderful video from the Fine Arts Department

References for Wat Phra Singh

Living in Chiang Mai I visit the temple regularly. I have used some of the informatioin that is available at the temple.

These are some of the books I have consulted:

Sarassawadee Ongsakul, History of Lanna, Chiang Mai, 2005

Michael Freeman, Lanna, Thailand’s Northern Kingdom, Bangkok, 2001

Hans Penth, A brief history of Lanna, Chiang Mai, 2000

David K. Wyatt and Aroonrut Wichienkeeo, The Chiang Mai Chronicle, Chiang Mai, 1998

Man in front of a small temple
Frans at Wat Phra Sing, 2021

Where is Wat Phra Singh?

Wat Phra Singh features in these tours:

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