Wat Suan Dok, the flower garden

Wat Suan Dok, the flower garden

Table of Contents

Golden chedi at Buddhist temple
Wat Suan Dok with monks

The temple of the flower garden

Wat Suan Dok (วัดสวนดอก) is on the Suthep Road, west of Suan Dok gate at the west side of the moat. Few tourists visit this temple but it is very important for local people. The Chiang Mai campus of the Buddhist Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University is within the temple compound.

King Kue Na, the sixth monarch of the Mengrai dynasty, founded the temple in 1370 or 1371, according to information at the temple. He constructed the temple in the centre of Wiang Suan Dok, a fortified settlement of the Lawa people, which is older than Chiang Mai itself.

Old picture of temple Wat Suan Dok
Wat Suan Dok in the 1930s. Picture by Edward Walter Hutchinson

The legend of Phra Sumonthera

According to legend, Maha Sumana Thera or Phra Sumonthera, a monk from the Sukhothai Kingdom, discovered a relic of the Buddha. He had a vision that told him this relic was to be housed in Chiang Mai. The monk stayed two rainy seasons at Wat Phra Yuen in Lamphun at the invitation of King Kue Na while the latter had Wat Buppharam Dok Mai built.

When the moment came for the relic to be housed in the newly built temple, it miraculously duplicated itself. There were now two relics. Wat Buppharam Dok Mai became the home of one relic. People then placed the second relic on the back of a white elephant. The animal then climbed up Doi Suthep mountain, trumpeted three times and died.  The King built Wat Phra That Doi Suthep on that spot to house the second relic.

Man with a moustache
The young Ernest Mason Satow. Photograph taken in Paris, December 1869. Source: Wikipedia

Ernest Satow visits Wiang Suan Dok in 1886

You can see the square, walled Wiang Suan Dok on aerial reconnaissance photos, taken by allied planes in 1944. You still can see remains of some of the earthen walls north of the temple, on both sides of Suthep road. British diplomat Ernest Satow visited Chiang Mai in January 1886. On his way to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep he passed Wiang Suan Dok and the temple.

This is what he wrote in his diary: “Leaving the Vice-Consulate one day about a quarter past nine, I walked my pony through the city, and out by the Patu Suen-dok (Frans: Suan Dok Gate, the western gate of the old city), reaching the deserted garden by ten.” Satow continues:  “This place is supposed by some of the foreign residents to be the site of an earlier town. But it is much smaller, by ten or twelve times, than the present city, and if it was ever surrounded by a wall, nothing now remains but an earthen mound.”

Aerial picture of square compound
Wiang Suan Dok and Wat Suan Dok © Williams-Hunt Aerial Photograph Collection, 1944

Wiang Suan Dok in 2021

Most of the earthen mounds of Wiang Suan Dok are not there anymore. The amount of development on and around Suthep road has been absolutely staggering. I have looked at panoramic pictures of Suthep Road, Wat Suan Dok and Chiang Mai University, taken from Doi Suthep in the 1960s and compared them to the current situation. There are few open spaces left in the area in and around Wiang Suan Dok, apart from the temple compound where also lots of building have been added.

Behind the building that houses the Faculty of Pharmacy of Chiang Mai University on Suthep Road a part of the earthen mound is still there. You can walk into the compound and climb up the old wall, which I did in July 2021. I will be looking for more intact parts of the wall.

Wat Suan Dok in ruins

According to Satow’s diary, the temple was in ruins and abandoned. This is what he wrote about the temple: “Immediately opposite on the south side of the road, are the remains of a Buddhist temple, standing in a square enclosure, pierced on the north, south and east sides by pyramidal gateways, nineteen feet thick. Inside of this is a smaller enclosure, at the west end of which rises a lofty circular phra-chedi on a square base, having a smaller phra-chedi at each corner, and a steep flight of laterite steps on each side at the top of which is an arched gateway.” There are indeed three impressive gates on all sides, except on the west side.

White temple gate Wat Suan Dok
The North gate of Wat Suan Dok

Satow describes Wat Suan Dok

Satow describes a “lofty circular phra chedi on a square base” with four smaller at each corner ” and a “steep flight of laterite steps on each side at the top of which is an arched gateway”. Satow observed “eight structures on the outer edge of the base”. There are now seven left after the reconstruction of the viharn in 1931.

At the west end of the viharn is a “colossal sitting Buddha, some twenty four feet high, of brick and mortar, freshly gilt”. So, even though Satow writes about the “remains of a Buddhist temple”, the main Buddha statue was covered thinly with gold leaf. He also remarked that there were several tall chedis on the way from Suan Dok Gate to the temple of “which scarcely anything remains except their brickwork core”. One of these chedis is the chedi of Wat San Ta Hoi, which is on the compound of the Ratchamangala Phisek National Library.

Brick temple tower
Chedi of Wat San Ta Hoi

The biggest Viharn in Chiang Mai

The viharn of Wat Suan Dok is the biggest viharn in Chiang Mai. It is actually the biggest I have ever seen. Another thing that sets it apart from other viharns is that it is open on all sides. The roof and the pillars are beautifully decorated. After the wars to expel the Burmese occupiers in the 18th century many of the temples in North Thailand were in ruins. Wat Suan Dok was no exception. King Kawila was the first monarch of the Chet Ton Dynasty that ruled the revived, independent Lanna kingdom. According to information at the temple he initiated the first restoration of the ruined temple.

Two golden Buddha statues Wat Suan Dok
Buddha statues in the viharn
White chedi Wat Suan Dok
Chedi with relics of Kruba Srivichai

The chedi or pagoda of Wat Suan Dok

The most eye-catching structure of Wat Suan Dok is its main chedi or pagoda. King Kuena constructed the chedi in 1373 to store the above-mentioned relic of the Buddha. It is a bell-shaped chedi that shows influences from Sukhothai and Sri Lankan temple architecture. The chedi has stairways at four sides. This structure has undergone several restorations.
Golden chedi of Buddhist temple
The chedi of Wat Suan Dok

Restoration of the chedi

As said, a first restoration took place during the reign of King Kawila. A plaque at the temple mentions a major restoration by the followers of the monk Kruba Srivichai in 1931. A statue of the monk memorizes his contribution to the temple. Next to it is a white chedi, that is supposed to contain relics of the beloved “monk-engineer”.

Then, another major restoration took place in 1946 under a monk called Luang Poo Kamsaen. The last major restoration took place between 2003 and 2006. This included the “gilding” of the chedi, turning it from white to gold. They applied a thin gold coating to the surface of the chedi. Below photo is a still from the movie “Tarzan’s Three Challenges” (1963), of which scenes were shot at Wat Suan Dok. It shows the chedi with its original coating.
Buddhist temple and monks Wat Suan Dok
Scene from the movie Tarzan's Three Challenges (1963), shot at Wat Suan Dok. It shows the original surface of the chedi.

The Phra Chao Kao Tue Buddha Image

This golden sitting Buddha image is in the ubosot, which is at the back of the temple compound. Information at the temple tells us that King Muangkaew (1495-1525) ordered a craftsman from Chiang Saen to make this statue. It was his intention to bring it to Wat Phra Singh. It turned out far too heavy to move it to Wat Phra Singh so he decided to build an ubosot to house it. According to the temple information this Buddha statue is one of the most beautiful of Chiang Mai. You have to judge for yourself….

Golden sitting Buddha
The Phra Chao Kao Tue

Mausoleums of the Royal Family of Chiang Mai

In the northwestern quarter of the temple grounds are a grouping of white reliquaries. They contain the ashes of the rulers of Chiang Mai of the Chet Ton Dynasty (translated: the dynasty of the seven lords) aka Tip Chang Dynasty.

In 1908 Chao Dara Rasmi, a princess consort of King Rama V and daughter of Chao Inthawichayanon, expressed the wish to have the ashes of the rulers of Chiang Mai and their consorts transferred to new mausoleums and pagodas at Wat Suan Dok. These ashes were dispersed at 10 sites. In October of that year they completed the mausoleums. There are 105 mausoleums or reliquaries at Wat Suan Dok, registered as national historical monuments under the responsibility of the Fine Arts Department.

The descendants of this family still live in Chiang Mai and have “Na Chiang Mai” as their last name. King Kawila (1782-1813) was the first king of this dynasty. Prince Kaew Nawarat was the ninth and last ruler of Chiang Mai (1910-1939). After his death the title was dissolved.

White and golden chedis
Reliquaries of Northern Thai royalty at Wat Suan Dok

The Chet Ton Dynasty

Princess Dara Rasmi, one of the wives of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) and daughter of the 7th King Inthawichayanon, had the ashes collected from around Chiang Mai to be interred at their present location. The reliquaries contain the ashes of the nine rulers, of the Princess and other members of the family.

Thip Chang, ceremonial name Phraya Thipphachak, was the forefather of this dynasty. He was the ruler of Lampang from 1732 until 1759. His grandson was King Kawila, the first king of Chiang Mai. His brothers became the rulers of Lampang and Lamphun. The royal family lost its position in Lampang in 1925 and in Lamphun in 1942. The reliquaries of the Lamphun branch of the family are located on a street corner in Lamphun. Those of the Lampang branch are at two locations: the compound of the Wat Pong Sanuk Nue and opposite Wat Phrabat in Lampang.

Many white stupas Wat Suan Dok
Reliquaries of Northern Thai royalty at Wat Suan Dok

Wat Suan Dok, a center of Buddhism in Chiang Mai

The temple does not feature in tourist itineraries but is worth visiting for those who have deeper interest in the history of Chiang Mai. On the temple compound there is the Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, that organizes regular monk chats and meditation courses. Monk chats are every day from Monday to Friday from 1600 until 1900. Besides this, you can register on the website of the university for meditation courses. If you want to learn about Buddhism visit Wat Suan Dok.

About this article

I have been to Wat Suan Dok numerous times in the past couple of years. It is one of my favorite temples in Chiang Mai. This article is based on online information (Wikipedia) and information available at the temple. I also have consulted books and articles. Here are some of the most important titles:

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

The Satow Siam papers : the private diaries and correspondence of Ernest Satow, C.M.G.H.B.M., Minister-Resident, Bangkok, 1885-1888, National Archives, London.

Man with a golden chedi Wat Suan Dok
Frans at Wat Suan Dok 2021
Golden statue of monk Wat Suan Dok
Phra Upakhut at Wat Suan Dok

How to get to Wat Suan Dok

Wat Suan Dok is on Suthep Road, about 2 km from the Suan Dok gate of the old city of Chiang Mai. You can take a tuk tuk, taxi or one of the red trucks to the temple.

The daily opening times of the temple are from 0600 until 2100. There are no entrance fees but a donation for the maintenance of the temple is highly appreciated.

See the below map: