The Buddhist Temples of North Thailand

Table of Contents

The Temples of the North: introduction

This is a collection of pages and articles of the Buddhist temples of North Thailand. I have visited these temples at least once in the past five years. Many of these temples I have visited several times. It is not only my aim to give a detailed description of the temple architecture but also collect information about the history of the temple and about the restorations that took place.

I collect old pictures of temples because they give valuable information about what happened over the years in and around the temple compounds. This is not a complete overview. I had to make a selection because there are hundreds of temples and they all have an interesting story. Under every article I have listed sources such as websites, books, articles and others, that I have used.

Restored temple
Wat Chedi Luang after restoration 2021

Buddhist temples of North Thailand and Naga staircases

Mount Meru is the sacred five-peaked mountain of Buddhist cosmology. Many temples are located on a hill or mountain to symbolize Mount Meru. In most cases there will be a staircase leading up to the temple two naga creatures at the bottom of the staircase as protectors for those who walk up. I love those staircases and have devoted a page to the most interesting ones. There are short and long ones. The most famous staircase is the one of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

Most of the articles about the temples link to tours that feature those temples. If you are interested in a particular temple we can organize a private tour.

Buddhist temple
Wat Lai Hin Luang

Chiang Mai Temples

Chiang Mai is the most important city in North Thailand. Besides that, it is the old capital of the Lanna Kingdom which dominated the north since the late 13th century. Since 2015 Chiang Mai has been on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites under the title:  “Monuments, Sites and Cultural Landscape of Chiang Mai, Capital of Lanna”. It is at the moment unlikely that Chiang Mai will become a UNESCO World Heritage site.

This list is an inventory of the properties, which a country intends to consider for nomination to be added to the World Heritage List. The World Heritage area covers the old walled city of Chiang Mai and Suthep Mountain. Buddhist temples are the main world heritage sites in this area.

This area contains temples such as Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chiang Man, and Wat Chedi Luang. Besides these temples, Chiang Mai boasts many other temples of interest such as Wat Chet Yot, Wat Srisuphan, Wat Ku Tao, Wt Umong, and Wat Suan Dok.

Apart from the temples that are still in use, there are many temple ruins. These are located in the ruined city of Wiang Kum Kam but also spread out over the city and in locations outside Chiang Mai. The Thai people of the Lanna kingdom constructed most of these temples so they are Lanna style. The kingdom suffered under Burmese occupation from 1558 until 1774 so there are Burmese influences in the design of some temples. Later Burmese residents supported the restoration of certain temples as well. Apart from that there are Shan (Tai Yai) and Pa’O temples in Chiang Mai.

Temple roof with trees
Wat Sri Chum Lampang roof and trees

Lampang Temples

Lampang is, in my humble opinion, one of the most interesting and undervisited destinations of North Thailand. Since a couple of years domestic tourists have discovered Lampang but there are still very few overseas visitors. If they come, they usually come on a day trip. I recommend at least one night in this lovely city on the Wang River. If you mention Lampang, people automatically think of Wat Phra That Lampang Luang, one of the most revered and exceptional Buddhist temples in North Thailand.

Did you know that Lampang has the most Burmese- or Shan-style temples in the country? Wat Sri Chum is perhaps the best example but there are quite a few more such as Wat Mon Puyak, Wat Mon Cham Sin, and Wat Pa Fang. Besides those, there are magnificent Lanna-style temples with Burmese influences such as Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao and Wat Pong Sanuk. There is all the more reason to pay a visit to Lampang if you visit the North of Thailand.

Staircase to temple Burmese heritage lampang shan people
The Naga staircase leading to the temple, 2020

Chiang Rai Temples

Construction of Buddhist temples in North Thailand is ongoing. Thai Buddhists pour vast amounts of money into temple construction and restoration. The best examples of this development you can perhaps find in Chiang Rai. The first that springs to mind is Wat Rong Khun, the famous White Temple. Opened in 2007, this building has become one of the main attractions of Chiang Rai. Although it doesn’t match the criteria of a Buddhist temple, I included it in the overview. Other examples of new or restored temple complexes are Wat Rong Sua Ten, Wat Huay Pla Kang, and Wat Saeng Kaew Photiyan. There are also older temples such as Wat Phra Kaew, and Wat Phra Singh, and seldom-visited gems such as Wat Fang Min.

Buddhist temple building
The Ho Phra of Wat Phrathat Pha Ngao

Chiang Saen Temples

There are a number of beautiful temples in Chiang Saen and surroundings. Chiang Saen of course is the location of a walled ancient city with temple ruins such as Wat Pasak and Wat Chedi Luang. There are also noteworthy temples such as Wat Chomkitthi and the fascinating Wat Pha Ngao. And then, even though it is not in Chiang Saen district, the extraordinary Wat Tham Pla deserves mention, just because it is such a fascinating temple with great scenery and lots of monkeys. It is one of the most peculiar Buddhist Temples in North Thailand.

Ruined chedi
Wat Pa Sak in Chiang Saen

Temples of Mae Hong Son province

I decided to group these temples together for several reasons. Mae Hong Son province has been geographically separated from the Lanna Kingdom for centuries. Until the 1970s places like Mae Hong Son and Pai were quite isolated due to poor road conditions. A Thai logging firm funded the construction of the road to Mae Sariang in the late 1960s. Even in 1987, the road from Pai to Mae Hong Son was not sealed.

The population in Mae Hong Son province was mainly made up of Shan (Tai Yai), Burmese and ethnic minorities such as Karen, Lawa, Hmong, and Lisu. Most of the interesting temples in Mae Hong Son province, therefore, are Burmese or Tai Yai. Great examples are Wat To Pae (Khun Yuam), Wat Sri Bunruang (Mae Sariang), and Wat Chong Klang (Mae Hong Son).

Shan style Sala of Wat Sribunreuang Mae Sariang
Sala of Wat Sribunreuang Mae Sariang

Temples of Lamphun

Lamphun is the former capital of the Kingdom of Hariphunchai, a kingdom that predated the Lanna Kingdom. The jewel in the crown is the Wat Phra That Hariphunchai. This temple is the heart and soul of Lamphun for the people of this charming town. Then there is the Wat Kukut aka Wat Chamathewi with its museum of the engineer-monk Kruba Srivichai. Another significant temple is Wat Phra Yuen. Although this temple is north of Lamphun the Wat Phra Phutthabhat Tak Pha in Pasang I also put in this category. Wat Ban Pang is the temple of Kruba Srivichai, which is also in this category.

Brick chedi with temple Chiang Mai Timeline Wat Chama Thewi Wat Ku Kut
The Chedi Suwan Chang Kot at Wat Kukut

Temples of Phrae

The most well-known temple of Phrae is Wat Phra That Cho Hae but this town also has some impressive Shan-style temples such as Wat Chom Suwan and Wat Sa Bo Kaeo. Phrae has a surprising variety of lovely temples.

Burmese style temple Thailand Railway Journeys
Wat Chom Suwan in Phrae