Things to do in Phayao

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Things to do in Phayao province

Welcome to Things to do in Phayao. Phayao Province is located northeast of Chiang Mai Province. It has a total land area of 6,189 km2 (2,390 sq mi) and borders from the east clockwise the provinces Nan, Phrae, Lampang, and Chiang Rai. In the northeast, it borders the province of Xaignabouli in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, better known as Laos. The province has areas of five national parks and two wildlife sanctuaries of which the Doi Luang and Phu Sang National Parks are the most well-known.

In this article, I have included the sights and locations I have visited or find interesting. It is a very personal selection and I will add sights and attractions over time. I love Phayao province and I hope we can lure more guests to this great destination. My first visit took place in 2013. After that it took me seven years to go back and start some serious research for this website. My last visit was in August, 2023.

View of Kwan Phayao from Wat Analayo Thipphayaram

Kwan Phayao aka the Phayao Lake

Kwan Phayao aka the Phayao Lake is the main and most popular attraction of Phayao. If you come from Chiang Mai you take the turnoff to Phayao just past the town of Mae Kachan. A scenic and quiet road through the forested mountains takes you to a viewpoint with dinosaur statues. On clear day you can see the lake in the far distance. It is the largest freshwater lake in the north of Thailand and the fourth largest in the country. It is very shallow with an average depth of 1,5 meters.

The Department of Fisheries constructed a dam in the Ing River which created the lake. The water flooded several temples, villages and archaeologicial sites. For me the best time to visit Phayao is the rainy season but you have to be lucky. The lake is surrounded by verdant green rice fields as far as the eye can see against the backdrop of Doi Luang, the “big mountain”.

Bicyle on a lake Things to do in Phayao
My Bicycle at sunrise at Kwan Phayao, 2020

Cycling around the Kwan Phayao

I have cycled around the Kwan Phayao numerous times. The route is easy to find. I always stay close to the lake and ride counterclockwise. You have to ride to Highway No. 1 and follow this big and unattractive road in the direction of Chiang Rai until the turnoff on the left to Wat Analayo Thipphayaram. There you follow the road for less than a km and turn left again at the sign “scenic route”.

Parts of this road are not in good shape but the worst sections are in the beginning. At the village of Ban Rong Hai, you will encounter an archaeological site of interest. From there, you have to find your way to the village of Ban Mae Tam. Try to avoid cycling along the highway no.1. It is a nice ride of about 25 km depending on where you start in Phayao. I have not seen shops that offer good bikes for rent so you probably have to bring your own but I will keep looking for a shop.

Wat Tilok Aram, the submerged temple

It seems everyone who visits Phayao takes the short boat ride to the Buddha image of Wat Tilok Aram (วัดติโลกอาราม) on a little island in the lake. The story goes that this Buddha statue is what remains of a submerged  temple that dates back to more than 500 years. From a stone inscription it became clear that a local ruler built this temple during the reign of King Tilokarat (1476-1486) of the Lanna Kingdom.

On the main road along the lake there is a small office and pier where you can take a local rowing boat to the island. I was in May in Phayao but could not go to the island because the water level was too low.

The Island

This time I went to the island on a chartered boat for 150THB. My boat man told me that lightning struck a giant tree after which it revealed the Buddha  image Luang Por Sila Wat Tilokaram that is now on a pedestal on the island. For Phayao people this is a sacred Buddha image and there are many Buddhist ceremonies on and around the island. On important Buddhist days such as Makha Bucha Day, Visakha Bucha Day and Asanha Bucha Day there candle festivals and processions on the water, unique in Thailand.

Unfortunately the water around the scene is disturbed by heavy machinery enlarging the island by digging up soil from the bottom of the lake. According to my boat man they will built a structure, inspired by Wat Rongkhun, the White Temple in Chiang Rai. It is a remarkable story I will research on my next trip to Phayao.

New Buddhist temple
Wat Analayo Thipphayaram

The stunning forest temple of Phayao: Wat Analayo Thipphayaram 

Wat Analayo Thipphayaram (วัดอนาลโยทิพยาราม) is a beautiful, very large temple complex on the slopes of Doi Luang, overlooking the lake. There are a large amount of buildings, Buddha images and other statues. I particularly like the Naga staircase. A myth involving a monk called Phra Achan Phibun Sumangkhalo from Wat Rattanawanaram in Phayao had a dream and vision that resulted in the establishment of a temple on the mountain on the other side of the Kwan Phayao.

Take your time to wander around this large complex that always keeps surprising. The temple’s surroundings are lush gardens and forest and there seem to be trails that can take you further into the forest. It is a great place to spend at least an hour exploring. The name of this temple is often misspelt as Wat Ananlayo.

Pho Khun Ngam Muang Monument

In a public park close to the lake there is the monument of Phayao’s most famous King Ngam Muang. The City of Phayao dates back to 1096 and predates Chiang Mai by exactly 200 years. According to legend, the ruler of Phayao, King Muang Ngam, is one of the founders of Chiang Mai, together with King Mengrai of Chiang Rai and King Ramkamhaeng of Sukhothai. The Three Kings Monument in front of the Chiang Mai Arts and Cultural Center in the Old City commemorates the foundation of the capital of the Lanna Kingdom.

statue of a king
Muang Ngam

The Pa-O Temple in Chiang Kham: Wat Nantaram

Wat Nantaram (วัดนันตาราม) is a wooden Pa-O temple in the City of Chiang Kham, about 81 km from the City of Phayao. This temple is the main attraction of this city that is not on the itinerary of a lot of tourists. Wat Nantaram, a temple that you would expect to find in Lampang, though stands out. It is a spectacular temple.

Old wooden temple
Wat Nantaram in Chiang Kham

Visiting the Ban Rong Hai Archaelogical Site

The Ban Rong Hai Archaeological Site (โบราณสถานบ้านร่องไฮ) is a temple ruin on a hill called San That on the edge of Kwan Phayao near the village of Ban Rong Hai. If you cycle around the lake you will pass this site that was excavated by the Fine Arts Department in 2003. They are the remains of an ancient temple that consisted of a chedi, a viharn (assembly hall) and two buildings.  Apparently there is a connection between this temple and Wat Tilok Aram, the submerged temple. More research is needed because people mention there are more archaeological sites in this area.

Wonderful Wat Huai Pha Khiang

Wat Huai Pha Khiang (วัดห้วยผาเกี๋ยง) is a “Buddhist Art Park”, less than 10 km from Phayao City. According to information this site became a temple in 1995. During both of my visits I hardly saw anyone there. On my second visit there were a couple of people maintaining the park and briefly spoke to one of the five monks who live here. There are kutis (monk’s huts) but all the other buildings are empty. The attraction are the Buddha and other images that are carved out in the rocks of this forest.

It is quite an amazing place but it is not a temple. I have not met any other visitors here which is probably not usual. There seems to be remains of an older temple in this area and this mountains range allegedly has been a boundary of the old walled city of Phayao. I will certainly go back to Wat Huai Pha Khiang.

The Phra That Bunnak

Phra That Bunnak (พระธาตุบุนนาค) is very close to Phayao City, just on the other side of Highway No. 1. This impressive temple ruin is within the compound of Wat Pa Daeng, a fairly modern temple. There is no signage directing you to this ancient monument. If you enter Wat Pa Daeng you have to walk to the forest on the right and you will find a very large brick chedi with the fundaments of an assembly hall and other smaller buildings. I have found no information at the site but suppose that this ruined temple complex, overgrown with moss and greenery, is at least 500 years old. It was a pleasant surprise to discover this immense ancient monument in this wonderful setting.

Wat Phra That Chom Thong

This is one of my favorite temples in Phayao. Wat Phra That Chom Thong(วัดพระธาตุจอมทอง) is located on a forested hill, called “Doi Chom Thong”, close to Kwan Phayao. It is a lovely small temple with a gallery of old pictures. I love old pictures so that makes all the difference. Recently they have constructed a rather extravagant walkway with a bell tower and deck that offers great views of the Lake of Phayao.

It is unclear when they established this temple but according to legend the Lord Buddha visited this area and judged the Doi Chom Thong a suitable place to build a temple. He left a strand of hair with the local rulers which was added to relics of the right-hand bones of the Lord Buddha after his passing. They enshrined these relics in the chedi of the temple. According to information at the temple followers of Kruba Srivichai, the “monk-engineer” (re)constructed the viharn (assembly hall), the walls, and the lion and tiger gates in 1922-23.

The Ship’s Prow Cliff at Bo Sip Song

Bo Sip Song (บ่อสิบสอง) translates as “well no.12” but seems to refer to 12 natural round holes in the rocky landscape. The major attraction is cliff they have named Pha Hua Reua (ผาหัวเรือ), which translates as “Ship’s Prow Cliff”. I parked my car at a place that looked like the entrance and decided to walk to the tourist service center as I was unsure of the condition of the road. It was a pleasant walk.

Bo Sip Song is close to Wat Huai Pha Khiang and on the same ridge that runs south-north. After I reached the tourist service center it was only a short walk up on a rocky trail to the view point. Because it was a beautiful day in the rainy season the skies were as clear as can be. After all I could have driving all the way up to the parking lot at the tourist service center. On the walk down to my car I met a park ranger who gave a ride back to where my car was parked.

Ban Dok Bua, an authentic village

Ban Dok Bua or Ban Bua is a village not far from Wat Analayo, on the opposite side of the lake. It is known as Sufficiency Economy Learning Center. The village is located in an area of beautiful verdant rice fields with Doi Luang as backdrop. It is very scenic during the rainy season. The villages has several organic rice cooperatives. Its bamboo forests provide the source for the production of bamboo baskets and furniture. The community offers homestay accommodation and guided tours of the village.

The Map of Phayao

Phayao features in these trips:

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