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Published on July 16, 2019

SACRED DESTINATIONS: A Spiritual Journey to Northern Thailand


by Jaffee Yee

For travelers looking for a certain special interest in their travel, Thailand has much to offer and in particular northern Thailand once the homeland of the former Lanna Kingdom that covers part of Yunnan, Laos and Myanmar today.  And there is a great variety of subject interests to choose from including religion, adventure, nature, food, arts and culture, flora and fauna just to name a few.  One of such purposeful travel is religious pilgrimage and Buddhist pilgrimage travel in northern Thailand is popular among devoted Buddhists.

Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai have many ancient Lanna-style Buddhist temples, the legacies of the former Lanna Kingdom founded more than 750 years ago, and many are still being maintained and functioning as places of worship today by local Buddhist devotees.   Visitors are free to pay their respect and worship in any of them.  Two of the most sacred temples are Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai and Wat Phra Keaw in Chiang Rai.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Chiang Mai

Phra That Doi Suthep Temple at Chiang Mai

Wat Doi Suthep is a Theravada temple and one of the most sacred temples in the north.  This is perhaps Chiang Mai’s most famous and important temple and very popular for tourists especially those from China and ethnic Chinese from Southeast Asia and elsewhere.  It is also a sacred site to many Thai people.

The temple is about 15 km from the city of Chiang Mai and located on top of Doi Suthep Hill at 3,520 feet above sea level, overlooking the city commanding a very impressive panoramic view of Chiang Mai on the far side of the temple.  From the car park at the temple’s base visitors can climb 306 steps to reach the pagodas or take a tram. 

Visitors must be appropriately dressed and must remove footwear to enter the temple grounds. The original copper plated chedi is the most holy area of the temple grounds. Within the site are pagodas, statues, bells, a museum, and shrines. Aspects of the temple draw from both Buddhism and Hinduism. There is a model of the Emerald Buddha and a statue of the Hindu God Ganesh. 

The temple is believed founded in 1383 when the first stupa was built. Legend has it that a white elephant carrying a relic of the Buddha walked up the mountain, trumpeted three times and died here, marking the site as temple-worthy. Over time, the temple has expanded, and been made to look more extravagant with many more holy shrines added.  A road to the temple was first built in 1935.

The 1st-floor terrace documents this history of the temple with a shrine to Sudeva, the hermit who lived on the mountain, and a statue of the white elephant who carried the Buddha relic up the mountain. On the 2nd-floor terrace is the picturesque golden chedi that enshrines the relic; it is topped by a five-tiered umbrella in honor of the city’s independence from Burma and its union with Thailand.  Within the monastery compound, the International Buddhism Center conducts a variety of religious outreach programs for visitors. 

Open hours:  6.00 am to 5.00 pm

Getting there: By meter taxi or by regular red “songtiaw” taxi at Chang Puak market.

Wat Phra Kaew, Chiang Rai

Wat Phra Kaew is one of the three royal temples of Chiang Rai. The other two are Wat Phra Singh and Wat Jet Jod, all within a walking distance from each other.

Besides the Phra Ubosot in the same compound, there are Phra Chedi, Ho Phra Yoke, and Hong Luang Saengkaew. Wat Phra Kaew was founded as Wat Pa Yiah. Pa Yiah is a species of indigenous bamboo. The name was changed to Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) after the discovery of The Emerald Buddha in 1434 when lighting struck the Phra Chedi and the Emerald Buddha was revealed. Subsequently, the Emerald Buddha was taken by the then successive powerful rulers to Lampang, Chiang Mai, and Luang Prabang, Vientiane before ending in Wat Arun, Thonburi, and finally at Wat Phra Sri Ratanasadaram in the Grand Palace in Bangkok.  The Phra Ubosot was built in the Chiang Saen style. The building was constructed in 1890 and recent renovation was completed with the raising of the “cho fah” on February 13, 2007 by HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

Ho Phra Yoke was built in the Lanna style with an original design by the late Chiang Rai National Artist Tawan Duchanee.  Phra Buddha Ratanakorn Navutti Wassanusornmongkol or Chiang Rai Jade Buddha presides within. The interior walls are decorated with paintings by well-known local artists including Sompong Sarasap, Preecha Rachawong, Narongdej Sudjai and the late Sompol Yarnagsee; depicting the legend and history of the Emerald Buddha and the creation of Chiang Rai Jade Buddha or Phra Yoke.  The statue of Chiang Rai Jade Buddha is a creation of a well-known Chinese stone sculptor from Beijing Mr Yan Wenhui who has since retired in Chiang Rai. 

Hong Luang Saengkaew was built to preserve the heritage of Wat Phra Kaew and serves as its museum. The museum has an impressive and rare collection of Lanna religious artifacts and Buddha images that one must see while visiting this temple.  A retired museologist Mr Supachai Sittilert is currently curator of the museum.

19 Moo 1, T. Wiang, Chiang Rai 57000
053 711 385, 053 719 086 
www.watphrakaew-chiangrai.com
Open daily 09:00am-17:00pm
No entrance fee. Donations are welcome.

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