There are a lot of Top Ten lists floating around the internet for those planning a trip to Bangkok. For those whose journey will take them outside of Thailand’s capital city, not so much. Which for some destinations makes sense. For Phuket visitors the only list needed is the Top Ten Phuket Scams, but then part of the fun in being victimized by locals is not knowing you are participating in a scam until your wallet has been appropriately emptied. Ahhh, good times. And while I’m sure someone has come up with a Top Ten list for Pattaya, there’s only one reason anyone goes to Thailand’s version of Sin City. So that’s a list with nine suggestions that no one is interested in.
Of course, the only reason anyone visits Chiang Mai is to reap the rewards of visiting the plethora of wats the town has to offer. The Rose of the North has some 300 temples within its borders. And that’s a hell of a lot of merit making going on. Sure, first time visitors to Chiang Mai are interested in other activities too, like riding an elephant. Fortunately the most popular elephant camp includes a small shrine on its grounds. Which comes in handy for saying a prayer: Please god don’t let me ever waste my vacation time doing something as stupid and boring as taking a half hour long elephant ride again. In fact, there are a lot of things you can do in Chiang Mai where afterwards you’ll be seeking out the closest temple to beseech the gods to never let you do something as stupid as that again. Like paying to pee your pants on the Flight of the Gibbon ride. Or hitting the zoo for the Night Safari only to discover some of the creatures of the night featured on that tour are ladyboys.
But with so many wats to choose from it’s difficult for a first-time visitor to know which are worth checking out and which even the locals don’t bother with. And it’s not like you can rely on the advice on Trip Advisor ‘cuz those people haven’t a clue and think Tiger Kingdom is some kind of a Buddhist holy hot spot. Not that that’s entirely their fault. Every time a tourist gets mauled people start screaming, “Oh my god!” No problemo. After years of visiting Chiang Mai and spending most of those visits wandering from one temple to the next, I can tell you which wats you need to see, why you should see them, and when the best time is to visit each. So I will:
1. No, Really, It’s Not Another Wat.
AKA: Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, or Doi Suthep when you are trying to avoid using the W word.
WHY: Because yes, if everyone else jumped off a bridge, you would too.
WHEN: When your travel partner(s) start whining that the are wat-ted out.
TRIVIA: When Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was established, its location was selected by sending a white elephant up the hill loaded with important Buddha relics. The elephant died. Because as everyone knows, overweight animals attempting to scale tall mountains never ends well. You say dead elephant, the Thais said looks like a good spot to build a temple. So they did. Unsuspecting touri come close to accomplishing a similar feat when climbing the 2.8 million stairs to get to the temple. Knowledgeable visitors pay 50 baht to take the elevator.
WAT: Many wats have lots of gold, lots of Buddhas, and a large gong to strike. But most are not built on a hill top overlooking Chiang Mai. So there’s the view. There’s also numerous opportunities to purchase lotus blossoms, candles, and incense to make merit – you are supposed to walk around the main stupa three times carrying them (and probably thinking good thoughts instead of how hot it is walking around the stupa three times). Trailblazer or not, please walk in the same direction as everyone else; Buddha is not known for his sense of humor. For the less athletic, you can also buy a brass bell, write your name on its bodhi leaf-shaped clapper, and hang it wherever in the wat you’d like – institutionalized graffiti is cool with Buddha as long as you shelled out some baht first.
2. Spelunking in Chiang Mai.
AKA: Wat U-Mong
WHEN: Early, before the caves get stiflingly hot.
TRIVIA: Legend – which is the Thai word for rumor – has it that the tunnels – which is the English word for the Thai word ‘caves’ – were built because there was a mad monk living at Wat U-Mong and they needed a place for him to wander where he would not get lost. In America, the faithful would have given him his own television station.
WAT: This is another good not-a-wat to fool your whining friends with. Tell them you are going on a picnic instead. There is a nice little lake where you can earn merit feeding fish (if you haven’t yet figured it out, earning merit always cost money) and the tunnels are kinda cool. There’s also a unique Buddha statue that looks more like the alien from Alien than Buddha (though come to think of it, it looks a bit like Sigourney Weaver does these days too), and a graveyard for Buddhists images that people broke or no longer wanted. And like at many wats in Thailand there is religious art on display at Wat U-Mong: don’t miss the dogs playing poker poster or you’ll be kicking yourself later.
3. All That Glitters Is Not Gold. Or Silver For That Matter.
AKA: Wat Sri Suphan
WHY: Lots of silver and an under-construction ubosot that women are not allowed in ‘cuz they are unclean.
WHEN: When you wandered too far and found yourself outside of the moat.
TRIVIA: Known among farang as The Silver Wat, this area was once a village that specialized in making silver ornaments and jewelry. The main drag out in front of the wat now specializes in selling silver made elsewhere to dumb touri who don’t know they can buy it cheaper at the Night Bazaar (where they specialize in selling silver plated jewelry in Tiffany boxes because they know the touri there are dumb too).
WAT: Wat Sri Suphan is on the road where the Saturday Night Market is held. I’ll let you guess when that market occurs. They usually have special merit making activities available on market night ‘cuz even monks know farang spend money foolishly. But it’s better to visit during the day when you can watch local craftsmen hammer out the not-silver they are building their silver ubosot out of. There’s lots of baby monks around this wat too. But for fans of Pattaya, please note Buddha does not approve of molesting baby monks. That’s why he made Sunee Plaza.
4. The Wat Of 1,000 Names
AKA: Wat Jed Rin (and 999 other monikers).
WHY: Buddha Balls!
WHEN: When you accidentally ended up at Wat Sri Suphan because you wandered too far and found yourself outside of the moat, and now need to make the long walk back into town.
TRIVIA: Also known as Wat Nong Chalin, as well as every possible variation on the spelling of Jed Rin, the coronation ceremony of King Mekut Sutthiwong took place in this temple in the sixteenth century. But since King Mekut was responsible for surrendering the city to the Burmese, its not like he’s one of the more popular historical Chiang Mai rulers among locals. They’re not really fond of the Burmese either.
WAT: There’s not one but three large gongs to strike, large Buddha balls to whack, a small temple to ignore, and the coolest little monk enclave across a rickety bridge spanning a small pond out back. In fact it is the picture postcard rural monk life that makes this wat a must-do. That and that no other touri will be there. Which is a good thing ‘cuz then you’ll not get any disapproving frowns when you whack the Buddha balls (although if a monk sees you he’ll probably laugh ‘cuz whacking balls translates into any language). There’s also a cool Buddha head in the courtyard that looks like those at The Bayon in Cambodia. So if you didn’t make it to Siem Reap you can take a photo here instead and then tell everyone back home you went to Angkor Wat. Which sounds a lot more exciting than, “I visited 10 Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai.”
5. Wat Size Matters
AKA: Wat Chedi Luang
WHY: ‘Cuz if you don’t everyone else who has been to Chiang Mai will ask you if you visited Wat Chedi Luang and when you say no they’ll look at you with pity.
WHEN: At night. Because you can then ask everyone else whose been to Chiang Mai if they visited Wat Chedi Luang at night and when they say no you can look at them with pity.
TRIVIA: There are several stories about why the wat’s famous large chedi is crumbling, the best being it was destroyed by cannon fire back in the 1500s when Burma beat Thailand 2 to 1. Although the truth is probably that Thais are not real big on preventive maintenance. The famous Emerald Buddha was once enshrined here too, but since it is not made of real emerald let’s not act like we really care.
WAT: Out front there is a large, beautiful wiharn. Out back there’s a beautiful, large chedi. But everyone really comes to Wat Chedi Luang to chat with monks. Fortunately they are young ones who need to practice their English so they are not big on scolding you for your own religious beliefs (uh, so please return that favor). And in case you missed the unclean women ban at the Silver Wat, there’s a small sign at a small building up front that says the same, though if I remember right this one actually mentions bleeding. If you are visiting with fish, make sure you take that sign in before chatting with the monks ‘cuz they’ll be so pissed they can’t talk and you’ll actually be able to get a few words in yourself.
6. The Wat of 1,000 Kilns
AKA: Wat Phan Tao
WHY: Because it is next door to Wat Chedi Luang.
WHEN: Hmmmm, let’s see . . . I just told you to visit Wat Chedi Luang at night, and Wat Phan Tao is right next door, so . . .
TRIVIA: What? The 1,000 kiln thingy isn’t enough?
WAT: I’d tell ya the cool thing about Wat Phan Tao is that it is built entirely out of teak, but I’m not that big of a nerd. And I hope you are not either. But it does have a mass of Buddhist flags, and a long line of large bells to make noise with. And even cool people enjoy doing something that is usually frowned on in houses of worship. Come around just after dinner-time and the wiharn is filled with monks chanting, which makes for a great photo op guaranteed to make all your friends back home green with envy. And isn’t that what international travel is really all about? On the downside, when the monks are chanting no one can hear the ruckus you are making with those bells. (By the way, if you are looking for the 1,000 kilns the wat is named for, there are none. See? The Buddha does have a sense of humor!)
7. Lions, and Tigers, and . . .
AKA: Wat Phra Singh
WHY: Because after Wat Doi Suthep Wat Phra Singh is considered the most important, most venerated, and holiest temple in Chiang Mai. Kidding: It’s about the baby monks.
WHEN: Monk feeding time.
TRIVIA: Wat Phra Singh is known as the temple of the Lion Buddha, which, depending on your generation may stir thoughts of either Judy Garland or Simba, but the joke is on you ‘cuz there are no lions in Thailand and the Phra Buddha Singh which the temple derives its name from looks nothing like a lion. The joke is also on the Thais ‘cuz as holy as the Buddha image is there are two other temples in Thailand that claim they have the real Phra Buddha Singh. Yes, the Thais will even knock-off designer Buddhas. In any case, the Phra Buddha Singh at Wat Phra Singh may only be a copy anyway ‘cuz rumor has it that someone stole its head back in 1922.
WAT: Yeah, yeah, Royal temple of the first grade, mucho sacred 1,500 year old Buddha statue, blah, blah, blah. Watching the 1.8 million baby monks scarfing down lunch inside the main wiharn is the true draw at Wat Phra Singh. There’s also a cool set of gardens out back with trees bearing little Buddhist thoughts (just in case you were thinking of molesting some little Buddhists and need something else top think about) and while there is no official monk chat program here you’ll often find a few sitting in this area
goofing off studying their scriptures in the shade who will readily join you in a conversation. There’s also a small Reclining Buddha statue worth checking out behind the garden and unlike the larger one in Bangkok there’s no admission fee. Take a close-up photo and no one will ever know the difference.
8. Pigging Out Is A Form Of Merit Making Too
AKA: Wat Phan On
WHY: Fried bananas in coconut sauce.
WHEN: About a dozen times during the Sunday Night Market.
TRIVIA: One of the most significant moments in the Buddha’s life was the first time he ate freshly fired bananas in coconut sauce. Okay, I’m not really that familiar with the life of Buddha, but trust me, the fried bananas at Wat Phan On are truly a religious experience that will prove to you there is in fact a god. BTW, did you know the banana tree is not actually a tree but a herb? Okay, did you know when wild banana trees grow in a small condominium project in Hawaii greedy residents steal the bananas while they are still green so that none of their neighbors can have any? Okay, so I have issues . . .
WAT: Located at the front party of the Sunday Night Market, Wat Phan On is a great place to start your night’s grazing. Many of the wats along the street open their courtyards to food vendors, but only this one makes a real go of it. There’s lots of picnic tables to sit at and lots of food to try. And it’s cheap. There’s also a shiny gold chedi in the courtyard, just in case you think you needed to prove your visit was spiritual in nature. But seriously, in case I failed to mention it, this one is all about the fried bananas in coconut sauce.
9. Wat Monkuccino
AKA: Wat Lok Molee
WHY: Because it is not Wat Chiang Man.
WHEN: When everyone else in town is visiting Wat Chiang Man.
TRIVIA: Sure the not far away Wat Chiang Mai is the oldest temple in the city. But the Buddha used the outhouse at Wat Lok Molee. Okay, so I made that up. But considering how many temples claim to have a hunk of the Buddha, it’s not that far-fetched. Plus now that it is on the internet other people will repeat that story and in ten years when I visit the wat again they’ll have a large sign saying ‘The Buddha Shat Here’.
WAT: Just in case you were beginning to think the only reason I visit wats is for the food, I should mention there is a cool little outdoor coffee shop at Wat Lok Molee. But the elephant sculpture made from large pieces of driftwood out back are even cooler. Especially if you check them out while sipping on a mocha frappuccino. If the thought of Wat Phan Tao being built of teak got to you, then you’ll probably be orgasmic over the idea that Wat Lok Molee is aligned along a north-south axis when Buddhist temples are generally oriented more towards the East and the rising sun. The rest of us have no idea what direction north is anyway. But do know what a large chedi is when we see one, and there’s one of impressive size at Wat Lok Molee. The wat also looks like Walt Disney had a hand in designing it; there’s lots of fanciful creatures found throughout its grounds. So smoking a bowl before you visit is a plus. And the coffee shop sells munchies too, Just in case.
10. Nothing says enlightenment like dead monks and sinners roasting in hell.
AKA: Wat Tung Yu
WHY: Dead Monks.
WHEN: When your pockets are full of worthless Thai coins and you need to get rid of them before your pants fall down.
TRIVIA: If you think making bad puns using the word ‘wat’ is fun, just think of what you can do with ‘tung yu’. Of course doing so probably means you are going to hell, but since Wat Tung Yu has murals depicting the bloody eternal torment suffered by tortured sinners in hell, you should feel right at home. Even more so if you come to this temple just to see paintings of naked people brandishing sharp pointy things. Uh, huh. Now who’s wat-ted out?
WAT: Not that Sylvester Stallone isn’t needy these days too, but you can pay $15 bucks to visit Madame Tussaud’s in Bangkok, or instead there’s a pavilion at the front of Wat Tung Yu with a bunch of wax Monks figures holding bowls you can make offerings to (aka dumping your worthless change). So we’re talking not only making merit, but coming out of the deal $14 to the good too. But save some of those coins and then slowly count them out like an old woman at your neighborhood grocery store’s express lane check-out counter inside where you can write your name on a wooden shingle that will be used to re-roof neighboring wats. Because unlike at home, graffiti at a Thai temple is considered sacred instead of sacrilege (though the less religious may claim it just shows you what Thais will tolerate for a fistful of baht).
Yes, I did not include the White Wat on this list. Because it is not IN Chiang Mai. And it is already overrun by touri. So please cross that temple off your list so I can enjoy it in peace the next time I visit.
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