Northern Thailand takes on a wholly different character from the rest of the country. Chiang Mai, the former capital of the kingdom of Lanna until the 18th century, is a city of great significance even today. But it’s also a time capsule of Lanna-style temples, shrines and historical sites all over the city. Separated by 200 miles is Chiang Rai, a city full of charm, history and also plenty of cultural attractions for history lovers and culture vultures.
Wat Doi Suthep
No visit to Chiang Mai would be complete without climbing the 306 steps to the peak of Doi Suthep. The staircase is lined with Thailand’s greatest collection of Naga – mythical snake statues – and on reaching the summit you’ll be rewarded with stunning vistas over the city of Chiang Mai, plus entry to the 14th-century temple itself. A tram is also available to take you up the mountain and you’ll be able to enjoy all the same benefits, and be less of a hot mess! The Wat takes its influences from both Hinduism and Buddhism, with statues of both the Emerald Buddha and Ganesh. As such it’s a highly spiritual place that attracts pilgrims in their droves.
Wat Suan Dok
This sacred, 600 year-old temple retains its splendour in its shining white chedi. It’s thus a fitting home for the ashes of the royal family of Chiang Mai, which are kept in a mausoleum onsite. These impressive chedi – built in a Sri Lankan style – are quite a sight to behold, some of them stretching up to 48 metres high. Don’t miss the 5-metre bronze Buddha statue, constructed in the 16th century and shining bright to this day.
Located in Lamphun region and cited as the oldest temple in the north, it is said to have been built in the 9th century and to contain a sample of hair from the Buddha. The site has been renovated and expanded many times over the centuries, including the addition of five Sri Lankan style pagodas by the King of Chiang Mai in the 15th century. The current structure includes a nine-tiered gold-plated pagoda and giant bronze gong, purportedly the largest in the world.
Wat Ched Yot
This ancient 15-century temple has particular significance for Buddhists, as it was chosen to play host to the World Buddhism Council, twenty years after its construction. This was perhaps partly due to its design – based on a temple in Bagan, Myanmar, itself based on the Mahabodhi temple in northern India where the Buddha gained enlightenment. Today, it’s an atmospheric temple with Indian architectural influences and Lanna-style chedis, shrouded in dense jungle and foliage, making it a site not to be missed.
Wat Doi Chom Thong
Chiang Rai is well known for its White Temple – an art exhibit built in the style of a temple just over two years ago – but for an authentic historical experience Doi Chom Thong is a must-see. Before its current incarnation it housed local spirits as a Spirit House, and these spirits are still very much integrated into the temple’s Buddhist structures. You’ll learn the tale of the elephant that Paw Kuhn Mangrai was following along the River Kok when he came across this solitary hillside spot.