Top Picks: The Must-See Chiang Mai Temples for First-Time Visitors

Chiang Mai is home to over 300 important temples, beautiful temples, and falling-down-in-disrepair Buddhist temples. In fact, north Thailand has the most in all the country, but the truth is very few visitors will have time to visit more than a handful.

Like visitors to Rome tired of churches and cathedrals, it’s pretty easy to get burnout from the countless temples in Thailand.

So how do you decide which ones you should make time to see and which you should save for another visit?

Today we are going to help you decide which temples you should visit in Chiang Mai by telling you a little about the oldest temple, the most famous Chiang Mai temple, and some that are pretty unique so that you can make your own top 5 list.

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Below we will share our list of Chiang Mai’s best temples along with the highlights of what to look for while you are there. However, if you are in a hurry here is our quick list of Chiang Mai temple facts.

  • There are over 300 temples in Chiang Mai (and 20,281 in the whole of Thailand)
  • The oldest temple in Chiang Mai, Wat Chiang Man dates back to 1296
  • The most famous temple in Chiang Mai is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
  • Which is the most visited Temple in Chiang Mai? Also Wat Phra Doi Suthep.
  • The best temple to visit at sunset is Wat Suan Dok (Wat Buppharam)
  • What temple has the best Big Buddha? Wat Chiang Yuen in Chiang Mai and Wat Phra Doi Kham on Doi Kham mountain.

Preparing for your temple visit

There is often confusion about what to wear and how to act when you are visiting temples for the first time. The basic rule is to be respectful, these are places of worship. These tips apply equally to visiting temples anywhere in South East Asia.

  • Cover your body – You must cover yourself to the knees, cover your shoulders, and don’t wear cropped tops.
  • Pointing and touching – If you kneel or meditate, sit with your feet pointing behind you. Don’t let your feet point at anyone and don’t touch anyone, including children, on the head (and these rules apply everywhere in Thailand).
  • Interacting with monks – don’t touch monks, especially if you’re a woman. If you are listening to a sermon, make sure you stay below the level of the monk or abbot’s head.
You will find signs like these outside most temples in Thailand

Temples in Chiang Mai within the old town walls

We have split our list of temples between those inside the old town walls and those that sit outside or even in the foothills of Doi Inthanon.

Map of Chiang Mai must-see temples within the walled city.

1. Wat Chedi Luang

Wat Chedi Luang is a part of what was an old complex of three temples in central Chiang Mai: Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Ho Tham, and Wat Sukmin.

For a time, Wat Chedi Luang was the home of one of Asia’s most sacred objects – the Emerald Buddha.

Wat Chedi Luang

But in what is a very familiar story about temples in Southeast Asia, an earthquake destroyed part of Wat Chedi Luang (in 1541) and the Emerald Buddha was moving to Luang Prabang, the capital of Laos.

Photo of Naga balustrades and entrance to Wat Chedi Luang. Chiang Mai, Thailand
Naga balustrades and entrance to Wat Chedi Luang. Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Another common story about Southeast Asia temples is that there is almost always an argument about how an ancient temple is rebuilt – is it really authentic? Is it garish now? Does it seem too much like some other style/era/fashion in temple building, and so on?

Long story short, a black Jade Emerald Buddha replica was made and installed in the eastern niche of Wat Chedi Luang for the 600th birthday of this UNESCO monument, in 1995.

Where: 103 Prapokkloa Rd, Tambon Si Phum, 
When: 5 am-10 pm

Consider having someone drive you around to all the most interesting temples in a few hours if your time is short in Chiang Mai.

We really like this half-day Chiang Mai Temples Small Group Tour for its quality, convenience, and reasonable price.

2. Wat Phra Singh

This Lanna-style temple is one of the most popular temples in Chiang Mai, and lies in the west of the city, within the old city walls.

In the Thai language, a Singh is a lion (yep, Singha beer!) and so when you see the two stone lions guarding the entrance, you’ll know you’ve found Wat Phra Singh.

Wat Phra Singh

But, it’s not the Singha (lions) that gives the Wat Phra Singh its name – instead, it’s the Buddha image that you’ll find here – the Phra Buddha Sihing

Why the Buddha image is called this, no one knows, and there are at least two other Buddha statues with the same name in Thailand.

But every year the Wat Phra Singh Buddha statue is paraded through the streets of Chiang Mai, and Buddhists honor the statue by sprinkling water on it. (I’ve never understood why it’s usually bottled water!)

Where: 2 Samlarn Rd, Phra Sing, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai
When: 9 am-6 pm

3. Wat Phan Tao (Wat Phantao)

Don’t miss this Lanna-style teak temple that is one of my favorite temples in Chiang Mai because of its tiered roof and 1000-year-old teak carved walls.

Wat Phan Tao Chiang Mai Temple
Wat Phan Tao

Right beside Wat Chedi Luang is the lovely and old Wat Phan Tao which is made of teak and full of intricate carvings.

It’s not considered one of the most famous temples in Chiang Mai’s old city, but it is one of my favorites.

Built in the 13th century, the teak ordination hall (called a viharn), was originally a royal building – the throne room for the King of Chiang Mai.

It houses a Buddha (the Wat Phan Tao Buddha, of course!) that Thai Buddhists consider to be one of the most famous Buddha statues in the country.

Where: 105 Prapokkloa Rd, Tambon Si Phum, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai
When: 6 am to 5 pm

4. Wat Chiang Man

There are several reasons to visit this venerable site. The first is that you’ll be visiting one of the oldest structures in the Kingdom.

Wat Chiang Man was built by the first Lanna King, King Mengrai, in 1297 as part of the many buildings he was having constructed to create his new Kingdom HQ in Chiang Mai.

This makes Wat Chiang Man the oldest of the Chiang Mai region temples.

Wat Chiang Man Chiang Mai
Wat Chiang Man

Like all temples, they were built and added on to over the centuries.

The oldest part of the temple is the elephant stupa – you can’t miss it because the front of it has 15 life-sized elephants that take the weight of the rest of the chedi on their backs.

There are two other things you should look out for:

  • The stone stele. In front of the main ordination hall (the Usobot), you’ll find a stone stelae that has inscribed on it the date of the founding of Chiang Mai.
  • The Crystal Buddha – one of the two “palladium statues,” it’s only 10 cm tall and it’s carved from a block of quartz crystal. When the city was sacked, it wasn’t found and so it’s considered a protector of the city, kind of like a very big lucky amulet.
  • The lotus pond and the temple library are also worth visiting.

Where: 171 Ratchapakhinai Rd, Tambon Si Phum, Mueang Chiang Mai District
When: 8 am-5 pm

Must see temples in Chiang Mai outside the city walls

There’s an ancient tradition of monks retreating to forests and mountains to build cave temples and forest monasteries.

Close to Chiang Mai city are dozens of temples with fantastic views, set in the beautiful scenery. So if you have a few days in Chiang Mai, try to get to a few of the best ones below.

Visiting these temples is a little more challenging if you don’t have a car, but we think they are worth the effort.

You can book a grab, hire a driver for a few hours or even join a tour to Doi Suthep. Some like this tour allow you to customise your itinerary.

Map of Chiang Mai must-see temples outside the walled city.

1. Wat Umong – The Cave Temple

This fascinating temple is called The Cave temple, the Forest Temple, and the Tunnel temple!

Buddha statue in one of the underground tunnels at Wat Umong, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Buddha statue in one of the underground tunnels at Wat Umong, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Wat Umong Sunag Phutthatham is 700 years old and lies at the base of the Doi Suthep mountains, near the university and zoo.

The temple sits within 15 acres of land covered in trees where you can feed turtles, fish, and pigeons that hang out around a large lake.

Wat Umong Chiang Mai
Wat Umong Chiang Mai

I love the tunnels here which are thought to have been ordered dug by the King to keep a mentally ill monk within the Wat Umong grounds.

There’s also a library, and it’s an ideal place to learn meditation, which is taught by the monks (when they’re not feeding the resident deer population!)

Try to visit on a weekday as crowds can make the experience less enjoyable on weekends.

As you can tell, Wat Umong is more of a forest temple than an urban chedi, but it’s so close to Chiang Mai’s old city that it’s worth escaping the hustle to get a small slice of Buddhist life.

Where: 135 หมู่ที่ 10 Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50200
When: 5 pm to 8 pm every day.

2. Wat Sri Suphan – The Silver Temple complex

This Lanna-style silver temple is one of the most ornate Chiang Mai temples because of the hand-beaten silverwork that adorns the temple.

Wat Sri Suphan - aka the Silver Temple
Wat Sri Suphan – aka the Silver Temple

As you enter the silver temple grounds you’ll see the “Usobot.” (An Usobot is the main ordination hall and prayer building in a Thai temple complex).

Combine your visit with a trip to the Saturday walking street market that operates in the adjoining street.

The main building within Wat Sri Suphan is an impressive one, that replaced the initial complex that was built in 1500. You’ll see intricate carvings on the Usobot that are covered in aluminum and silver. It feels like the entire temple complex is clad in silver!

interior of the Silver Temple, Chiang Mai
Interior Silver Temple Chiang Mai

Wat Sri Suphan is a unique Buddhist temple complex to visit and you’ll find it just outside the city walls in Wualai District, which is a traditional village of silversmiths.

The intricate aluminum and silver beaten plates depict incredibly detailed scenes from the life of the Buddha, but also of Thai everyday life.

Where: 100 Wua Lai Rd, Tambon Hai Ya, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai.
When: 6 am to 6 pm, except Saturday when it stays open till 11 pm for night market visitors

3. Wat Jet Yod (Chet Yot) – 7 chedis on top of the temple

2 miles outside of the Chiang Mai Old City, this seldom-visited temple is important for those born during the Year of the Snake.

It’s modeled on Myanmar’s Mahabodi Pagoda and has stone carvings of 70 celestial beings (called Thewada) around its base. They’re highly detailed and are worth the short trip outside the old city.

Ancient pagoda in Chet Yod temple, Chiang Mai province.
Ancient pagoda in Chet Yod temple in Chiang Mai

It gets its name from the ordination hall, which has 7 chedis (Jet Yod) on its roof.

In 1477, the 8th World Buddhist Council met in Chiang Mai here at Wat Jet Yod to discuss the Tripitaka (Buddhist scriptures). The temple complex is still in use with monks living on the grounds.

Where: หมู่ที่ 2 90 Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Ma
When: 6 am-5 pm every day

4. Wat Welu Wanaram (Wat Ku Tao) – Gourd Pagoda Temple

Amongst Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai, this could be the most strangely named temple. Wat Ku Tao is known as the gourd pagoda temple because it’s thought to look like a gourd!

Wat Ku Tao (Temple of the Gourd Pagoda) in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Wat Ku Tao (Temple of the Gourd Pagoda) in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The pagoda is not one of the oldest (built in 1637) but it’s interesting for a few reasons.

It is the home of Chiang Mai’s Shan community and there are Chinese (Yunnanese) influences in the construction of what is otherwise a Burmese pagoda.

It was built to be the resting place of the first Burmese ruler of the Lanna Kingdom.

The squat little Chiang Mai chedi (the part of the pagoda above the base) is constructed as 5 layers. These layers represent the five Buddhas (the past Buddhas and the future Buddha).

You’ll find the pagoda temple outside and to the north of Chiang Mai’s old city, just beyond the municipal stadium.

Where: Ku Thao Road, north of Muang Chiang Mai Stadium Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai
When: 6 am – 6 pm

5. Wat Lok Molee (Wat Lok Moli)

You’ll find the 14th-century Wat Lok Molee almost backing onto the moat. It’s outside the moat on the northern side, 400 meters from the North Gate.

Wat Lok Molee (Wat Lok Moli) in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Wat Lok Molee (Wat Lok Moli)

This is definitely a beautiful temple not to miss. I love the deep midnight blue color with detailed carvings inside and outside the main viharn. The naga that guard the temple entrance are particularly intricate.

Wat Lok Molee (Wat Lok Moli) in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Wat Lok Molee (Wat Lok Moli) in Chiang Mai, Thailand

The temple is set in a garden and contains the remains of several Kings of Lanna.

But the reason people come to see this temple is the enormous chedi which is, strangely for Thailand, left in a delightfully unadorned form with the brickwork exposed.

Where: 298/1 Manee Nopparat Rd Si Phum, Mueang, Chiang Mai
When: 6 am-5 pm

6. Wat Pha Lat (Wat Sakithaka)

Of all the temples outside of Chiang Mai city, this temple is the closest to the kind of rural peace and the reverence for Buddhism and for nature that it’s possible to see.

Chiang Mai city has grown incredibly in the last 50 years, and this is one place devoid of tour buses that makes you fall in love with Thailand.

Also known as the jungle temple Wat Pha Lat features interesting gardens
Also known as the jungle temple Wat Pha Lat features interesting gardens

Hike the monk’s trail to this meditation retreat and monastery. You can do it all the way from Chiang Mai city.

Once a stopover for pilgrimages to the temple on the top of Doi Suthep mountain, this forest temple is located beside a stream and you’ll love the little bridges that cross the stream.

Wat Pha Lat temple stupa

The bamboo groves are cleared to lead to a platform and steps to the small temple guarded by two fierce Naga that form the balustrades of the stone steps. There is also a large stupa.

Inside the temple you’ll find Buddha statues, each in its own alcove, sitting serenely above the forest.

Where: 101, Sriwichai Alley, Mueang Chiang Mai District,
When: 6 am to 6 pm

7. Wat Phra Doi Suthep or Wat Phra That Doi

Also known as the Golden Temple and the Elephant temple, the beautiful temple of What Phra That Doi is on Doi Suthep mountain, in Doi Suthep National Park.

The golden chedi of Wat Phra That Doi is a beautiful retreat 15 km from the city and you’ll get a panoramic view of Chiang Mai, the walls of the old city, and you can spot the ancient Chiang Mai temples dotted between the modern city’s buildings.

The long staircase of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple is decorated with jeweled Naga serpents
The long staircase of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple is decorated with jeweled Naga serpents

The first buildings of Wat Phra That Doi seem to have been built in the 14th century.

Centuries later, a road was built to the temple grounds in 1935. Legends abound about the temple’s origins – the legends include kings, monks, white elephants, and relics of the Buddha.

Besides the adventurous ways of getting here (hiking the monk’s trail, tram, or climbing 309 steps), highlights of a visit to Wat Phra That Doi include:

  • the largest Naga staircase balustrade in the country and the Naga guarding the Gates
  • the 24 m high chedi that is covered in goldplate
  • The chatra on the top of the pagoda (this is a Burmese ‘hti‘ – ‘hti‘ means ‘umbrella’ in Burmese)
  • The central Buddha image within Wat Phra That Doi
Golden mount of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Golden mount of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

More than 125,000 people make the pilgrimage up Doi Suthep mountain to the Buddhist temple each year, and most during the dry season, so plan your visit at either end of the day if possible.

Where: 9 หมู่ที่ 9 Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai
When: 6 am-8 pm

8. Wat Suan Dok (Wat Buppharam)

Unlike the temples we’ve already described, Wat Suan Dok is down the pecking order of royal temples in Chiang Mai.

Temple Wat Suan Dok
Wat Suan Dok

Wat Suan Dok is an impressive 48 meters high and is bell-shaped (a chedi), in the style of Sri-Lankan temples (Theravada Buddhism came to Thailand from west Asian countries).

You can see it for miles around. The four staircases leading up to the terrace of the chedi have been replaced by ramps.

According to legend, a relic of the Buddha is encased within the chedi of Wat Suan Dok.

There are a whole host of Buddha images of different historical types, facing in different directions and there are also several mausoleums (they are whitewashed and easy to pick out), that hold the ashes of the Chiang Mai royal family.

But it is an unusually beautiful style and shape, and it makes a wonderful sunset view.

Wat Suan Dok is also known as the Flower Garden temple because it was built in 1373 on a former flower garden.

Where: 139 Suthep Rd, Suthep, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 
When: 5 am-9 pm

9. Wat Chetawan

You’ll find Wat Chetavan just a little to the east of the old city, near the Tha Phae Gate and opposite MahaWan Temple.

Wat Chetawan, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Wat Chetawan, Chiang Mai, Thailand

It was built during Burmese rule and the three chedi (pagodas) are a typical Burmese style.

The Lanna Kingdom of Northern Thailand and a part of Burma (Myanmar) peaked in the late 15th century but was then made a part of the Kingdom of Pegu (near Yangon in Myanmar).

Many of the oldest Chiang Mai temples were built during this time in the popular style of the Lanna Kingdom.

Mosaics, paintings, and gilt filigree decorate the inside, three-tiered roof, and outside of the Lanna-style viharn that is made of teak.

The animals guarding the chedi at Wat Chetavan are also traditional Burmese Buddhist images of Chinthe (guardian lions) and Naga (snakes).

Unfortunately, the two chinthe guarding the entrance to the temple have been recently recreated as Thai elephants.

Where: 314 Tha Phae Road, Tambon Chang Moi, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai
When: Opening sunrise to sunset

All templed out? Why not check out some of Chiang Mai’s famous waterfalls?