Early this year, on a two month solo trip to Thailand, I decided to start off with a couple of weeks in Chiang Mai, the biggest city in the northern part of the country. It is a digital nomad hotspot and I was keen on seeing that infrastructure up close. What I didn’t expect were temples, or rather the sheer number of them. As I strolled around the old city centre, one popped up in almost every lane. There were, I learnt later, more than 300 of them, rich with iconography under steep tapering roofs and monks robed in ochre or orange ambling along footpaths clogged with small guardian deity shrines.
Having been to many temple towns in India, I have something of a modus operandi for them. I start by identifying the oldest and in Chiang Mai that led me to Wat Chiang Man. The town was founded in 1296 and a year later Wat Chiang Man came up. Its grounds were picturesquely replete with champa trees, green lawns, benches, and a lotus pond. The main temple hall’s doors were red and gold, a colour theme that continued inside the hall, the tall pillars and all the way to the tapering roof above. At the far end of the hall, stood a Buddha idol dressed in gold cloth and surrounded by smaller Buddhas.
Wat Chiang Man is located right by some of the best pizza places in Chiang Mai. The Casa and Restaurant pizzeria is run by an Italian who is often heard propounding on the antiquity of pizza and why it must be had in its original form. It is common to find many foreigners like him who have settled down in Chiang Mai and are running a business. It helps that they speak good English, making it easier for travellers to understand the place and culture.
Walking distance from there was the Wat Chedi Luang, a large complex with shrines, temple halls and a museum, all for an entrance fee of 40 Baht. When I visited, there were people taking photographs everywhere—some groups along the chedi (the Thai word for stupa), while another bunch of Asians focused on the many cannonball trees in the courtyard. On one side of the courtyard, monks sat at separate tables in a shaded seating area. Visitors were welcomed to chat with them as part of the temple’s activities. I approached an ochre-robed monk sitting alone, unsure how to begin. The monk greeted me by joining his hands in a namaste. I started by asking him what the purpose of this chat session was.
“Apart from helping travellers understand Thai Buddhism,” he said, “It is also for me and other monks to learn English better.”
The monk was from Laos. He had a relative in the city, so he had chosen to be ordained here in Thailand. Soon another monk and a local Thai volunteer joined our table and we talked about Jainism, vegetarian food, cremation rituals and other Indian lore. One of them asked me about the ‘khamkha’ river in India. It confused me for a moment but then I realised he was asking about the Ganga. Their Sanskrit word pronunciations are different and often they have their own Thai words— like Ganesha is called Phra Pikanet while Mahavira is referred to as the Nagaputta.
After the chat, I got myself an ice cream at a stall near the exit and thought over something the monks had said. I had earlier stayed at a Mahayana Buddhist retreat in Australia but these monks had informed me that Thervada Buddhism was what the Buddha originally propounded, while Mahayana was a newer variation. It was intriguing that though Buddhism originated in India, its wings had spread deeper in other countries.
I found another temple doorway close at hand. The courtyard was inviting and empty. Impulsively, I entered and by chance found my favourite temple of the city—Wat PhanTao, fully made from teak. The wood to construct it had been earlier in the panels of the older palace hall which had been torn down. With colourful religious flags, a golden chedi and a pond at the back, the courtyard had a calmness to it after the bustle at Wat Chedi Luang. I learnt that there were two more wooden temples in Chiang Mai and one of them was nearby at the Wat Phra Sing. Along with Wat Chiang Man, this was the only other temple to have a lotus pond.
Chiang Mai’s temples are located inside the old city center which is a square area surrounded by a moat. It is bustling with tourists, cobbled streets, cafes and hotels packed together. As it happened, I was staying close to the third wooden temple—Wat Lok Moli, a beautiful teakwood temple with a bare brick chedi—which is situated outside the old city. Every day at 6 pm sonorous chanting permeated the air as monks and local Buddhists gathered in the temple halls for a meditative ritual.
These temples will feel familiar to Indians. The Ganesha adorns many spaces. Seemingly Indic words are scattered on boards, like ‘Acharn Mun’ for their senior monk, a variation of ‘Acharya Muni’ in Sanskrit. Story panels in the temples often mention places like Mithila and Indian kings. Looking at them, it felt like I should know those stories but I couldn’t recall them.
To go longer distances in Chiang Mai, one convenient mode of travel was Songthaew or tuk tuk. It is a type of shared van where each passenger pays a fixed amount and informs their specific destination. The drivers typically speak very little English but fellow travellers told me that because of their knowledge of all the major temples, they can be used for temple trailing. I often had a bicycle with me to explore faraway places. Even though some city roads had fast moving traffic, usually I could switch to a smaller emptier parallel road. I cycled to see Wat Sri Suphan, a temple that interested me after I had read about it online.
Also called the Silver Temple, it is made completely of metal and has an entrance fee. At the ticket window, I was however told that women were not permitted to enter the hall and would have to view it from outside. Indian temples often restrict women on the days they are menstruating but here it had been taken to another level. And I suspect this wasn’t a very rare practice either, because I recalled seeing a similar board outside one of the smaller shrines at the Wat Chedi Luang barring women due to their ‘menstruation impurity’. At the time I had been shocked how the government could justify such discrimination at a popular tourist spot. So I wasn’t surprised on finding myself barred from Wat Sri Suphan. I decided not to pay the entrance fee at all in a silent protest and instead visited the adjoining temple which was open for all. It had a lovely red interior with gold artwork and colorful metallic picture panels. I couldn’t identify the actual stories but they were all set in India.
From there I cycled towards the other nearby temple I saw on the map, Wat Muen San. Not only were women allowed inside, I seemed like the only tourist there. On entering, I was greeted by a detailed artwork of none other than Shiva. Ganesha idols are common in Thailand, Shiva not so much. In the courtyard, a local Thai woman smiled at me. I greeted her with the traditional ‘Sawasdee kha’. She asked me whether I was an Indian. When I nodded, she told me in halting English that she had been a couple of times to Bodh Gaya and Varanasi. On this Thailand trip, I met many locals who told me about their travels to India. In Bangkok there was a cafe owner who loved Mumbai and had started a cafe in its name. Another local I met in a small town with a Hindu temple was planning his first trip to Siddhivinayak temple in Mumbai.
I have spent many days in temple towns of India, from Varanasi in the north to Tiruvannamalai in the south. But none of them came close to Chiang Mai in terms of cleanliness and friendliness. But where Indian temple towns clearly score is in diversity. I remember exploring Varanasi a few years ago and being overwhelmed by the sheer variety. It felt as if every one of the millions of deities and demi-gods had a dedicated temple in Varanasi. And each temple had its own rituals, traditions and community. I once met a Spanish lady who had stayed in Varanasi for eight years and was still figuring out the various cultural nuances. I had gone on a walk with her to find an obscure temple she had read about in a book. We crisscrossed the ghat area and finally found ourselves at a local house. In their courtyard was a beautiful old temple with artwork all around it. This family was the caretaker of the temple. Indian temple towns are full of such hidden stories. And besides, in India there would be a plethora of monks and yogis; from Aghoris sitting by funeral pyres to Brahmins conducting fire rituals. Chiang Mai, in that sense, felt more easy to negotiate. If at all there were deeper secrets, I think it would be difficult to find them without knowing the local language.
I did stumble upon one such hidden story. I had been on a long cycle ride on the main road about 10 kilometres to the south east of Chiang Mai when I saw the board of a bike lane. On taking the turn, I found myself in Wiang Kum Kam historical park. Inside, there were archeological sites of an older settlement. I passed a couple of ruins and decided to explore the next one. However, as soon as I entered the gate a pack of dogs jumped out behind me. Many cyclist bloggers mention the notorious dogs of Thailand, cycling away fast is usually the only way out. I quickly veered and continued onwards on the bike lane. Soon I saw the chedi in the distance and this, I later found out, was a temple called the Wat Chedi Liam. This chedi was unlike any that I had seen earlier. It was a 5-storey high square shaped pyramid. Each storey had alcoves with Buddha idols. A total of 60 such idols were enshrined on it. I only saw its stunning beauty from far with the early morning sun rising behind it.
Later when I read up on it, I found that the temple had been constructed in 1288. That made it even older than Wat Chiang Man. This style of chedi is attributed to the Mon people who ruled in the region since the 7th century. In the 12th century the Lanna king Mangrai took control of Lamphun, which had been the Mon capital. The king chose to create a new city as its capital nearby. This was Chiang Mai, and thus, all the temples in it are of the Lanna architecture. What I had seen from afar was another past.
Getting There There are no direct flights from India to Chiang Mai. It is best to fly to Bangkok. From Bangkok to Chiang Mai by air takes roughly 1 hour and 15 mins. Most low-cost flights are from the Don Muang International Airport in Bangkok, while a few are from Suvarnabhumi International Airport. Be sure to opt for the right airport if you are transiting. Many travellers recommend taking a train to take in the scenic beauty. It takes roughly 12 to 15 hours. There are 5 direct trains to choose from. The bus takes about 10 hours and is available every 30 minutes.
Visa Thailand is currently giving free visa on arrival to Indian travellers. Simply land at the Bangkok airport and apply for the 15-day visa. You can get a longer tourist visa by applying at the VFS center in your city.
Stay Chiang Mai has several accommodation options, from backpacker hostels to luxury resorts. Staying in the old city itself or near it is usually the preferred choice. 60 Blue House is a guesthouse in the old city near the Chiang Mai Gate run by a Japanese couple. Ban Come In, is another guesthouse with a community kitchen near the Chang Puak gate and is a walking distance from the old city. Ratchamankha Hotel is a 4-star hotel with a swimming pool in the old city right next to Wat Phra Sing. Rates tend to soar closer to the travel dates so plan well ahead.