Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
The most famous of all the wats, this temple sits high above all its lesser competition on Mount Suthep. The location, which gives visitors a bird’s eye view of Chiang Mai, is a peaceful place to spend an hour or two and even has a meditation center. The wat itself has a unique dragon-shaped staircase leading up 309 steps to a golden stupa surrounded by Buddha statues, burning incense and candles, plus paintings of monks and elephants. Beyond the main stupa, there are gardens, more shrines, and prayer flags out amongst the trees. If you only have time for one wat, this is it. Tip: Get the shuttle from Chiang Mai University — just outside the main entrance, to the left — for a shared fare with other passengers.
Wat Chedi Luang
Wat Chedi Luang is one of the easiest wats to find, as it sits right in the middle of Chiang Mai close to most backpacker hostels and restaurants. Dating back to 1400, Chedi Luang, which was once the tallest in ancient Thailand, is a massive brick and stucco structure that will make you feel as though you’ve been transported to another time. It is adorned with elephant statues but is somewhat damaged due to an earthquake in the 16th century. This wat is worth a stroll around, if only to feel small in the shadow of its impressive history.
If you are growing tired of wat after wat while traveling through Thailand, then Umong will be a breath of fresh air, a chance to reset your palate. Set in the forest, a couple kilometers outside the city, this temple has an ambience of true connection and spirituality. What really sets it apart, though, is the fascinating tunnels that run beneath the timeworn stupa. Easily accessed, they are full of wall paintings, different sized Buddha statues, and monks kneeling in prayer before shrines. In the grounds around, there are Buddhist relics and a pond where children and adults can feed pigeons and extremely hungry catfish.
Wat Umong — Located 1km south of Chiang Mai University. Easiest to take public transportation or your own scooter/bicycle there.
Wat Sri Suphan
Walking through any market in Chiang Mai, you’ll see artistic silver work being sold, but little do many visitors know, there is an even larger scale of artistic silver beauty at Wat Sri Suphan, a temple made of silver metals and alloys. While many people go and see the White Temple, up in Chiang Rai, which is usually packed with tourists, Sri Suphan is a more relaxed, less-touristy option with the only downfall being women are not allowed in the main hall due to religious impositions. Even without going inside, the craftsmanship of the temple, glimmering in the sun, is a stunning feature to view and something to appreciate. Tip: There are monk chats, every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, in which you can help monks practice their English and ask questions about the Buddhist religion.
Wat Lok Molee
Sometimes, you choose your favorite temple based on beauty, history, or location. Lok Molee happens to be down the street from one of the best breakfasts in town, Free Bird Café, so you might find yourself exploring this temple quite a lot. It’s right off a busy main street, outside the gates of the old city, but once you step onto its grounds, the noise seems to fade away. Wat Lok Molee has a large chedi holding the ashes of several Thai kings and a teak wooden pavilion with a statue of a queen of the Lanna kingdom. Keeping things looking royal, stained glass is embedded around the front of the main hall, and a golden, metal Bodhi tree stands out front. Although not the largest, this temple has many interesting, small oddities to keep you intrigued.
Of course, these wats are only the tip of the iceberg, as there are many more, truly jaw-dropping temples in Chiang Mai, but they can always wait until next time. If you only hit these five, you surely won’t be disappointed.