Of Lions & Buddhas – Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Mai, Thailand

posted in: Asia, Heritage, Thailand | 20

With over 1000 Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai, temple hopping is absolutely unavoidable. It can be quite a taxing journey for your senses – for each temple will tend to ruffle them. I started my temple hopping tour with the oldest Buddhist Temple – Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple with the epic relics of Buddha. I still had not gotten over the frenzy of its lovely architecture and I reached my next stop. The Wat Phra Singh Temple in Chiang Mai – with its classic Lanna architecture, stunning interiors and legendary Buddha Idol set my senses on fire.

Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Mai, Thailand

The Wat Phra Singh Temple is one of the three important Buddhist temples of Chiang Mai. There are plenty of reasons for the same – starting with the iconic Buddha Idol it houses to it being a home to the ashes of the erstwhile royalty. From the point of view of visitors, its elaborate architecture and legends make it a key Chiang Mai attractions. It is not just a single building but a layout that you need to explore. Here is what you can expect at the Wat Phra Singh.

History of Wat Phra Singh Chiang Mai

It was in 1345 that King Phayu built the first structure of this temple – a chedi to preserve the ashes of his late father – King Kham Fu. A couple of years later, around 1367, the iconic Buddha statue called Phra Singh was installed in its Wiharn (Viharn – Sermon hall or Meditation Hall). It was this statue that made it legendary. The Buddha statue used to be a part of the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya but went missing from there. The idol traveled from then, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to Chiang Mai. It is owing to this, that the 14th-century temple was renamed to Wat Phra Singh.

A glimpse of the Phra Singh Buddha in Chiang Mai
A glimpse of the Phra Singh Buddha in Chiang Mai

The temple fell into disrepair when the Burmese ruled over the Lanna Kingdom in the 1500s. However, it was restored by the later King Kawila in the 1700s. More buildings were added and it soon became a significant part of the Chiang Mai culture,

The significance of the Phra Singh Buddha

The history of the Wat Phra Singh is not complete if I do not share the significance of the Buddha idol here. Singh in the name refers to the lion. Before he became a monk. Buddha was a prince of the Shakya Clan and one of the symbols of this clan was a lion. The idol was thus, named so and it is said that while it was being transported from Ceylon, the ship carrying it sank. This statue, however, floated and reached Nakhon Si Thammarat and finally, Chiang Mai.

Phra Singh Buddha Statue of Chiang Mai,Thailand
Phra Singh Buddha Statue of Chiang Mai,Thailand

The head of the Buddha was stolen in 1920s but the body is still an original. Irrespective of the same, the Phra Singh Buddha idol is still revered. Every year, during the Songkran festival, this idol is taken out in a procession.

Wiharn Lai Kham

Wiharn Lai Kham with the Chedi at Wat Phra Singh, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Wiharn Lai Kham with the Chedi at Wat Phra Singh, Chiang Mai, Thailand

The sky decided to open up as I walked the path leading to the main temple of Wat Phra Singh. However, instead of the rains dampening the beauty, it enhanced it by brightening up the Golden-Brown Wiharn Lai Kham. The whole temple was a vision of contrasts – the ornate exteriors contrasting with the calm interiors. Right from the door, the Phra Singh Buddha beckoned its visitors.

Inside Wiharn Lai Kham of Wat Phra Singh
Inside Wiharn Lai Kham of Wat Phra Singh

Compared to the other idols that I had seen in Doi Suthep temple or even for that matter the Wiharn Luang of this temple, the Buddha idol was quite small. However, it exuded a certain serene and mystical aura that automatically, added some order to your chaotic mind and senses. Admiring it for a while, I turned my attention to the interiors of the temple.

Murals inside Wiharn Lai Kham, Wat Phra Singh
Murals inside Wiharn Lai Kham, Wat Phra Singh

If the red and gold wall behind the Phra Singh Buddha idol stood out with its sparkling appeal, the rest of the walls were literally a work of art. The 400-year-old murals had a story hidden in every corner. Some of them were the famous Jataka tales while others were a slice of the local life in Chiang Mai. It was fascinating to see how detailed some of them were.  Take, for example, this one where women secretly admire someone.

The stunning doors and windows of Wiharn Lai Kham at Wat Phra Singh
The stunning doors and windows of Wiharn Lai Kham at Wat Phra Singh

Where the walls terminated, began the equally stunning doors and windows. Each of these being a masterpiece!

Chedis of Wat Phra Singh

Chedis of Wat Phra Singh
Chedis of Wat Phra Singh

The original Chedi (Pagoda) of Wat Phra Singh was actually, smaller with only the ashes of the King Kham Fu. However, over time, more of the royal family ashes were enshrined in the Chedi and the same grew in size. It used to be a white one but in 2016, it was gold plated. Next to the Wiharn Lai Kham, this large pagoda or Chedi looked so impressive.

Half Elephant on a Chedi in Wat Phra Singh, Chiang Mai
Half Elephant on a Chedi in Wat Phra Singh, Chiang Mai

The entire Chedi is mounted on a square base where you can see half an elephant protruding out of each side. With the rainwater running down the Chedi, it looked as if it were coming out of a Golden river. In certain angles, the reflection made the Elephant whole.

Silver Bells around the Golden Chedi of Wat Phra Singh
Silver Bells around the Golden Chedi of Wat Phra Singh

The one thing I loved was the way a line of silver bells set on the ground contrasted with the gold. The whole effect could have been glitzy and ostentatious but instead, it was quite muted and elegant.

Wishing Chimes at Wat Phra Singh
Wishing Chimes at Wat Phra Singh

A small open shrine stood opposite that Chedi. The trees around this temple had a lot of silver and gold leaves hanging on them. There is a ritual attached to this. One needs to make a wish and write down their names on these leaves. The chimes are then hung onto the trees and they say that your wish comes true.

Kulai Chedi at Wat Phra Singh
Kulai Chedi at Wat Phra Singh

A small white Chedi stood hidden behind the Wiharn Lai Kham. This one was called the Kulai Chedi. This is quite a mysterious stupa for they say that it contains a treasure of relics hidden by a King. There is also, a secret passage that leads directly to the Wihan Lai Kham – not open to mere mortals like us. Now that really makes me curious!

Ubosot of Wat Phra Singh

Ubosot next to the Chedi at Wat Phra Singh
Ubosot next to the Chedi at Wat Phra Singh

Where the Wiharn is the meditation hall, the ubosot is the ordination hall for the monks. No less impressive, this is one startled me. 4 monks stared back at me as I looked at the Emerald Buddha above them. Except that these monks were made of wax. These were quite realistic and once I had a good laugh at my own reaction, I set off to explore the rest of the hall.

Inside the Ubosot of Wat Phra Singh_Chiang Mai
Inside the Ubosot of Wat Phra Singh, Chiang Mai

My guide explained the various black and white pictures that adorned its walls. Some of them were from the Songkran festival celebrated in the olden days while others showed scenes from the lives of the royal family. There were two entrances to this Ubosot. As Nicky, my guide explained – one was for the monks while the other was for the nuns. The Emerald Buddha shrine with its wax monks faced each side – that is to say, there were two of them.;-)

Old Photo of Songkran festival in Chiang Mai
Old Photo of Songkran festival in Chiang Mai

Wiharn Luang

Wiharn Luang in Wat Phra Singh at Chiang Mai, Thailand
Wiharn Luang in Wat Phra Singh at Chiang Mai, Thailand
Jeweled Serpent staircase of Wiharn Luang at Phra Singh Temple
Jeweled Serpent staircase of Wiharn Luang at Phra Singh Temple
Close up of the roof of Wiharn Luang at Wat Phra Singh
Close up of the roof of Wiharn Luang at Wat Phra Singh

This is the 2nd prayer hall, built later in the Wat Phra Singh Temple. I loved the beautiful roof with the bejeweled serpent eaves – a characteristic of the Lanna styled architecture. The elegant serpent lined staircase lead to an equally exquisite hall with a huge Buddha statue. This was made in the 15th century using Gold and Bronze and is called the Phra Chao Thong Tip.

Buddha in Wiharn Luang at Wat Phra Singh
Buddha in Wiharn Luang at Wat Phra Singh

Quite unlike the earlier temple hall of Wat Phra Singh, this one was quite big and a little modern. The walls were devoid of Murals. Instead, there were pictures of the Royal family  – the patrons of the temple hung around. To be honest, I was more keen on the exteriors of this temple for they were truly eye-catching.

Entrance for monks at Wiharn Luang. Chiang Mai, Thailand
Entrance for monks at Wiharn Luang. Chiang Mai, Thailand

Ho Trai – the library

It started pouring again as we exited. I could only spare a few seconds outside a quaint looking building near the exit. This was the Ho Trai or the Buddhist library. It was quite a cute building and I wish I could have taken a quick shot of it. However, common sense had me protect my precious camera and I just used my mind’s eye to capture it into my memory.

Despite the rainy day, I loved every bit of the Wat Phra Singh Temple. I can imagine how much more fun it would have been if it were not so wet. Needless to say that I would love to visit this one again. And I do hope you make it there too, on a fine and sunny day! After all, it is one of the key things to do in Chiang Mai.

Getting here

  • Chiang Mai is well connected by road from Bangkok as well as by air. There are plenty of budget-friendly flights to Chiang Mai from Bangkok.
  • Wat Phra Singh can be mapped onto your mobile by clicking here. You can hire a Songthaew to get here or if you are staying in any of the hotels in Chiang Mai Old City, you can possibly even walk to it.

Travel Tips

  • The Wat Phra Singh Opening Time is 6 am. It closes at 8 pm.
  • There is an entrance fee of 20 Thb per adult for the Wat Phra Singh temple.
  • Cover your shoulders and wear a full-length skirt/ trouser when you visit this temple. You will need to remove your footwear when entering the shrines
  • While you can photograph inside the shrine, please be respectful of how you do it. It is customary to sit in front of the Buddha idol and not go close to it when taking a picture.
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20 Responses

  1. Ketki

    Alas i could not make it to Chiang Mai during my short stint in Thailand. Wat Phra Sing looks absolutely stunning and this is a lovely article explaining everything about it.

  2. Sreekar

    I missed out on Chiang Mai, the last time I was in Thailand. Everytime I see such a beautiful post with great pictures, I regret it even more. Will try to make it next time and keep you posted. Thanks for the lowdown!

  3. Danik

    I really cant wait to get here in the next few months, Thailand has been on my list for ages and chiang Mai is on top of my list. Those temples look amazing. The place looks amazing and golden. 🙂

  4. Christina

    Chiang Mai’s temples are beautiful and serene. This is a useful review of one of the city’s loveliest temples. Nice photography too!

  5. Sandy N Vyjay

    The temples of Thailand are indeed akin to poetry etched in stone and metal. The Wat Phra Singh seems to take this poetry to sublime levels. I was fascinated by the ‘Singh’, in the name though I guessed it must have something to do with a lion. Reading on I could see the reason and history behind this which indeed makes for a great story.

    • Ami

      Oh yes, the cat is the reason for the name. That and the legends is what make this temple so worth a visit.

  6. Marvi

    I am still yet to make it to Chiang Mai and try temple hopping and I just can’t wait to see it all! This temple looks really grand and I love that you just took us a tour around it.. I love wishing trees as well and just believes in the power of faith.

    • Ami

      Oh you will love the heritage in Chiang Mai. I hope you can make it here soon. Thanks for stopping by

  7. Jen Joslin

    Thailand’s temples are so ornate, and your pictures capture them beautifully! I’ve been to Chiang Mai several times and visiting the temples there never gets old. Thanks for sharing the significance of the Phra Singh Buddha. I hadn’t heard that before. And those wax monks really did look real! haha

    • Ami

      Thanks Jen for the compliments on the pics. I enjoyed capturing them too, there is so much more to them than just being places of worship. Thanks for stopping by

  8. Kate Flores

    Been to Chiang Mai but missed all these temple-watching! I’ll move to Thailand on November, will make sure I’ll put Chiang Mai again on my top list! Now with Temples. I’ll keep your blog in mind!

    • Ami

      Thanks Kate. Chiang Mai is full of them – the temples and each one has a story to tell. Envy you for being able to visit it again.

  9. Mayuri Patel

    This temple is so stunning ,loved all the captures and details you mentioned.Would love to visit chiang mai soon..keep sharing such gems.

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