Despite having only 24 hours (or 1 day 1 night) to explore Thailand’s cultural capital – Chiang Mai, temples (known as Wat in Thai) are a must-visit in this religious country where more than 93% of its people are Buddhists. Chiang Mai has over 300 Buddhist temples, of course it wasn’t possible to tour all of them, especially when we only stayed 1 night there. Read on for our tour at the 2 notable temples – Wat Umong & Wat Sri Suphan. 🙂
As Chiang Mai’s only forest temple, Wat Umong is situated at the foothills of Suthep Mountain (Doi Suthep), about 1 km south of Chiang Mai University’s main campus. The unique temple was founded at the end of the 13th century by King Mangrai, first King of the Lanna Kingdom and founder Chiang Mai. Therefore, visitors would be able to spot a statue of the KIng upon arrival at the site.
Because of its location in the forest, the atmosphere around the temple felt very quiet & peaceful, something that sets it apart from the other more touristy temples in the country. Instead of hearing sounds from visitors chatting away, the large shady temple grounds were filled with rhythmic chanting sounds of monks, which I thought was a refreshing change.
“Umong” means “tunnels” in Thai, so the site is home to a series of tunnels dug out of a mound containing shrines with Buddha images. According to legend, the King regularly consulted a monk – Thera Chan, who lived at the temple located within the old city walls of Chiang Mai. When the city grew bigger & more crowded, the monk found it increasingly difficult to mediate. Hence the King ordered for a series of tunnels to be dug here, lined with brick walls & painted with Buddhist murals. These tunnels allowed the monk to mediate in peace without any disturbance.
Entering the tunnels felt like stepping into a completely different world, which separated us from all the temptations & disruptions outside. Being someone with a slight claustrophobia syndrome, it was a surprise that I didn’t feel constrained in the confined space at all. In fact, it was quite cool & airy inside the tunnels throughout the approximate 20-min visit.
Unfortunately, most of the painted murals in the tunnels are gone now, as the temple was abandoned in the 15th century & only restored in 1948. So as you can see from photos above, we could only see ancient tunnel walls with shrines of Buddha images without the murals.
On top of the mound where the tunnels are, is a large bell shaped Chedi. We had to climb up a short flight of steps before we could see it. Recently restored, the ancient Chedi is the most sacred structure of the wat, typically used to enshrine the remains of Kings or a very important monk. Apparently, near the Chedi is a black image of a very thin fasting Buddha, but I missed taking a photo of it. 😦
There were also a handful of damaged Buddha images scattered on the temple grounds, which were brought over from other temples in Thailand. As Wat Umong is an active temple today, there are resident monks living on site in the kuti (the living quarters of monks) scattered in the forest. We saw quite a few walking around the grounds during our visit too.
Wat Sri Suphan
Originally founded in 1502, Wat Sri Suphan is located just outside the city near the southwest corner of the moat. Little remains of the original temple except some teak pillars around the ordination hall (ubosot). The wat is 1 of the country’s more quirky finds showcasing traditional Lanna silversmith skills, so it is more common to hear people referring it as the Silver Temple rather than its original name.
Visitors need to pay 50 THB (~S$2.05) admission fee as donation to the temple. Those who aren’t appropriately dressed (must not be in shorts or sleeveless tops) also need to rent a set of traditional dress at the entrance & put it on before entering (think the cost is 100 THB / ~S$4.10).
Almost everything on the temple grounds was clad in silver. The temple has been renovated & redesigned several times with the most recent one in 2004, under the direction of the abbot, Phra Kru Phithatsuthikhun. Being situated off Wualai Road, which is famous for its silver workshops, the abbot decided to utilize the skill & knowledge of local silversmiths, which explains why Wat Sri Suphan is shimmering in the sunlight. Most parts of the temple are made of alloy & zinc & painted with silver, with precious silver being used for holy images only.
Too bad for us ladies, we are not allowed to enter the main ordination hall, a tradition observed in many temples in Chiang Mai. There is a sign in English just outside the hall to explain why:
Beneath the base of Ubosotha in the monastic boundary, many precious things, incantations, amulets and other holy objects were buried 500 years ago. Entering inside the place may deteriorated the place or otherwise the lady herself. According to this Lanna Belief, ladies are not allowed to enter the Ubosotha.
The ordination hall looked pretty small, although it was impressive on the outside with all the shiny silver. I like the hues of blue on the staircase leading into the hall too. 😉 Fortunately, although we couldn’t go in, there were other noteworthy things to check out at Wat Sri Suphan, The temple is an important centre that helps to preserve the silversmith tradition in Chiang Mai, so we could see the silversmiths in action at the workshop just round the corner from the main hall.
The Caucasian couple pictured in the top right image of the above collage told us that they had been working on their silver crafts for about 2 hours. It certainly looks like something interesting, but I believe the hands will be aching after a hard day’s work! Nice to have such a unique temple that helps to keep the traditional silversmith community alive since it was first established about 200 years ago under the Lanna king Kawila.
The 2 temples we visited above are testament to how Chiang Mai strives to conserve & carry on the unique culture passed down since centuries ago. No wonder the city is known as the cultural/ art capital of Thailand, & also designated as a UNESCO Creative City of Crafts & Folk Art, in the latest list dated 31 October 2017. Buddhist temples aren’t just for the devotees, they are also a form of art that deserve a visit in your next Chiang Mai trip. 🙂