Archaeological travel guide to Chiang Mai’s best historic temples and ruins — the must-visit sites for any archaeology buffs interested in ancient Thailand!
Welcome to the Lanna Kingdom
Chiang Mai was, for centuries, the cultural center of the Lanna Kingdom, one of several Thai polities existing concurrently. At its height, Lanna controlled or influenced the northern areas of what is now Thailand, as well as regions in neighboring Laos and Myanmar. Eventually, they succumbed to the growing power of Ayutthaya in the south, merging into the Siam Kingdom and modern-day Thailand. However, Chiang Mai has remained the de facto capital of the north into the present day.
One of the great pleasures of spending a prolonged time in Chiang Mai is the opportunity to take in the tangible history all around the city. Just by looking at a map of the city, the square plan of the 700-year-old moat gives you a sense of the history that the modern city was built on top of. Once walking the city streets, the remnants of the old city wall make themselves very obvious. However, the city is full of many more hidden traces of its past worth seeking out.
That isn’t to say that my time in places such as Bangkok and Chongqing didn’t have access to such historical places as well, but in Chiang Mai, they are much more a part of day-to-day life. These are the top 5 Chiang Mai ruins which will give you best sense of the splendor of Lanna’s heritage:
5) Wat Lok Moli
Main article: Wat Lok Moli: Ancient Lanna’s Best Architecture
Wat Lok Moli made a huge impression on me the first time that I came to Chiang Mai. Its style is as characteristic of historic Lanna architecture as you can get, and it holds a GIANT ruined stupa behind it. Curiously surrounding this stupa are miniature replicas depicting some of the other famous stupas to be found throughout the Buddhist world, including the likes of the Phra Pathom Chedi in Central Thailand and the Shwedagon Paya in Yangon, Myanmar — the two stupas most commonly citing their claim to the title of world’s largest.
This temple’s main temple building (viharn) is made of intricately carved wood, a staple of northern Thailand, and dates back to 1537. The enormous stupa behind the viharn was constructed to house the ashes of the Lanna King Phra Muang Ket Klao after his assassination and his wife, Queen Regent Chiraprapha, who ruled after his death. Although these structures date from the 1500s, records mention a temple existing in this spot since the 1300s.
4) Wat Chedi Luang (Wat Chedi Luang Worawihan)
Even walking past the entrance to Wat Chedi Luang, you’d be forgiven for missing this massive stupa standing in the center of Chiang Mai’s old city. Buildings surround it on all sides, obscuring its view from street level. However, once inside, you will be treated to a stupa the style and scale of which belongs more on the Plains of Bagan than in the middle of Chiang Mai.
The brick chedi originally stood nearly 80 meters tall and was used to house the Emerald Buddha, a national treasure now housed in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew. Damage and subsequent restoration efforts through the centuries have resulted in the chedi’s modern height of 60 meters. Wat Chedi Luang is a usual stop on the tourist circuit of Chiang Mai, but for good reason. The Chedi Luang is a magnificent structure demonstrating the grandeur the Lanna Kingdom strove for. Gazing upon it will truly make you wish you might have seen the temple in its heyday.
3) Wat Umong (Wat U-Mong Suan Phutthatham)
Wat Umong is a favorite tourist stop in the guidebooks, but few give it the historical significance it deserves. Aside from the forested setting with the scenic pond (though it seemed less so on my second visit), Wat Umong is littered with various structures as old as the city itself and was built in 1297 by order of Mengrai, the king who founded Chiang Mai only a year earlier.
The main chedi (stupa) of Wat Umong is built on an artificial terrace covering tunnels, referred to as crypts by the temple’s own literature. These crypts are decorated with faded murals depicting Buddhist scenes and dating from 1450-1500 CE. Amidst the ruins stands an intriguing replica of an Ashoka Pillar, one of the ancient symbols of the Buddhist religion originating in India’s Maurya Empire.
2) Wat Jed Yod (Wat Maha Bodharam)
I first stumbled upon Wat Jed Yod (seven spires temple) quite by mistake from a few bricks visible on the road to the Chiang Mai Museum. A short walk over brought me into a temple complex I wouldn’t have otherwise expected. These beautiful examples of Buddhist architecture are a departure from anything else I have seen in Northern Thailand, some like the wat’s namesake, the Mahabodhi Hall, taking heavy influence from Burmese designs.
The Mahabodhi Hall viharn building was begun in 1455 CE by order of the Lanna King Tilokarat to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of Buddhism. He wanted a temple depicting images representing the legendary Mahabodhi Temple, which can be seen in the viharn’s narrow, pyramidal stupas at 5 points on the roof. Inside the building is a narrow brick corridor with a Buddha image.
Aside from this highly unique architecture of the Mahabodhi Hall, Wat Jed Yod’s grounds are scattered with other ruins, foundations, and fully intact structures. A pathway leads you through the temple complex where there are signs posted explaining some of the historical events behind the buildings and even some signs explaining the meaning behind many of the structures as they represent the stages following Gautama’s enlightenment. While it’s possible to enter from the parking lot next to the adjacent modern temple, there is a more scenic ancient gate on the eastern side as well.
1) Wiang Kum Kam
Main article: Wiang Kum Kam: Ancient Chiang Mai’s Lost City
Not only a ruined structure or temple, Wiang Kum Kam is an entire forgotten city — the city that Chiang Mai was built to replace. This former Lanna capital fell victim to to routine flooding that eventually led to it being abandoned by King Mengrai. This abandonment left it forgotten to time until only 20 years ago, when it was officially recognized by the Thailand Fine Arts Department. Indeed, I hadn’t even heard of Wiang Kum Kam during my initial trip through Chiang Mai in 2011, and I was looking for Lost Cities on that trip.
What remains of Wiang Kum Kam today is less a clear-cut ancient city and more a random interspersing of ruined brick temples throughout a pleasant residential neighborhood on Chiang Mai’s southeastern suburbs. This maze of streets is a charm to drive through and when you stumble upon one of the more hidden temples suddenly emerging from the homes unexpectedly, you feel truly rewarded.