Archaeological travel guide to two of ancient Chiang Mai’s ruined temples reclaimed by the Doi Suthep jungle — now located in a protected nature reserve.
Name: Wat Phra Non & Wat Phrathat Saengcan
Where: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Location: 18.78253, 98.94727
Description: Unique 15th-century ruins reclaimed by Doi Suthep’s jungle in an area rarely published or visited.
Getting there: The ruins are located far back in a wildlife reserve. Private transport is recommended.
The Lanna Kingdom’s ancient capital of Chiang Mai is littered with the ruined reminders of its historic grandeur. A stroll through almost any area of the city is likely to bring one face-to-face with at least one abandoned stupa — perhaps one revered as a neighborhood shrine or enshrined within a temple’s boundary walls — either is an unexpected pleasure.
Some of Chiang Mai’s ruins are more hidden than others, subsumed by the encroaching environment rather than the revitalization of the city.
Wat Phra Non and Wat Phrathat Saengchan are two ruined mountain temples long since reclaimed by the forest of Doi Suthep mountain, and are now preserved in Chiang Mai’s Choeng Doi Suthep Wildlife and Nature Education Center
Evoking a sensation similar to the famous Ta Prohm “Tomb Raider” temple adjacent to Angkor Wat, these ruins reclaimed by Chiang Mai’s mountain jungles are one of the ancient city’s hidden treasures.
The Story of Chiang Mai’s Ruined Jungle Temples
Of all the countries in Southeast Asia, Thailand undoubtedly has the most extensive portfolio of tourist literature written about it, having been a destination for decades. However, this doesn’t mean every location is thoroughly documented and many locales that might be of great interest slip through the cracks.
Indeed, this is the case with Chiang Mai’s ruined temples of Wat Phra Non and Wat Phrathat Saengchan. Like the Wat Klang Nam island ruins located in the south of Chiang Mai, these extensive ruins have traits that fall well within the greater overall Buddhist tradition and architecture of the Lanna Kingdom, but there is no specific mention of them within the accessible library of literature.
Buddhism in Ancient Lanna
While Chiang Mai’s history goes back nearly 7 centuries, its Buddhist traditions had been rooted in the region by the Dvaravati people long before the arrival of the Thais. And, by the time Mangrai’s Lanna Thais descended from the Mekong’s Golden Triangle to establish their new kingdom, the local kingdom of Hariphunchai was already the last remnant of the Dvaravati civilization’s long reign of influence over what is now Thailand.
While the Lanna rulers did conquer Hariphunchai, the early kings of Chiang Mai left the Hariphunchai Kingdom’s traditions of Theravada Buddhism mostly intact. The city of Hariphunchai (Lamphun) remained the center of Buddhism in the region until King Kuena shifted the religious power and focus to the Lanna capital of Chiang Mai.
It was during this era following King Kuena’s actions that some of Chiang Mai’s most famous and iconic temples were constructed. This is in large part due to the arrival of the Sri Lankan monk Sumanathera, who had resided in Sukhothai, and was invited to Chiang Mai, bringing with him a legendary Buddhist relic which is now housed at Wat Suan Dok and Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep.
Tracing the Ruined Temples of Doi Suthep
The slopes and foothills of Chiang Mai’s Doi Suthep mountain are no strangers to Buddhist temples, either modern or ancient. Some, such as Wat Ku Din Khao and San Ku, date as far back as the Hariphunchai period, some 400+ years before Chiang Mai was founded. It was not until the Lanna period that famous Buddhist temples such as Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep began to operate in the forested hills of Doi Suthep onward into the modern day.
During the Lanna Period, forest monasteries flourished following King Kuena’s establishment of the Lankawong sect within Chiang Mai. This sect of forest-dwelling monks were the first to begin building forest temples such as Wat Pha Lat, and Wat Pa Daeng, and Wat Umong, Chiang Mai’s famed “Tunnel Temple”.
However, the evidence uncovered by archaeologists dates these ruined temples to well over a century after King Kuena’s reign, and much closer to the Burmese conquest and occupation of Chiang Mai. In this period, following the death of King Muang Kaeo in 1525, Chiang Mai and its neighboring cities fell into a state of decline which allowed outside empires such as the Burmese and Lan Xang to overtake Lanna’s territory.
This makes it all the more interesting that new forest monasteries were being constructed at this point, when others in the city were being, or would soon be, abandoned. The ruins of Wat Phrathat Saengchan, in particular, are quite impressive and would have required more support than simply being an add-on to the nearby Wat Umong.
Visiting Chiang Mai’s Ruined Jungle Temples
The ruins are located in the Suthep subdistrict of Chiang Mai, west of the Old City and in the foothills of Doi Suthep mountain. The neighborhoods around here have grown in popularity for both locals and expats in the last decade, however, it is still a maze of curving streets and dead ends around this area.
This makes it a bit difficult to get to, and even with a GPS guiding me, I went down 3 wrong roads into people’s private driveways before finding the entrance to the Choeng Doi Suthep Wildlife and Nature Education Center.
Entering Choeng Doi Suthep Wildlife and Nature Education Center
The Choeng Doi Suthep Wildlife and Nature Education Center nature reserve is not one that is highly publicized or referenced even among the local Thai population and tourists. Most information I could find about the nature reserve was about schools making field trips to the park and the occasional camping session.
When approaching the entrance to the reserve, there are no clearly marked road signs. However, an English sign at the entrance gate itself will let you know you’re at the right spot.
I entered slowly at first, not actually knowing if this was a place that the general public, much less foreign tourists, are supposed to be going. However, a quick wave of acknowledgment from the security guard booth and a number of families picnicking gave me the go-ahead.
The reserve was set up in 1975 by the Thailand Royal Forest Department in order two provide a place for nature education and conservation. Originally the enclosure was around 100 acres, however, it was later enlarged to around 400 acres (1.6 sq. km) after they noted that there was insufficient food for the larger animals, such as gazelles in the area.
The roads are a bit treacherous and not advisable to drive yourself unless you have some proficiency with a motorbike. Many are dirt and gravel with some muddy, steep slopes, or outright gaps in the middle of the road to navigate around.
Throughout the nature reserve were buildings that look to be private homes more than official government buildings, however, I cannot speak to whether this was the case or not. It is something that I have encountered before in Thailand, though. This was also the case with the Prasat Muang Sing Historical Park in Kanchanaburi Province, in which a small modern neighborhood of private homes was located within the city walls of a 13th-Century Khmer Angkorian city.
Driving throughout the nature reserve, I found myself getting lost several times while looking for both the ruins and making my way to the exit. Use your best judgment on whether or not to drive on a road. And if all else fails, just park and go for a hike.
The Ruins of Wat Phrathat Saengchan
The ruins of Wat Phrathat Saengchan are the more impressive and the easiest to find. These ruins are visible from the main paved road from the entrance. You will easily see the ruined brick stupa looming over you on a dusty hill from the roadside.
It’s important to note that this is actually the rear of the temple, as most Lanna temples are built with their stupa on the west, while their main sanctuary faces the east, However, because Wat Phrathat Saengchan is built on a hilltop, the steep slopes and limited space meant the architecture needed to be modified for this specific temple.
The large, octagonal stupa (chedi)l is the most notable feature of Wat Phrathat Saengchan. The base of this stupa is still in very good condition, however, the upper levels have long since collapsed. Part of them can be seen made into a shrine accompanying the stupa base.
In the case of Wat Phrathat Saengchan’s ruins, the sanctuary (viharn) faces the west, and two other buildings face north.
These all sit atop an artificial platform reinforced by brick retaining walls supporting the hillside. Once you get over to the main entrance of the terrace and see the size and construction effort that went into building this temple, it’s immediately impressive.
The Ruins of Wat Phra Non
It was actually by mistake that I happened upon the ruins of Wat Phra Non. After leaving Wat Phrathat Saengchan, I was trying to find the exit back to the main road. But, once again got lost and found these ruins while attempting to go downhill.
This road leading to the Wat Phra Non ruins is actually above the ruins themselves, suggesting the temple was built up against a hill. This is in strong contrast to Wat Phrathat Saengchan, which was built atop a leveled hill. Documentation at the site confirms this, stating archaeologists found rocks and brickwork that were used to prevent the hill from sliding down upon Wat Phra Non.
These ruins are only 250 meters from Wat Umong, but you would never know you were nearby just by gazing through the forest.
Informational signs found at Wat Phra Non (alternatively referred to as Wat Ruesi Cheewaga) provide a decent amount of information, although the same cannot be said of Wat Phrathat Saengchan.
Wat Phra Non is the smaller of the two temples and consists of 5 ruined buildings, of which only the slightest foundations of and some paved pathways still remain. Like most Buddhist temples (though not all), the main entrance to Wat Phra Non faces east. This entrance is marked by a small stairway leading downhill to the ruined base of a small octagonal stupa.
Within the main ruins, of Wat Phra Non are the ruins bases of structures including:
- big viharn
- small viharn
- octagonal stupa
- one unknown building
Excavation at the ruins found clay water pipes lining the ground next to the main viharn. Also found at the site were pottery styles ranging from Hariphunchai, Lanna, and even Ming Dynasty Chinese ceramics, all of which aided in dating the site.
The name “Wat Phra Non” is common in Thailand and means “Temple of the Reclining Buddha”. This name is an allusion to the legend of Siddhartha Gautama on his deathbed. This depiction is quite common and portrays Gautama laying on his right side, either supposed by a pillow or his arm.
Looking around the ruins, there is no immediate clear sign of this reclining Buddha image, although there is one pedestal in particular that may have housed it.
How to Get to Chiang Mai’s Ruined Jungle Temples
GPS Coordinates: 18.78253, 98.94727
The ruined temples of Wat Phrathat Saengchan and Wat Phra Non are located in the Choeng Doi Suthep Wildlife and Nature Education Center. This wildlife preserve is on the far western outskirts of Chiang Mai city, down several side roads, making it difficult to find.
The best way to visit the reserve and the ruins within is using private transportation such as a motorbike. While it is possible that a taxi or tuk-tuk might take you to the wildlife preserve, the roads within would make it highly unlikely that they could enter and drive you around.
There is no clear map of the roads and it is easy to get lost, although the entire area is fenced in (to my knowledge) so there is only so far you can go. It is also inadvisable to go during the rainy season as many of the roads are dirt and gravel and can become dangerous to ride on.
Capital of the Khmer Empire, located near modern day Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.
Thai word meaning “stupa”
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Lanna Kingdom founded by King Mengrai in 1293.
Revered mountain on the western edge of Chiang Mai. The mountain peak has been used by both the Hariphunchai and Lanna Kingdoms to house sacred Buddhist relic temples.
Dvaravati kingdom in northern Thailand centered in the modern town of Lamphun. Eventually conquered by the Lanna Kingdom.
Lanna king from 1355-1385 CE. He expanded the Lanna domain to its largest extent and founded the Lankawong school of Buddhism in Lanna.
Thai kingdom based in northern Thailand and northwestern Laos. Its capitals included Chiang Rai, Wiang Kum Kam, and Chiang Mai.
Final ruler of the Ngoenyang Kingdom (Chiang Saen) and founder of the Lanna Kingdom from 1291-1311 who established Wiang Kum Kam in 1286 and its successor Chiang Mai in 1293.
San Kamphaeng Kilns
Lanna-era pottery kilns located east of the city of Chiang Mai.
A legendary prince born in Lumphini, Nepal who would go on to found Buddhism. Known generally as the “Buddha”.
Buddhist monument used to enshrine sacred relics or memorialize important figures. Its dome, bell, or otherwise tower-like appearance is an architectural representation of Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain said to represent the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.
13th-Century Khmer Buddhist temple built by Jayavarman VII in honor of his mother. Popularized by the film “Tomb Raider”.
The ordination hall of a Buddhist temple.
Thai word meaning “temple”
Wat Suan Dok
“Flower Garden Temple”, a historic temple west of Chiang Mai built to by King Kue Na to house the Buddhist Relic from the Sri Lankan monk Sumanathera.
Wat Pa Daeng
Temple in the west of Chiang Mai established by monks of the New Lankawong school of Buddhism.
Iconic “tunnel temple” located in the forests west of Chiang Mai. Built in the 14th Century.
The main worship hall in a Buddhist temple.
- “Choeng Doi Suthep Wildlife Conservation Development and Promotion Station, Chiang Mai Province.” สำนักอนุรักษ์สัตว์ป่า – หน้าหลัก, Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation , 2006, web3.dnp.go.th/wildlifenew/animConserveDepView.aspx?depId=73.
- “Phaya Kua Na” display. Chiang Mai National Museum, Chiang Mai, Thailand.“Raman Buddhism (Old Lankawong) from Sukhothai” display. Chiang Mai National Museum, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
- “Wat Phra Non” informational sign. The 8th Regional Office of Fine Arts, Chiang Mai. Choeng Doi Suthep Wildlife and Nature Education Center, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
- “Wat Phra Non” informational sign. The 8th Regional Office of Fine Arts, Chiang Mai. Choeng Doi Suthep Wildlife and Nature Education Center, Chiang Mai, Thailand. (Translation provided by Artoro Art)
- “Wat PhraTadSaengjan” informational sign. The 8th Regional Office of Fine Arts, Chiang Mai. Choeng Doi Suthep Wildlife and Nature Education Center, Chiang Mai, Thailand. (Translation provided by Artoro Art)
- Williams, Benjamin. “Wiang Suan Dok: Ancient Chiang Mai’s Holy Outer City.” Paths Unwritten, 22 July 2019, https://pathsunwritten.com/suan-dok-chiang-mai/.