Archaeological travel guide to Chiang Mai’s ancient Wat Lok Moli temple — a traditional wooden Thai shrine and giant ruined stupa housing royal ashes.
Name: Wat Lok Moli
Where: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Location: 18.796009, 98.982599
Description: Wat Lok Moli is an exemplary Lanna wood-carved temple with an iconic giant ruined stupa.
Getting there: Wat Lok Moli sits just outside the northern city moat and is easily walkable from anywhere in the Chiang Mai Old City.
The teakwood buildings found throughout northern Thailand are long renowned for their intricacy and beauty. These structures trace their history back hundreds of years to the Lanna Kingdom‘s rule over the region. While a number of these building still stand within modern Chiang Mai, Wat Lok Moli is by far my favorite example of this traditional Lanna architecture.
The giant ruined stupa looming behind it doesn’t hurt, either.
The Story of Wat Lok Moli
Wat Lok Moli (also spelled Lok Molee) is perhaps the best surviving example of a Lanna wood-carved temple within the city of Chiang Mai. The temple itself traces back over 600 years and was supported directly by the royal rulers of the Lanna Kingdom’s Mangrai Dynasty.
The Lanna Kingdom’s Mangrai Dynasty
The Lanna Kingdom ruled over what is now Northern Thailand for centuries after its founding in 1292 by Mangrai, the first king of Chiang Mai. As one of several Thai polities existing concurrently, Lanna controlled or influenced the northern areas of what is now Thailand, as well as regions in neighboring Laos and Myanmar at its height.
During this golden age of Lanna, Mangrai’s descendants ruled over Chiang Mai and its satellite cities. This dynasty lasted for nearly three centuries and is responsible for establishing the foundation of the unique culture that exists in Northern Thailand to this day. The Mangrai dynasty came to an end after the conquest of Lanna by the Burmese.
Eventually, through an alliance with Ayutthaya, Lanna reclaimed its kingdom and capital city, but became a tributary state to Siam in the process. Eventually, Lanna succumbed to the growing power of the southern kingdom, and merged into the Siam Kingdom and, eventually, modern-day Thailand. However, Chiang Mai has remained the de facto capital of the north into the present day.
Early Accounts of Wat Lok Moli
The first written account of Wat Lok Moli occurred during the reign of King Kuena (1355-1385 CE), but not in its current form. In this account, the temple was identified as a residence of 10 Buddhist monks under royal patronage who were visiting from Burma. No written details exist about the size or facilities located at the temple grounds at this time.
The temple seen today dates back to 1527, when King Muang Kaew ordered the construction of a viharn and chedi on the existing grounds. The viharn (not the one seen today) was made intricately carved wood, a staple of northern Thailand, and the chedi began taking shape as the massive brick structure seen today.
His successor, King Muang Ket Klao was assassinated In 1545. Muang Ket Klao was cremated, as per usual Thai Buddhist tradition and his ashes were placed in the temple’s chedi.
Following Muang Ket Klao’s death, The Queen Regent Wisutthithewi then ascended to the throne and ruled the city of Chiangmai under the Burmese until she died in 1578. Her ashes were placed in Wat Lok Moli’s chedi along with those of Muang Ket Klao.
Visiting Wat Lok Moli
During my first visit to Chiang Mai in 2011, Wat Lok Moli made a huge impression on me as I was wandering the city quite aimlessly and without any context of the region’s history. It’s easy to see why — the style of Wat Lok Moli embodies historic Lanna architecture and it holds a GIANT ruined stupa behind it.
A quick walk west from Pratu Chang Phuak (Chiang Mai’s northern city gate) will bring you along the outer moat to Wat Lok Moli and it’s intricate entrance portal sitting along the street side.
The Entry Gate (Pratu Khong)
Entry gates, and their accompanying enclosure walls, are commonplace for most Thai Buddhist temples. These are not necessarily high walls (although they might be) that serve the purpose of separating the sacred temple grounds from the profane world outside.
The Lanna temples of northern Thailand have a unique type of entry gate adorning the front of their temples, consisting of an arched doorway sitting within a spired tower (prasat) and are called “Khong”. Often, it looks like a miniature stupa with a walkway through it.
This Khong entry gate of Wat Lok Moli sits right at the edge of the street with 2 yaksha guardian statues in traditional armor on either side. This spot is frequently a turnoff for Chiang Mai’s iconic red tucks or even the occasional tourist bus.
Wat Lok Moli’s gate has almost certainly been reconstructed but bears the mark of antiquity, its style matching the brickwork of not only the temple’s own enclosure wall, but also seemingly an extension of the ruined city walls across the moat. Whether accurate or not, the bare bricks of this gate are adorned with layered, intricate carvings, including some spectacular naga snake guardians.
Curiously, the Khong gate at Wat Lok Moli, and the whole temple itself, faces south while most Buddhist temples, Lanna or otherwise, usually face east.
Lok Moli’s Wooden Viharn
Directly through the entry gate, you will be welcomed by two crowned white elephants, a symbol of virtue, blessing, and royalty in Thai culture.
Past these two elephants occupying the pathway is a stairway bordered by two white naga serpents protecting the viharn itself, an almost universal motif in Thai Buddhist temples. Although King Phra Muang Kaew ordered a viharn built in 1527, the viharn standing at the temple today only dates from 2003, despite its traditional look.
Like the interior of so many Lanna, Thai, and Buddhist temples in general, a plethora of artworks adorning the walls and ceilings. These include carvings, painting, and occasionally even mosaics, often containing many deceptions of tales from the Hindu-Buddhist traditions, portrayals of royal patrons, or important clergy from the temple’s history.
Such depictions would be too numerous to address individually, however, they are simply a pleasure to take in within Wat Lok Moli’s primary shrine, even if you don’t understand the entirety of what you’re viewing.
The Principal Chedi
In the typical style of Lanna temples, the principal stupa (chedi in Thai) sits directly behind the temple’s viharn. Wat Lok Moli’s stupa is exceptional in its size among the monuments around Chiang Mai, falling behind only a handful of others, most notably the giant ruined stupa at Wat Chedi Luang.
Wat Lok Moli’s stupa is actually behind its own enclosure wall with its own entry gate. Inside, you will feel dwarfed by just the 5 levels making up the base of the stupa, which is easily taller than most people. These mossy bricks are adorned with sitting Buddha images and singha guardian statues at each corner.
It’s important to note that, while the viharn is recently built, but looks old this stupa is original and does indeed date back over 400 years. The bare brickwork seen today was not the original appearance — as it would have once been entirely covered in stucco (similar to the light surface around the niches in the center. But, like many of the ruined stupas seen around Chiang Mai, and other old cities in Thailand, the stucco has long since eroded away.
The lighter stucco area is the relic chamber, which holds the ashes of King Muang Ket Klao’s and Queen Wisutthithewi. On each side is a large, centered niche containing a sitting Buddha. Around the edges of these niches, you can see some of the ancient stucco beginning to chip away. However, there is enough to see the exquisite detail of the devas at each corner.
Finally, at the top, the stupa culminates on the standard rounded bell shape characteristic of most Thai stupas.
Curiously surrounding this stupa are miniature replicas depicting some of the other famous stupas to be found throughout the Buddhist world, including the Mahabodhi Stupa of Bodhgaya, India and 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.
Lok Moli’s Temple Grounds
Running along the western side of the viharn is an open space that nowadays serves as the temple’s main parking area. This side of the viharn itself is lined with 12 small statues representing the Thai interpretation of the Chinese zodiac, where the Chinese dragon is represented by a naga. In the Lanna version of this zodiac, an elephant is sometimes used in place of the traditional pig. — and that can be seen in the Lok Moli zodiac lineup.
However, on the other side of the loose stones making up the parking area (do be careful if you’re riding in on a motorcycle) are the auxiliary buildings of the ancient temple. These include the monk’s residence, the ubosot (ordination hall), and a number of intriguing statues and carvings.
The most interesting of these structures is an open-air lecture area standing atop the ruined base of Wat Lok Moli’s ancient ubosot. The bare bricks of this centuries-old structure form a stairway and platform that is now covered with a canopy and seating for people to gather around a monk.
The decorations of the temple’s grounds change frequently, particularly when certain events or festivals are taking place. It’s well worth looking through these side areas to find what hidden or curious items might be hidden there.
How to Get to Wat Lok Moli
GPS Coordinates: 18.796009, 98.982599
Wat Lok Moli is located just north of Chiang Mai’s Old City. Sitting outside the city’s ancient moat, Wat Lok Moli is easily accessed by walking or biking from anywhere in the Old City.
From Chang Phuak Gate (the city’s northern gate), head westward for 400 meters. The massive stupa will be a dead giveaway, but also the ancient-looking brown brick entry gate on the street side.
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Lanna Kingdom founded by King Mengrai in 1293.
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.
Ancient Buddhist temple located in Gaya, India built on the location where the Gautama Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment.
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.
Mythological serpents in Hindu-Buddhist tradition said to possess divine powers.
Phra Pathom Chedi
Buddhist stupa in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand which originated as a Dvaravati temple and claims to be the largest in the world.
Buddhist stupa in Yangon, Myanmar that claims to be the largest in the world.
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.
Ordination hall in Thai Buddhist temples.
The main worship hall in a Buddhist temple.
Spirits in Hindu-Buddhist tradition which are often employed as guardians and seen as statues protecting important religious buildings.
- “Lan Na Kingdom” E-Lanna, Chiang Mai University, http://www.sri.cmu.ac.th/~elanna/elanna_eng/public_html/lanna/lanna2.html.
- “Wat Lok Molee.” Chiang Mai Temples, 17 Feb. 2019, www.chiangmaitemples.com/visit-and-tours-2/wat-lok-molee/.
- “Wat Lok Moli” sign. The 7th Office of Fine Arts Department, Chiangmai. Wat Lok Moli, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
- Sthapitanonda, Nithi, and Brian Mertens. Architecture of Thailand: A Guide to Tradition and Contemporary Forms. Editions Didier Millet, 2012.