There are more than 300 temples in Chiang Mai, but not enough time to see them all!
Which ones should you see first? Here are our favourites.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
From its location to the opulent architectural details, this is without doubt the most spectacular temple in the area - also the most famous, so very popular with tourists. It lies 15km away from Chiang Mai, nested in the mountains, and you can get there with one of the red cars (from near the zoo). To get to the top, you have to climb around 300 steps lined with Naga serpents, a popular motif in Thailand. The views of the old city from the top are great! There are lots of areas to explore on the temple grounds, and the centrepiece is definitely the tiled courtyard around the main golden chedi. The downside of this incredible temple is that it can get very crowded and the space is quite small, which really takes away some of its beauty unfortunately.
Wat Chiang Man
The oldest temple in Chiang Mai, this was built in 1297 - the city itself was founded just the year before. It can be found within the "square" (city walls), to the north. The temple's main distinctive feature is its beautiful chedi lined with elephant statues.
Wat Chedi Luang
What sets this temple apart from the others is the huge chedi build in 15th century - at its time the largest building in the Lanna Kingdom. The temple was once the home of the Emerald Buddha, the most sacred relic in Thailand. After the chedi was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1545, the Emerald Buddha was moved to Luang Prabang in Laos, and today it can be found at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. The chedi was partially restored to its former glory in 1990, though a large chunk of the top section is still missing. Still, an impressive structure right in the middle of the old town!
Wat Phan Tao
Right next to Chedi Luang, this is a much smaller and less spectacular, but really charming and definitely worth a quick stop. The main building is made of black teak wood, a feature that is quite distinctive. What is most special about Wat Phan Tao is that, on the full moon night of Loy Krathong, this is where a famous ceremony takes place. The ceremony itself is worth seeing, and the setting looks very pretty, but because there is little space, it can get extremely crowded. You may need to secure your spot even 2 hours in advance, if you want to see anything. Having done this, my advice is to better spend this time near the river, where the real magic happens. Supposedly, you will find lanterns here on any regular evening, so best to check this place out when it gets dark.
Wat Phra Singh
This large temple can also be found in the old town and has lots of different areas and an impressive cluster of golden chedis. Some of the structures within the temple complex are one of the oldest in the city. Due to major restoration work during the last century, the temple is in very good condition and is one of the most visually striking. This has to be our favourite temple from within the city walls.
Wat Lok Moli
This one is just outside the old town, on the northern side of the "square". The temple features a charming main building made of teak wood, and an impressive chedi at the back, one of the largest in the city. Despite its proximity to the old town, it is a fairly quiet temple. If you visit during festival time around November (Yi Peng/Loy Krathong), definitely put this on your list, as the temple grounds are decorated with lots and lots of colourful lanterns.
Wat Suan Dok
This one lies outside of the old town, but only 1km to the west, so within walking distance. It is definitely a very memorable temple, due to the abundance of white. The prayer room is a very large open space and quite different from other temples. Here you will also find a number of chedis, a main golden chedi surrounded by smaller white ones, and a royal cemetery on the same theme.
No photos for this one, as we didn't get to see it. It is a bit farther away (around 3km from the old town), and with limited time, we had to give up on something! It seems quite different to the other temples and feels like a great escape from the hustle and bustle of the old town. Found at the foot of the mountain, in a tranquil natural setting, you can go for a walk among the trees, explore the ancient temple ruins and its network of underground tunnels. If we ever return to Chiang Mai, this is the first place we would go to.
Bonus: The King and Queen Pagodas, Doi Inthanon
Ok, this is not really in Chiang Mai or even close, but it has earned a spot on this list. Day trips to the Doi Inthanon National Park from Chiang Mai are really popular, and that is where you will find these twin pagodas, built in honour of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his wife on their 60th birthdays. King Bhumibol is the former King of Thailand, who passed away in 2016 after 71 years of reign (we visited a month later). So the pagodas are fairly new, built around 30 years ago. The park is a couple hours drive out of Chiang Mai and there are lots of things to do there, from hiking to exploring waterfalls, villages and local markets. It is also home to the highest peak in Thailand (2,565m). The pagodas are close to the top and the views up there are stunning!