Wat Chedi Luang: A Main Chiang Mai Attraction

The ruined stupa and monk chats are worth checking out.

 It seems as if everyone traveling to Chiang Mai, Thailand puts Wat Chedi Luang on the to-do list

It seems as if everyone traveling to Chiang Mai, Thailand puts Wat Chedi Luang on the to-do list

Dating back more than 600 years old, Wat Chedi Luang is one of the most popular temples in Chiang Mai, Thailand. And while it’s worth a visit — especially to see the ruins of the namesake chedi — Duke and I find ourselves more drawn to some of the lesser-known temples, including Wat Lok Molee and Wat Buppharam.

Located at pretty much the center of the Old City, Wat Chedi Luang is about halfway down the major east-west thoroughfare Rachadamnoen Road.

Its name gets translated alternatively as the Royal Pagoda, or Great Stupa, Temple. Same same but different.

 The chedi (or pagoda, or stupa) has been cleaned up but left uncompleted — in part cuz no one can agree on what it originally looked like

The chedi (or pagoda, or stupa) has been cleaned up but left uncompleted — in part cuz no one can agree on what it originally looked like

Toward the back of the complex, you’ll find the chedi itself. What you see today is but a shadow of its former grandeur. Construction on the structure began in the late 1300s, during the Lanna Kingdom, when its ruler, King Saen Muang Ma, wanted a place to house his father’s ashes. At the time, at about 280 feet high, it was by far the tallest structure in town. Legend has it that it was built “as high as a dove could fly.”

The chedi wasn’t finished until the mid-1400s, though, during the reign of King Tilokaraj.

There are two main theories why most of the chedi is destroyed: Some blame an earthquake in 1549, while others point the finger at King Taksin, who fired cannons on Chiang Mai to regain the city from the Burmese in the 1700s.

As part of Chiang Mai’s modern renaissance, the chedi has been stabilized during a project by UNESCO and the Japanese government (though I have no idea why Japan got involved). The restorers didn’t fully rebuild the chedi, because no one could agree what it used to look like. Some locals think the chedi should have been left as it was, overgrown with vegetation — a true ruin.

 This historic photo shows what the chedi looked like prior to its restoration

This historic photo shows what the chedi looked like prior to its restoration

Elephants (one original and four reproductions) line part of one of the upper tiers, and intimidating many-headed naga line the staircases like fierce hydras.

For nearly a century, the chedi housed what is considered the most sacred object in Thailand, the legendary Emerald Buddha. It’s now in Bangkok, revered in its own temple, Wat Phra Kaew. But the king sent a replica to its former home, and it now sits in the eastern niche of the chedi here in Chiang Mai. (I’ve seen the Emerald Buddha, and while it’s pretty impressive, I suppose, it really just looks like a 2-foot jade doll.)

 This reclining Buddha fills a pavillion at the back of the chedi

This reclining Buddha fills a pavillion at the back of the chedi

Behind the chedi is an open-air pavilion with a reclining Buddha (the pose I like to call “Sleepy-time Buddha”).

 If this tree ever falls, the city of Chiang Mai is said to be in big trouble

If this tree ever falls, the city of Chiang Mai is said to be in big trouble

The City Pillar and “Why Can’t Women Entry Inthakhin Pillar Vihara”

I’m not a fan of the restrictions against women that you find at some Buddhist temples, like the Silver Temple, also in Chiang Mai — especially since it’s tied to the fact that they’re somehow unclean because of their periods.

 Giant dragon snakes called naga guard the entrance to many Thai temples

Giant dragon snakes called naga guard the entrance to many Thai temples

Near the temple entrance stands an ornately detailed shrine, where the City Pillar (Sao Inthakin or Lak Meuang, Spirit of the City of Chiang Mai) is locked away. A sign outside reads, in part:

Women are prohibited to enter because they menstrate. It is believe that it humiliates and ruins the sanctity of the city pillar. Besides, men who dress inappropriately are not allowed to walk in. It is believed that any disobeying of the rules will cause social instability.

Supposedly that means no shorts or tank tops for you gents.

 Women can go into all the buidlings on the grounds of Wat Chedi Luang, except for the one that houses the City Pillar

Women can go into all the buidlings on the grounds of Wat Chedi Luang, except for the one that houses the City Pillar

The City Pillar is believed to have been erected by King Mengrai in 1296, when the city was founded. Local legend says it was brought down from Heaven by giants or spirits to protect the city. Unless it gets too close to a vagina, that is.

In addition, a giant dipterocarp tree towers above the building. This, too, is said to protect the city — and catastrophe will follow should it ever fall.

 The immense viharn at Chedi Luang is lined with gorgeous gilded pillars

The immense viharn at Chedi Luang is lined with gorgeous gilded pillars

Stand and Deliver: the Phra Chao Attarot Viharn

The complex originally housed three temples but is now known collectively as Wat Chedi Luang. The main viharn is indeed impressive. The ceiling soars above you, the wood a highly lacquered deep burgundy, supported by tall straight columns covered with gorgeous gold floral work atop a black backdrop.

At the front of the temple are three gold figures, the tallest a standing Buddha in the center. This is known as Phra Chao Attarot (the 18-Cubit Buddha), and his hand gesture is the abhaya mudra, which dispels fear. When visiting, why not take some time to say a little prayer to overcome something you’re scared of?

 Many travelers stop by Chedi Luang to chat with young monks to learn about their way of life

Many travelers stop by Chedi Luang to chat with young monks to learn about their way of life

When we visited, a group of young monks sat in prayer, gazing up at the Enlightened One.

 Colorful banners depicting the animals of the Thai zodiac line one side of the viharn

Colorful banners depicting the animals of the Thai zodiac line one side of the viharn

Off to the left hung strings overloaded with colorful banners representing the Thai zodiac.

There are daily Monk Chats on the temple grounds between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., where you can ask questions about the Thai monastic lifestyle. Most of the monks are novices, and it’s a great way for them to practice their English while you get an opportunity to learn about their culture. Don’t be afraid! –Wally

Wat Chedi Luang
103 Road King Prajadhipok Phra Singh
Muang District
Chiang Mai, 50200
Thailand