I have to admit I am not a very diligent traveller: I don’t dive very deep into my guidebooks. I usually enjoy ancient monuments, temples, ruins and other buildings for their atmosphere and architectural beauty, not for the tales from olden days that they tell to an eager listener. I cannot imagine what life must have been like around here 50 years ago, let alone 500. I didn’t grow up with legends and anecdotes about the local kings and common people, about tigers roaming Doi Suthep – nothing highlights my outsider status more than trying to understand local history and failing to grasp anything.
So, you can say it is not surprising at all that I was rather surprised to find out about the royal connections of some of the chedis I have been taking pictures of in the past few years.
For the first few months of my new life in Chiang Mai, I passed by Wat Lokmoli every day on the way to work. The imposing height and solemnity of the chedi never failed to impress me.
Wat Lokmoli regained royal status in 2002, when reconstruction started, and the new prayer hall was erected in traditional northern style. The windows and some of the walls are carved from wood but look more like fine lace, with intricate floral patterns. Even though I know wood does not last for centuries in the realm of the termites, this small temple has a “medieval” feel.
Wat Lokmoli is the home of cultural events such as traditional music and dance performances lasting several days at Thai new year and loy krathong.
The chedi itself dates back to 1527, when the bones of the last Lanna king, Ket Chettharatwas were interred here. His rule had been dominated by controversy, and eventually he was assassinated by his own court officials. Soon afterwards, the Lanna kingdom became a vassal state to the Burmese. The ashes of the last queen from the Mengrai dynasty, Wisuttha Thewi, were also buried at the royal chedi at Wat Lokmoli in 1578, then the temple was abandoned and fell into disrepair under the Burmese rule.
Recently, I posted some photos of Wat Chedi Liem on the southern edge of Chiang Mai. The Wiang Kum Kam historical park has another working temple: Wat Chang Kham. The ruins had been covered by silt and were almost forgotten until amulets and ruins were found in the 1980s during the construction of a playground.
King Mengrai, the founder of Wiang Kum Kam as a settlement, is said to reside at the temple grounds in spirit form. The chedi containing his remains has not been found to date.
Wat Kutao is famous for its unique watermalon-shaped, five-tier chedi, which is currently being renovated – or, at least, it has been scaffolded for months, there is no work going on at the moment. There seems to be a lot of money pouring into this temple: there is a brand new prayer hall east of the chedi, so glittering and perfect that it reminds me of a Catholic cathedral – definitely not the usual dilapidated Lanna temple with torn carpet. The Buddha image is dressed up and decorated as a true prince.
There are two theories concerning the origin of the stunning chedi. The five tiers of the chedi and the Chinese-style ceramic decorations seem to suggest Yunnanese origins. However, it is more often attributed to the Burmese. According to the plaque at the temple, the ashes of the most glorious king of the Burmese rule over Chiang Mai, King Nawrahtaminsaw were most probably buried at the base of the chedi in 1607, joined later by the remains of his wife and sons.
The temple is a focal point for the Shan community, along with some smaller temples in the area.
Wat Phra Singh is one of the main temples in Chiang Mai, which all visitors pay a visit. It is always very busy during Buddhist holidays, especially at songkran. The prayer hall was recently renovated and is more impressive than ever when illuminated at night, with perfect proportions and glittering colours.
The temple is known for the famous Phra Singh Buddha image, housed in a small, ancient-looking temple with bright wall paintings at the back.
The chedi is gleaming white and supported by four elephants. The orange holy cloth around the spire is changed every year: people line up to write their names on the fabric for a small donation. With the help of a simple system of pulleys and bamboo tubes, you may also pour water over the top of the chedi, which is considered a form of making merit.
At the base of the chedi, the bones of King Kam Fu were buried in 1337; the structure was renovated in 1920.
Tomorrow is the first day of the rainy season retreat: the rains are definitely here. Hopefully the sky will clear up for the candle processions on this auspicious day. It is a great time for visiting Thai temples and learning about local traditions.