Temples, gods and elephants are NOT all the same! Chiang Rai, Thailand

Golden garuda-shaped chofah (light tassel), the decorative temple roof trim, against a blue sky.

The chofah ("light tassel") is a common element in most temples throughout Thailand and the neighbouring region.

Last October, we were heading off on a much-anticipated short trip to Thailand’s North. Ask any Thai about the northern cities of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, and they will tell you that they are: “very beautiful! There are many temples.” A non-Thai friend of ours in Bangkok asked what we would see at our first stop: Chiang Rai. “Temples!” I replied with a wink, knowing the groan that my comment would be met with.

A lot of non-Thais, even those who have lived in the country a long time, think that temples are all the same. They are not.

Of course, temples, which essentially comprise a collection of buildings for religious ceremonies, study and worship, have common elements. But, as with anything else, the more you look, the more you notice.

We had plenty of opportunity to notice the small – and larger – differences between temples as we walked around Chiang Rai, visiting five complexes on foot, and another by car (Wat Rong Khun, which I’ve talked about before), essentially in the space of a day. This little provincial city has the odd church and mosque as well, but it is the Buddhist temples on every corner that stand out.

Our first stop was at the 750-year-old Wat Ming Muang. During the reign of King Mengrai The Great when the temple was constructed, there was a significant Burmese (Shan/Tai Yai) population in this area – hence the Burmese influence in the architecture and sculptures.

White and yellow chedi, white stone elephants in front, small buddha in an alcove

Every temple has a chedi (stupa or pagoda) which houses relics from the Buddha. This one, at Wat Ming Muang, features classic white elephants.

Seated Burmese-style white-stone buddha image in an alcove.

Burmese-style Buddha image ~ Wat Ming Muang

Like any temple, especially an old one, Wat Ming Muang (The Auspicious Temple of the City) is continually expanding and undergoing renovation. I find it fascinating to watch how the back-bones of the elements are constructed, before they become the ornately finished products we are used to seeing.

Large concrete elephant head with a jewelled naga-like crown and a green glass eye.

This finely-detailed elephant head with its jewelled naga-like crown is one of a pair, adorning the new stairway.

Relief carving of a small kneeling elephant on a fresh cement column.

The new cement columns at Wat Ming Muang feature a different style of elephant.

Our second stop was at Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), which was named for the the green gemstone (jade rather than emerald) buddha image which was found there when lightning struck the chedi and cracked it open in 1434. That Emerald Buddha is now in the Grand Palace in Bangkok where, amid great ceremony, the King changes it’s golden coat three times a year to mark the formal change of seasons.

Green jadeite seated buddha image in ornate gold traditional Thai dress.

The replacement buddha ~ Wat Phra Kaew

The replacement Chiang Rai Buddha is not an exact copy, but a ‘replica’ commissioned in 1991 to honor the Princess Mother’s 90th birthday. It was carved in Beijing from Canadian jadeite donated by a rich Chinese businessman.

3/4 view: Jade Buddha Head in ornate gold Thai head-dress. ~ Wat Phra Kaew

Jade Buddha Head ~ Wat Phra Kaew

Crowded outdoor altar area with incense and candles in front of a seated gold Phra Sangkajai image.

Altar in the grounds of Wat Phra Kaew, dedicated to Phra Sangkajai (Maha Katyayana), one of the "Ten Disciples of the Buddha".

Seated gold buddha on a raised platform.

Classic gold Buddha under natural and artificial light, flanked by "Tung Kradang"; banners carved with religious stories and commissioned as offerings to the Lord Buddha. ~ Wat Phra Kaew

Portrait: Creamy stone carved Burmese buddha with painted hair and lips.

Burmese Buddha ~ Wat Phra Kaew Museum

Head and shoulders of an olive green stone bodhisattva, thai style, against window light.

Light from the carved teak window balusters in the Wat Phra Kaew Museum fall on a Bodhisattva.

Many small, old buddha images in a glass case, with reflected light through balustraded windows.

Tiers of old carved Buddha images ~ Wat Phra Kaew Museum

White stone carving of Ganesha

Ganesha, Remover of Obstacles ~ Wat Phra Kaew Museum

White jade carving of the laughing buddha seated on a Chines dragon

Budai, the "Laughing Buddha", rides a Chinese dragon ~ Wat Phra Kaew Museum.

Novice youths at a large teak desk: Wat Phra Kaew Museum.

In the reading corner, two "nehn", or novice monks, take time out.

From Wat Phra Kaew, it was a short walk to our lodgings, via two more local temples: Wat Phra Singh and Wat Klang Wiang.

Golden seated buddha image against a red and gold background.

Buddha ~ Wat Phra Singh

 Theravada monk in red-brown robes, seated on stone steps.

Visiting monk. His red-ink tattoos are common among Burmese (Shan / Tai) men. The designs are stamped before being tattooed, and last about five years, protecting the wearer against evil spirits, bringing strength, and resisting and curing diseases.

Red signpost in temple grounds: "No Killing Area"

It's always good to know you are in a "No Killing Area"! Wat Klang Wiang

Four Theravada novices in the grounds of a temple.

Afternoon clean-up duty ~ Wat Klang Wiang

The next morning, after our trip by car to The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun), we visited Wat Phra That Doi Chom Thong. The ancient sacred stone representing the city pillar; the “navel” or centre of the city; was moved here in 1992. Unlike most Thai cities, which house their city pillars, their Lak Mueang, in a shrine, Chiang Rai displays its pillar in an open area. I leave it to you – but I don’t think they look like navels!

City pillars, on a stepped circular cement expanse.

Sadu Mueang, the Navel or Omphalos of the City, Doi Chom Thong, Chiang Rai

City pillars festooned with coloured nylon cloth, Chiang Rai

Yup. "Navals." Indeed.

Figurines of elephants and horses; Thai shrine.

Small figures of elephants and horses are common elements in Thai shrines. Wat Phrathat Doi Jom Thong

Crowd of buddha images against a blue and black painted back-drop.

More Buddhas - different Buddhas. Wat Phrathat Doi Jom Thong

Thai people lighting candles and incense for Buddha offerings.

Whatever the religious image, Thais are always ready to "pay their respects" and to pray. Wat Phrathat Doi Jom Thong

Yes, there is a temple on every corner in Chiang Rai, and they are all lovely.

To my mind, at least, they are also all very different!

Photos: 28-29 October 2011.

  • Signe Westerberg - February 13, 2012 - 5:20 am

    I love the artwork/carvings in these temples… similar yet unique and of course they have elephants – a favorite of mine.ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - February 13, 2012 - 5:23 am

      Welcome back! Yes, we too love the elephants. 🙂ReplyCancel

  • dietmut - February 14, 2012 - 5:36 pm

    Ursula, ich liebe diese Serie mit den Buddhas und Elefanten.
    Auch geben die Fotos die sfeer wieder, Grüsse DietmutReplyCancel

    • Ursula - February 15, 2012 - 9:56 am

      Thanks, Dietmut. I’m so glad you liked the post. Herzlichen Glückwunsch!ReplyCancel

  • dietmut - February 14, 2012 - 5:38 pm

    Ursula, ich liebe diese Serie. Schön die Tempel, Buddhas en elefanten en natürlich geben auch die anderen Fotos eine besondere Stimmung wieder. Grüsse DietmutReplyCancel

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