Most visitors to Chiang Mai have been to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep on top of the mountain overlooking the town. But there is another holy temple on a mountain top close to the city that few know about. The temple, Wat Prathat Doi Kham, is also home to the largest seated Buddha image in Chiang Mai.
Wat Phrathat Doi Kham is actually older than the city of Chiang Mai. It was established in the 7th century by the sons of Queen Chamadevi of the Haripunchai Kingdom, who had her capital in the nearby city of Lamphun. The Haripunchai Kingdom was a populated by the Mon people, who were the first to bring Buddhism to Northern Thailand.
All around the temple, you can see various images and shrines dedicated to Queen Chamadevi and other important figures in her life story, such as her two sons and the Ruesi, or ascetic hermit, who is said to have adopted the queen as a child. According to legend, the hermit found the young princess sitting on a giant lotus flower. He raised her, and she married one of the princes of the Mon capital city Lopburi in Central Thailand. The king then sent her up north on a mission to establish a new city and sister kingdom for the Mon people.
It is quite easy to get to the temple with your own transportation. Just head south on the Canal Road and turn right at the sign for the Night Safari and Ratchaphruek Royal Flower Gardens. You’ll then see the temple up on top of a hill ahead of you. The road twisting up the mountain is not difficult, but it’s quite narrow, so you’ll want to take it slow.
When you get up to the temple parking area, the first thing you’ll notice is the gigantic seated Buddha statue. At 17 meters tall, it’s the largest seated Buddha in Chiang Mai. It’s also larger than a number of other famous giant Buddha images, such as those at Kamakura and Nara in Japan. The Buddha has characteristic Lanna features typical of Buddha images from Northern Thailand, such as a round face and lotus bud shaped crown protrusion.
The chedi, or temple pagoda, is not very large, but it’s covered in gold and said to contain a hair of the Buddha, which is why the temple’s name includes the word phrathat, which means “holy relic”. According to a local legend, the mountain was once inhabited by a pair of giant cannibals who terrorized the local population (were they yetis?). The Buddha then paid a visit to the giants and converted them to his doctrine. He left one of his hairs with them, which they then paid reverence to daily. And it is this hair that is enshrined in the chedi.
The temple courtyard has many small shrines to various figures, which really gives it the feeling of a pilgrimage spot. Besides figures connected to the history of the temple (including the cannibalistic giants that were converted to Buddhism), you’ll also find shrines to Phra Mae Guan-im (Kwan-Yin Bodhisattva) and Phra In (the Hindu god Indra).
The ubosot, or ordination hall, is very small and charming. It has classic Lanna style architecture and feels really cozy inside when compared to the large assembly halls that you find at most temples. Next to the ubosot is a set of large gongs. If you rub the center of the gong the right way, it creates a loud, strange resonating sound somewhat similar to a Tibetan singing bowl.
The temple grounds include a large terrace that gives a vantage point out over fields and towards the city below. You can also find the Hindu gods Vishnu and Ganesha hanging out on the viewing platform and enjoying the scenery.
Overall, Wat Phrathat Doi Kham is very pleasant to visit because it’s much quieter and not as touristy as the more popular temples.
You can combine a trip to the temple with a visit to the nearby Baan Suan Ka-Fé for lunch or a coffee. It’s a just a short drive down the road that winds behind the hill the temple is built on. Turn left when you get to a T-junction. Baan Suan is built in a very scenic spot, with tall bamboo and trees overhead and a small stream running right in front of the restaurant. There are seats in a garden area and a large open wooden building. Baan Suan actually advertises the fact that they have no wi-fi. It’s somewhere you go to enjoy the atmosphere, not somewhere to sit with your nose stuck to a screen. It’s also a really popular place, so if you’re going on a weekend, you need to get there early, or it might be difficult to find a seat.