The Wat Phra Kaew is a Royal Temple in Chiang Rai and one of the oldest in the city. Although the exact year the Wat was founded is not known, it goes back at least to the end of the 14th century.
The Wat Phra Kaew is an important temple in Thai history, as it was here where the Emerald Buddha was discovered in the year 1434 after lightning struck the chedi where it was kept. The Emerald Buddha or Phra Kaew Morakot is the most highly revered Buddha image in the country, that is now enshrined in the Wat Phra Kaew temple on the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
The story of the Emerald Buddha
The origin of the Emerald Buddha is not known with certainty. One story tells the image was created in India over 2,000 years ago, after which is brought to Sri Lanka and then to Cambodia.
Towards the end of the 14th century the image was in North Thailand. The King of Chiang Rai decided to hide the image in the chedi of the Wat Phra Kaew, that was then known as Wat Pa Yier meaning bamboo forest temple.
In 1434 during a storm the chedi was hit by lightning, damaging the structure. Some of the stucco came off revealing the Buddha image. As people believed the image was made of emerald (it is actually green jade), they named it the Emerald Buddha, or with its official name the Phra Kaew Morakot. The name of the temple was then changed to its current name Wat Phra Kaew.
Not long after the discovery of the Emerald Buddha King Sam Fang Kaen of the Lanna Kingdom ordered the image to be brought to Chiang Mai, the capital of the Kingdom. The image was transported in a shrine placed on the back of an elephant. The elephant however had a mind of its own and brought the image to Lampang, further South. After this had occurred three times, the King decided to leave the image in Lampang, where it was housed in the Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao temple. A white statue of the elephant that carried the image can still be seen today at the Lampang temple. Since then, the Buddha image was moved around quite a lot until it ended up where it is now, the Wat Phra Kaew temple in the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
Today, the Wat Phra Kaew temple in Chiang Rai holds a copy of the original Phra Kaew Morakot image. The copy that is very close to the original was made in honor of the 90th birthday of HRH Princess Srinagarindra, the Princess Mother. This replica also named Phra Kaew Morakot carved from jade in China was installed in the temple’s ubosot in 1991. It is a little smaller than the original, which is about 45 centimeters tall.
The viharn, the ubosot and the chedi
The viharn of the Wat Phra Kaew is a beautiful Lanna style structure with its facade made of intricately decorated panels. The relatively small viharn has a multi tiered roof and very intricate eyebrow pediments.
The entrance to the building is guarded by two large Naga snakes on either side of the stairs. The viharn contains the Phra Chao Lan Thong Buddha image, a very large bronze and brass image in the subduing Mara position that was cast some 7 centuries ago.
Behind the viharn stands the golden spiral shaped chedi where the Emerald Buddha was kept until 1434.
The ubosot or ordination hall that contains beautiful mural paintings dates from the end of the 19th century.
Lanna museum at the temple grounds
A modern large two storey building made from dark wood contains a museum. The Lanna style building is decorated with golden colored panels on its facade and very ornate pediments over the doors in the eyebrow shape. The bargeboards on the roof over the entrance are shaped in the form of a huge Naga serpent.
The museum displays artifacts from the Lanna era (1296 - 1558). The temple grounds are well kept and peaceful. The Wat Phra Kaew is an active temple, monks study and live on the temple grounds.
How to get to the Wat Phra Kaew
The temple is found on the intersection of Sang Kaew road and Trairat road in the Western part of Chiang Rai about 800 meters South of the Mae Kok river. It is located some 300 meters West of the Wat Phra Singh temple. From anywhere in the center of town, you can get there by tuk-tuk or samlor (a three wheeled rickshaw) or rent a bicycle and drive there yourself.
Entrance fee & opening hours
The temple grounds are open daily from 7 am until 6 pm. Admission is free, although donations for the upkeep of the temple are highly appreciated. The museum opens daily from 9 am until 5 pm.