In a city full of temples, diminutive Wat Phan Tao in the heart of Chiang Mai’s old town area still manages to stand out. Beautifully carved from teak, the main building dates back to the mid 1880s and was formerly part of a royal palace belonging to the ruler of Chiang Mai. Wat Phan Tao is a pretty temple rather than spectacular, but it’s worth spending some time here especially if you are visiting neighbouring Wat Chedi Luang. It’s also a lovely venue to witness the various religious ceremonies and special events that take place throughout the year. These include Buddhist holidays, Songkran, New Year’s Eve and the Yi Peng Lantern Festival.
History of Wat Phan Tao
The buildings that can be seen today at Wat Phan Tao are relatively modern, but records show a temple was first established here in the 14th century. At that time, the location also hosted living quarters for monks from the neighbouring temple of Wat Chedi Luang. Over the years, Wat Phan Tao has undergone numerous rebuilds and renovations with the main wooden structure being erected in the late 1870s.
The teak panels were formerly part of a royal palace belonging to the ruler of Chiang Mai, King Mahotra Prathet, who ruled the city in the mid 1800s when Chiang Mai was part of the Lanna kingdom. Following his death, his royal residence was no longer used. Then, in 1875, Prince Inthawichayanon decided to dismantle the unused royal palace and recycle it as a temple at Wat Phan Tao. Above the entrance to the teak viharn is the royal symbol belonging to King Mahotra Prathet which serves as a reminder of the original palace. The gold-coloured design is inlaid with mosaic glass and features a peacock, a dog and nagas. The peacock was a Lanna royal symbol and also represents wisdom. The dog represents the zodiac year of Mahotra Prathet’s birth and the nagas are protective creatures in Buddhist culture.
Inside the main wooden building, painted teak pillars support the roof and lead the eye to the main seated Buddha image. The viharn also hosts a number of artefacts and ancient Buddhist manuscripts. When you look up you may notice white string criss-crossing the ceiling. Pennants depicting the zodiac animals often dangle from here along with banners containing money which has been donated by temple-goers making merit.
Special events at Wat Phan Tao
The temple and surrounding gardens at the rear of Wat Phan Tao are often decorated with flags for important religious days and special events including Makha Bucha, Visakha Bucha, Asahna Bucha, Songkran, New Year’s Eve and Loy Krathong (Yi Peng). On many of these dates, outdoor religious ceremonies take place in the evening with novice monks meditating amidst the carpet of candles.
During January and February, flowers are often planted in the gardens at the rear of the wat, but if you are visiting at other times of the year you’ll probably just see an expanse of sand and no flowers. Nevertheless, it’s still a serene spot to relax and observe the monks going about their daily activities.
Loy Krathong and Yi Peng
If you’re lucky enough to be in Chiang Mai for Loy Krathong and the Yi Peng Festival, lanterns are on display all around Wat Phan Tao. At night, the gardens are illuminated by a myriad of candles for a religious ceremony which sees novice monks meditating in front of the Buddha statue. A small moat separates the garden from onlookers with tea-lights floated on the water. It’s a beguiling experience with sky lanterns released into the night air at the end of the ceremony. This event has become very popular in recent years and the small grounds can get quite crowded so arrive early for a good vantage point. The ceremony usually commences around 7-8pm on the night of Loy Krathong although the exact time can vary so check for yourself by asking at the temple in person.
New Year lanterns
Sky lanterns are also released at Wat Phan Tao on December 31 to symbolically float away bad luck accumulated in the previous year.
Entrance to Wat Phan Tao is free, but if you’ve enjoyed the temple or taken photographs you may want to leave a small token of your appreciation (20 Baht or more) in one of the donation boxes. Wat Phan Tao opens in the morning at 6am. Closing time is approximately 6pm, but will be later if there are any events taking place at the temple. Wat Phan Tao is located adjacent to Wat Chedi Luang on Phrapoklao Road.