To the south of Chiang Mai’s walled Old Town lies the traditional silver-making district of the city. Centring on Wualai Road, this area is dotted with silver shops, but is probably best known to tourists as the location of the Saturday Walking Street Market, the smaller version of the excellent Sunday Walking Street Market that sets up each weekend in Chiang Mai. But what many of the shoppers may not realise is that a small lane off Wualai Road leads to one of the most unusual temples in northern Thailand.
The silver shrine
The temple here was first founded in 1501 under King Mengrai and given the name Wat Srisuphan Aram. Since the original construction, the temple has been renovated and redesigned a number of times. The most recent reincarnation of the temple began in 2004 under the direction of the abbot, Phra Kru Phithatsuthikhun. Rather than using standard temple renovation techniques, the abbot has utilized the skill and knowledge of local silversmiths. This is most evident in the design of the main ordination hall (ubosot). The result is a silver-coloured building which shimmers in the sunlight and is full of intricate details. Most of the work is carried out using alloy and zinc with precious silver being reserved for the holy images.
No entry for ladies
Women aren’t allowed to enter the main ordination hall with a sign in quirky English explaining why:
Beneath the base of Ubosotha in the monastic boundary, many precious things, incantations, amulets and other holy objects were buried 500 years ago. Entering inside the place may deteriorated the place or otherwise the lady herself. According to this Lanna Belief, ladies are not allowed to enter the Ubosotha.
Chiang Mai’s silversmith tradition and workshop
Wat Srisupan is an important centre for handicrafts and helps to preserve the silversmith tradition of this area of Chiang Mai. Techniques are handed down to the new generation of silversmiths at the Ancient Lanna Arts Study Centre (known as Sala Sip Mu Lanna) and visitors to the temple are encouraged to see the artisans at work. Wualai silverware is noted for the raised textures which stand out from the background. Another unique Wualai trait is the use of an elephant instead of a pig when depicting the animals of the zodiac.
It was around 200 years ago under the Lanna king Kawila that the silversmith community was first established in Chiang Mai. As part of Kawila’s series of initiatives to restore Chiang Mai to former glories, he invited villagers from the Salawin Basin (in the north-west of Thailand) to come to the city. Renowned for their silverware skills, the villagers formed a community just outside the city walls to the south of Chiang Mai Gate in the Wualai area.
From 17.30 to 21.00 each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, visitors to Wat Srisuphan are able to converse with English-speaking monks in free ‘monk chat’ sessions. If you have the time, meditation courses are also available at the temple.
If you are approaching from Chiang Mai Gate, head down Wualai Road from where you can turn right into either Soi 2 or Soi 3 with both lanes leading to Wat Srisuphan. If you turn right into Soi 2 it’s then the first left where you will see a sign saying ‘100 metres to the silver ubosoth’.