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 ubosot
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 utilised 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.
The panels are full of intricate details depicting an eclectic range of subjects ranging from the life of Buddha to comic-book heroes. Most of the work is carried out using aluminium or zinc alloys with precious silver being reserved for the holiest images.
Women aren’t allowed to enter the silver 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 silver district
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.
Wat Srisuphan 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 that when depicting the animals of the zodiac, an elephant is sometimes used instead of a pig.
The community temple
While the silver ubosot is the main attraction for tourists, Wat Srisuphan is an important part of the local community. If you’re visiting the temple, do take time to wander around the different zones and learn more about the local community and heritage of the area.
A small, but informative museum provides some interesting insights into Lanna culture. It’s also possible to converse with English-speaking monks in free ‘monk chat’ sessions. Meditation courses are available at the temple as are classes in the northern Thai form of massage known as ‘tok sen’. If you don’t have time for a massage course, it’s well worth trying a 30-60 minute session to experience this unique form of massage which involves the therapist tapping a wooden mallet on the meridian lines of the body.
Taking time out in the small restaurant and coffee shop is a pleasant way to round-off your time at this fascinating Chiang Mai temple.
How to get to Wat Srisuphan
Chiang Mai Gate is a convenient landmark and relatively easy to reach from most places in the city via songthaew (red trucks that act as shared taxis within the city). The fare should be 30 Baht to Chiang Mai Gate, but may be more if you ask to be dropped directly outside the temple.
If you are walking 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’.
The entrance fee is 50 Baht and as always at Thai temples, visitors should dress and act respectfully.