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Because this temple is near the Thapae Gate, most visitors begin their sightseeing here, where there are two wats of interest. This complex, which briefly housed the Emerald Buddha (now at Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaew), dates from 1411 when the original chedi (stupa) was built by King Saen Muang Ma. The already-massive edifice was expanded to 84m (276 ft.) in height in the mid-1400s, only to be ruined by a severe earthquake in 1545, just 13 years before Chiang Mai fell to the Burmese. Some of the elephants around its base were restored in the 1990s, but the spire was never rebuilt. Buddhas sit in niches facing the cardinal points, and it is not unusual to spot a saffron-robed monk bowing to them as he circles the chedi. The huge chedi is especially atmospheric during the puja festivals, when monks and laymen circumambulate it carrying candles, flowers, and incense.

Wat Phan Tao, in the northeast corner of the same compound, has an impressively large teak wood viharn (assembly hall) that once served as a royal residence and is adorned with a striking mosaic of a peacock and dog above the main door (a nod to the astrological sign of the former royal resident). After leaving the temple, walk around to the monks’ quarters on the side, taking in the traditional teak northern architecture and delightful landscaping. This is a very atmospheric wat to explore.