Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, with a population of about 200,000 people. According to Wikipedia, approximately 1.4 million to 2 million foreigners visit this former Capitol of the ancient kingdom of Lanna every year. If that is correct — and judging from our own experiences in CM, it certainly seems feasible — it is an remarkable statistic.
What do all of these tourists do when they get here? First and foremost, they visit any number of Buddhist temples. There are over 300 wat in Chiang Mai and on any given day, you will walk past 3-4 of them. When we first arrived in Chiang Mai, we had to wait a couple of hours for our room to be readied, and on our first short walk around town, we accidentally stumbled upon three of them. The first of these (I think) was a relatively obscure temple named Wat Pa Phra Nai. It doesn't appear on Google Map and an Internet search for that name comes up empty. The only source to provide this name is the the map of CM we bought at one of the dozens of 7-11s scattered throughout the city.
The wall turned a corner and opened up into an empty courtyard. The gate was open, there were no people in sight, and so cautiously, we entered and began exploring.
One of the things that makes Chiang Mai's temples remarkable — other than their sheer number — is the absolute lack of preciousness surrounding them. Most are not intended or managed as tourist sites; most of them are centers of local community. Wat Phra Pa Nai, Wat Methang, and Wat Umong Maha Thera Chan (again, these are my best guesses reached by cross referencing my memories and our map of CM) are examples of this. We didn't see a single other tourist at these temples. The main buildings, when open, had a comfortable lived-in quality. Yes, there were gigantic golden Buddhas, but there were also sagging couches, folding chairs, and threadbare rugs.
Wat Methang sits right across the street from our hotel. We first noticed it while eating breakfast.
We happened across Wat Umong Maha Thera Chan after dinner one night. Bats swooped across a rose-colored sky, French tourists smoked cigarettes in violation of Thai law, and a song lifted into the darkening air, occasionally obscurd by the rev of a passing tuk tuk.
Other temples in Chiang Mai may be more majestic, more photogenic, more historically or culturally significant. But the manner in which these quiet, unassuming, everyday places of devotion are integrated into the fabric of the city — and into its inhabitants' lives — are what makes me love them. They are unpretentious and more beautiful because of it. They reveal how fully Buddhism has saturated this place. These unremarkable wat are as mundane — and as holy — as a stray dog, a food cart selling sliced fruit with salt and chili powder, a uniformed student sitting sidesaddle on a speeding scooter.