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Welcome to the Temple @ Chiang Mai, Thailand

buddhist statues in flower garden

with F.Zuiko 38mm f1.8

One great thing about living in Chiang Mai is how easy it is to walk around in the compact old town, exploring and finding places that aren’t on the tourist maps. One Chiang Mai temple I visited (Wat Pha Khao, not far at all from Tha Phae Gate) is one such example.

The temple cannot compete with the main ones in town, being less than half the size and having less than half the exposure on tourist routes, and even Googling it now doesn’t bring up any relevant results.

I only really went there because I had been eating in Cafe 29, a place opposite Wat Pha Khao that I often went to when I first arrived Chiang Mai. Less so after living there for a while, but it is a good spot for some dinner in the old town.

The temple did make for a nice little discovery on one particular photography day I had given myself though, and mainly for the array of little fat kids in the yard with begging bowls and grinning faces.

Statues of them, I mean.

two buddhist statues and flower

two child buddhist statues

statues of young buddhist monks

buddhist statue chiang mai

Being surrounded by these was a little strange if I let them spend too much time in my peripheral vision, although this wasn’t a bad thing – I felt uplifted, as temples always make me feel.

Inside the temple, I saw something that, of all the temples I’d ever been to, was new to me. The main Buddha and the five smaller statues in front of him are underlit, with the light changing colour every five seconds or so.

It sounds tacky, but what it actually does is bring their faces to life. As the shadows and colours change, the expressions on the faces seem to alter slightly. I couldn’t stop looking at it.

A trick of the light of course, but I was mesmerised.

buddha at wat pha khao chiang mai

After getting the pictures I wanted, I made a donation, left the temple grounds, and walked around Chiang Mai’s old town a bit more.

Chiang Mai old town photography

Chiang Mai’s temples are among the major attractions for many of the thousands of tourists who pass through but, for those who stay longer, finding other subjects worth shooting in the old town provides a great way to spend a leisurely day walking around.

Most of these shots are from the southeast quarter of the old town.

kurt cobain graffiti in chiang mai


Dog tired

I’m not sure how popular Nirvana or Kurt Cobain are or ever were in Thailand, but someone thought enough of the late singer to immortalise him on a wall. Better than Che Guevara I suppose.

The classic Mercedes was an unexpected find too, but unfortunately looked like it hadn’t been driven for a while, and the dog just seemed completely uninterested in his surroundings or the fact that he was sleeping on a road junction.

I took a few shots of him, experimenting with shutter speeds and waiting for different vehicles to come past, even trying with an empty street there. In the end though, what’s more Thai than a tuk-tuk?

Broken Buddha statues

A little later in the day, I came across another temple.

Although the temple itself wasn’t particularly interesting either inside or out, there was a collection of broken and headless Buddha statues under the bodhi tree.

two headless buddhas under tree

buddha figurine with no head

two headless buddha figures

old religious dolls under tree

It’s certainly not the first time I’ve seen these broken Buddhas under a tree, but it was the most photogenic collection I’ve come across.

I think there’s something atmospheric about seeing them there; something quite sad, and even though they were small, it brought to mind the fall of something great.

Be it the ruins of an empire, or merely the denouncing of a religion by one person, the destroyed Buddhas in their final resting place were a sorry sight.

In reality, they would most likely have been broken accidentally, with the bodhi tree being the most respectful place for them to remain afterwards.

To throw them away with the rest of the rubbish would be highly disrespectful, and people might not want to keep an imperfect Buddha that has been broken and repaired.

Talking about broken Buddha statues would be a downbeat way to end the article, and a big part of Buddhism is the cycle of life, death, and reincarnation. At the same temple, I noticed a symbol of this and was lucky enough to be able to capture it.

No other creature really encapsulates the cycle of development and rebirth like a butterfly, and I like to think that maybe it wasn’t merely coincidence this one was sitting where it was that day.

butterfly on thai buddha


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The temples of Chiang Mai are wonderful spots for your regular scenic tourist shots, but what else can they offer in terms of photography? And what else can Chiang Mai's old town offer for those wanting to shoot urban scenes? Wat Pha Khao, a lesser known temple in Chiang Mai, offers an interesting playground for the photographer with its collection of small Buddhist statues in the yard, while walking the streets can throw up the unexpected as much as in any city. Finding a collection of broken Buddha figurines beneath a bodhi tree made an atmospheric end to both my day and the set of pictures from it, and led me to seek out the reason for them being there.


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