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Mengrai mania

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The spirit of King Mengrai, the heroic founder of the Lanna kingdom, is still worshipped at dozens of shrines in Chiang Mai and the north eight hundred years after his death, but three in the old city stand out. About halfway between Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Kawt Kala was the second temple founded by the king in Chiang Mai (after Wat Chiang Man) and had its name changed to Wat Phra Chao Mengrai (or just Wat Mengrai) in the 1950s. The standing Buddha in its own sala just to the right of the main viharn here is said to replicate exactly King Mengrai’s dimensions – and no wonder he was capable of such heroic deeds, as the image is 4m tall. By the beautiful, stately bo tree at the back of the compound stands a more plausible life-size modern statue of the king himself holding an elephant hook, where people leave all kinds of offerings, including swords.

Between Wat Chedi Luang and Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Centre stand two further monument-shrines to the great king. The site where he was killed by lightning, aged 80, is marked by a glittering, much-venerated shrine in its own small piazza on the corner of Thanon Ratchdamnoen and Thanon Phra Pokklao. A few minutes on up Thanon Phra Pokklao, Mengrai features again in the bronze Three Kings Monument in front of the arts and cultural centre, showing him discussing the auspicious layout of his “new city”, Chiang Mai, with his allies, Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai and Ngam Muang of Phayao. The three kings had studied together under a religious teacher in Lopburi, but when they met up again, things were actually rather different from the harmonious picture portrayed by the monument: on a visit to Phayao, Ramkhamhaeng had an affair with Ngam Muang’s wife, and Mengrai had to step in and mediate.

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