Chiang Rai's Temple of the Emerald Buddha lays claim to be the 'original' Wat Phra Kaeo, at least in Thailand. No one seems to know exactly when the temple was built, but it probably dates to around the time of the city's founding. It was originally called 'Wat Pa Yia' which means 'yellow bamboo forest' after the bamboo which abundantly grew in the area. Several stands of the tall grass line one side of the compound today.
What is known for sure is that in 1434, lightning struck the chedi (since restored) and cracked it open. The so-called 'Emerald Buddha' now housed in the Grand Palace in Bangkok was found inside the broken pagoda. Soon after its discovery, the sacred image was moved to Lampang, then Chiang Mai, then Laos and finally to Bangkok in 1778.
The replica of the Emerald Buddha.
The 'Emerald Buddha' is actually made of jade. In 1991 a replica of the original was commissioned to honor the Princess Mother's 90th birthday. A large hunk of Canadian jadeite was donated by a rich Chinese businessman, and the replica was carved in Beijing. Following Buddhist protocol, the new 'Chiang Rai Jade Buddha' is not an exact copy of the original. It's slightly smaller with other variations. The new Buddha was installed in a custom-built pavilion at the back of the main compound.
The beautiful ubosot (ordination hall) was built in 1890 in the Chiang Saen style and was last remodeled in 1960. Often overlooked is the Buddha image within the ubosot. The large bronze image, which is not gilded like most Buddha images, is one of the largest and considered one of the most beautiful in Thailand. The image is about 700 years old and was originally in Wat Phra Chao Lamthong outside of town, then it was moved to Wat Ngam Muang and finally to Wat Phra Kaeo in 1961.
South of the ubosot is a large two-story museum in dark teak wood trimmed in gold. The Hongluang Saengkaew museum holds religious artifacts and texts. It opened to the public in 2007. The museum is open every day from 9:00 to 17:00. There's no admission fee but a donation is requested.
The temple does have its own Wat Phra Kaew web site.