A national park on Chiang Mai's doorstep
Lush primary forest and a mountaintop temple a 10-minute ride from downtown Chiang Mai makes for a varied and interesting day trip. Suthep is a district of western Chiang Mai city and gives its name to the adjacent mountain (doi means mountain in north Thai), as well as the temple on the summit—Wat Prathat Doi Suthep. The forested mountain, plus neighbouring Doi Pui, form Doi Suthep-Pui National Park.
A very good sealed road leads from the foot to the summit of Doi Suthep and on to Doi Pui, so going by motorbike or car is ideal and allows you to stop wherever and whenever you wish. The road is very winding, and occasionally very steep, so do take care; check brakes and tyres before setting off, and if you’re not confident on a scooter or motorbike then stick to a songthaew—this isn’t a good place for learner drivers. Red songthaews leave from Huay Kaew Road near the Zoo and Wat Prathat Doi Suthep costing 40 baht per person each way. Normally drivers wait for 8 to 10 passengers before leaving or you can negotiate a deal for the whole vehicle.
Doi Suthep rises from around 300 to over 1,600 metres and traverses various flora zones, so as you climb you’ll pass dry dipterocarp on lower slopes, then mixed evergreen and tropical gallery forests and montane and pine at the highest altitudes.
Just past the foot of the hill on the left is Huay Kaew Waterfall, a popular and often crowded picnic spot, just after which is a checkpoint and national park visitors’ centre. Minimal information was on display when we visited in mid-2017 but they did have various English-language maps available, so it’s worth a stop. An entry ticket is not necessary at this point.
Various viewpoints lie along the road and after a couple of kilometres there’s also a rest area on the left housing a delightful little garden coffee shop offering fresh brews and snacks. A hop further on and you’ll see a turning on the right for Montha Than Waterfall. There’s a checkpoint here and a 200 baht entrance fee will be required if it is staffed. This is a picturesque spot, with the water tumbling over a forest-clad cliff and ideal bathing rock pools and grassy picnic areas beneath.
If the checkpoint is staffed, and you don’t want to pay the fee, continue up the hill and at the 11-kilometre mark you’ll see a large car park on the left and the entrance to Wat Prathat Doi Suthep on the right. The parking is surrounded by souvenir stalls and a few desultory cafes, and at weekends it can get very busy. Across the road you have the choice of ascending to the temple itself by way of the “Naga Steps” or a 20 baht return cable car. (Either way, there’s a 30 baht entrance fee.) The latter runs up a rather claustrophobic tunnel so don’t get excited about any views, while the former is a stiff 10-minute or so climb up the 300-plus stairs.
Even if you’ve had your fill of temples while exploring the town, Wat Doi Suthep is worth a look for the spectacular views alone. It can get very busy though so try to time your visit for as early as possible during the day. Even on a weekday the scene here can be a bit of circus with a steady stream of coaches disgorging tour groups—on a holiday or weekend we’d be inclined to say forget it. If you do elect to mount the steps then allow 20 minutes or so for a look around.
Just past the temple is a turn off, and occasionally staffed ticket office, leading to the main national park buildings with an information-less information centre, restaurant and park accommodation. The park chalets are well laid out but with their limited facilities we’re not really sure why anyone would want to stay overnight when you’re so close to town.
A good nature hike can be done from this point. A footpath leads from behind the last chalet on the right side of the road and takes you down through the forest to Montha Than Falls. Wardens don’t really encourage you to hike unaccompanied, and in rainy season it can get very slippery and overgrown, though during dry season it is relatively straightforward.
From the chalets, the path leads around a small valley for a kilometre or so before emerging onto a wider dirt track. Look out for the huge strangler fig tree and if you’re lucky sapria flowers—a smaller relative of Rafflesia. Birdlife is abundant, including if you’re lucky, greater racket-tailed drongos, white-crested laughing thrushes, black-crested bulbuls and scarlet minivets. Once on the wider track turn right for 200 metres or so, looking out for a small sign on the right to the waterfall. The path leads downhill following a stream. It is a bit overgrown and can get steep in places, so go carefully and don’t be surprised if you find the occasional leech. After a while, the path crosses the stream by some stepping stones and continues along the left bank with good views over cascades and pools.
Some two kilometres later you’ll be at the top of Mon Thaa Than Falls. Do be careful here of slippery rocks. If you lose the overgrown path just follow the stream—it leads to the top of the falls. (But we do mean the top so again, be careful!) After the falls is a car park and, if you haven’t organised transport, you’ll have to walk two kilometres further to the main road and flag down a red songthaew. To be on the safe side we’d allow two hours to complete hike.
Otherwise, back to the park buildings, where another four kilometres up the road sees you at the entrance to Phu Ping Royal Palace. The gardens of the Thai royal family’s northern home are open to the public (adults 50 baht, children 10 baht) and are renowned for their collections of temperate flowers and plants.
Past the palace the road narrows before reaching a T-junction where a left option takes you three kilometres further to Doi Pui Hmong village and a right turn will take you up towards Doi Pui summit. The Hmong village is perhaps the most tourist frequented one in the country; the car park is surrounded by coffee shops and the village street lined with stalls selling dried fruit, tea and Hmong handicrafts. Thankfully the large coaches don’t make it up this far though, the setting is spectacular and the village is still genuinely inhabited. Get off the main strip and the narrow lanes, stone staircases and more tucked away stalls are fun to explore.
At the top of the village is a small Hmong handicraft museum with accompanying gardens where you can hire “traditional” Hmong outfits and take selfies, if that floats your boat. Below the village to the left are more gardens and a small waterfall which is also a popular selfie spot. Both charge a 10 baht entrance fee. Plenty of coffee and tea shops sell locally sourced brews and there’s no shortage of khao soi or other local specialities at only slightly more than standard city prices. It's worth a visit on a quieter weekday, if only for the views and a cuppa.
Head back to the T-junction where a left turn (or right if you haven’t gone to the Hmong village), takes you through lovely pine forest with occasional mountain views though gaps in the forest. The road here narrows to single lane and is far less well maintained. Moss and pine needles make for a slippery surface, so once again, take care. First up, and signposted in English, is a short track leading to Chedi San Ku—a ruined brick temple thought to date from the 13th century but about which little is known. (It was only recently discovered under a mound of earth.) The moss- and fern-covered ruin in a forest glade makes for an atmospheric site and it’s well worth the 200-metre walk.
Next up, a couple of kilometres further on the left, is the start of a walking trail leading to the Doi Pui summit. This scenic trail leads through the pine forest to a viewpoint two kilometres distant. Doubling back a short way to a pavilion you’ll have passed earlier, a left fork leads to the summit itself at 1,685 metres. If you continue along the same footpath then you should arrive back on the sealed road by a national park campsite located a short walk downhill from your starting point. We’d allow at least an hour to be safe, but the trail is well marked.
From the campsite the road leads downhill to a second Hmong village, Khun Chang Khian, around five kilometres distant. This is far less touristy, as it’s far less accessible than Doi Pui Village and in theory the road beyond the village should connect with the Mae Sa to Samoeng highway to the north but we didn’t complete this leg, so ask about road conditions in the village before setting off.
If you include a viewpoint or two, Wat Prathat Doi Suthep, Doi Pui village and a hike to the summit plus lunch then we’d allow the best part of a whole day.
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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