Photo: Old and newer.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

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As the saying goes “if you haven’t visited Wat Doi Suthep you haven’t visited Chiang Mai”, so you’d better get yourself up there!

Inevitably and regrettably most other visitors to Chiang Mai, locals, overseas visitors and the coach loads of tour groups have heard the same expression so firstly and importantly we’d say avoid timing your visit on a weekend, long weekend or public holiday. Even on a low season weekday the scene here can be a bit of circus so regardless of when you are going, it is well worth getting up there as early as possible in the morning.

People come for the views... Photo taken in or around Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

People come for the views... Photo: Mark Ord

The 13th century temple is spectacularly sited on an east facing, flattened outcrop just below the summit of Doi Suthep. The mountain is in turn located just in front of slightly higher Doi Pui which together forms the Doi Suthep-Doi Pui National Park. (Doi means mountain in the local dialect if you hadn’t already guessed.) Any trip to the wat is generally combined with other sites the mountain and national park have to offer and you can read more in our corresponding section.

Note we said east facing with Doi Pui to the rear so there’s no sunset for starters and (see our when to visit section), on a hazy day don’t expect much of a view but on a clear day, the broad vista stretching across Chiang Mai City and the Ping River to the hills of Doi Saket on the horizon is spectacular and goes some way to compensate for the queues and crowds of selfie taking tourists.

... but the Wat itself is also pretty and photogenic. Photo taken in or around Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

... but the Wat itself is also pretty and photogenic. Photo: Mark Ord

The temple is situated around 15 kilometres from town and reached by a good, albeit seriously steep and windy road. As you ascend through the forested slopes you’ll pass through varying ecological strata as the altitude changes with occasional gaps in the trees affording increasingly spectacular views. You have various options of getting up there; by motorbike, songthaew or organised tour, (it is too steep for tuk tuks) while we know people who’ve done it on pushbikes and during holy days Buddhist pilgrims traditionally make the climb on foot.

However numerous visitors on rented motorbikes have ended the day at Suan Dok Hospital, which is conveniently placed on Suthep Road, so inexperienced riders be warned. It isn’t only the hairpin bends and constant gear change causing inclines but also a huge tour coach suddenly swinging around a corner, a Hmong farmer from further up the mountain deciding to overtake on a blind bend or a Bangkok registered car full of local visitors struggling to cope with mountain driving. If you are comfortable and careful on a bike then it is practical as it allows additional stops on the way at your leisure.

No shortage of shiny stuff and golden umbrellas. Photo taken in or around Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

No shortage of shiny stuff and golden umbrellas. Photo: Mark Ord

If not, red songthaews leave from a “station” outside Chiang Mai Zoo on Huay Kaew Road as soon as they have 8 to 10 passengers and charge you 40 baht per person to drop you outside the temple plus another 40 to take you back down again. Obviously with a few fellow travellers you can hire the truck privately too. We saw join-in Doi Suthep trips offered by various hotels and guesthouses but they will include various and varying additional stops in the area such as Doi Pui and Wat Umong for example. Prices vary according to the hotel and the number or participants but 4-500 baht with guide and transport ought to be ok if you wanted to make a half day trip out of it.

On arrival, by whatever means you’ve chosen, you’ll find a large car-park on the left of the songthaew rank surrounded by souvenir stalls and a few desultory cafes. Across the road is the temple’s entrance where 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 temple 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 minutes or so climb up the 300 plus stairs.

Near always busy with devotees. Photo taken in or around Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Near always busy with devotees. Photo: Mark Ord

At the peak is the temple complex itself with a striking and unusual octagonal, bronze coloured, chedi surrounded by a congested collection of shrines interspersed with lottery ticket vendors. The elaborate wrought “Umbrella” atop the stupa is sad to have been added to mark Chiang Mai’s unification with Siam. Flat building land was definitely at a premium on this small outcrop so there is a lot of stuff crammed into a small area. Beyond the chedi viewing points provide some splendid views back across the tree tops to the city. The temple originally dates from the 13th century and the chedi is said to have been built to house relics of the Lord Buddha himself.

The story is that a 14th century Lanna king ensconced in his capital Haripunchai, (modern Lamphun), came into possession of a relic of Lord Buddha, (some versions say his shoulder blade). How he came into possession of it is a convoluted tale in its own right but he decided to place it on the back of a white elephant which he let lose in the surrounding forests—as you do. The elephant finished his walkabout on Doi Suthep whereupon, perhaps after an over strenuous climb, he dropped dead, which the king took for an auspicious omen. Not so auspicious for the elephant, but the king then set about having a temple constructed on the site which is today’s Wat Phrathat Suthep. The bone is then said to be enshrined in the stupa—the oldest section of the temple you see today—while you’ll also find a statue of the poor old white elephant itself.

For the energetic. Photo taken in or around Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

For the energetic. Photo: Mark Ord

Being such as prestigious site, it has been added to, renovated and tweaked over the centuries creating the eclectic mix of shrines, statues and halls you see today. As is the norm for local temples there are some fine old Lanna style features as well as plenty of outright kitsch.

We’re not convinced you won’t have visited Chiang Mai if you don’t pay a visit but it is worthwhile if you can time it for a quiet moment, especially if you can combine it into a half day trip with other Suthep sites.

How to get there
If you’re travelling under your own steam then simply head straight up Huay Kaew Road past the zoo and the temple is 15 kilometres up the hill.

By public transport take a songthaew or tuk tuk to Chiang Mai Zoo outside which you’ll see the Doi Suthep songthaew queue. It costs 40 baht each way per person and vehicles leave when they have 8 to 10 passengers on board. Ditto the return journey and pick–ups depart from the foot of the temple steps.

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Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

15km west of Chiang Mai

Location map for Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

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