Great views, big crowds
Published/Last edited or updated: 24th August, 2017
As the saying goes, if you haven’t visited Wat Doi Suthep, you haven’t visited Chiang Mai!
Regrettably most other visitors to Chiang Mai have heard the same expression, so firstly 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 become 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.
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 form the Doi Suthep-Doi Pui National Park. (Doi means mountain in the local dialect if you hadn’t already guessed.) A trip to the wat is typically combined with other sights the mountain and national park have to offer (read more in our corresponding section).
As it's east facing with Doi Pui to the rear there’s no sunset and on a hazy day don’t expect much of a view. On a clear day, the broad vista stretches across Chiang Mai city and the Ping River to the hills of Doi Saket on the horizon. It's gorgeous and goes some way to compensate for the queues and crowds of selfie-taking tourists.
The temple is around 15 kilometres from town and reached by a good, though seriously steep and winding 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 can get up by motorbike, songthaew or organised tour, but it's too steep for tuk tuks. We know people who’ve done it on pushbikes and during holy days, Buddhist pilgrims traditionally make the climb on foot.
Numerous visitors on rented motorbikes have ended the day at Suan Dok Hospital, which is conveniently placed on Suthep Road. Inexperienced riders, please be warned! It isn’t only the hairpin bends and constant gear-change-causing inclines, but also the 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 Bangko- registered car full of visitors struggling to cope with mountain driving. If you are experienced, comfortable and careful on a bike then it is practical, as it allows additional stops on the way at your leisure.
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. They charge 40 baht per person to drop you outside the temple, plus another 40 baht 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 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 400 to 500 baht with a guide and transport ought to be a fair rate if you want 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 there are no views, while the former is a stiff 10-minute or so climb up 300-plus stairs.
At the peak is the temple complex itself, with a striking and unusual octagonal, bronze coloured chedi surrounded by a collection of shrines interspersed with lottery ticket vendors. The elaborate wrought “Umbrella” atop the stupa is said to have been added to mark Chiang Mai’s unification with Siam. Flat land for building 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 treetops 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). He decided to place it on the back of a white elephant, which he let loose 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 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.
Being such as prestigious site, it has been added to, renovated and tweaked over the centuries, creating an eclectic mix of shrines, statues and halls. 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.
If you’re travelling under your own steam, then simply head straight up Huay Kaew Road past the zoo and the temple is 15 km up the hill.
By public transport, take a songthaew or tuk tuk to Chiang Mai Zoo outside of 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; they depart from the foot of the temple steps.
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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