Definitely a landmark and one of the must-see sights for travelers in Chiang Mai, the temple of Doi Suthep is nonetheless too important locally to be considered merely a tourist attraction. First and foremost, it is a center of sanctity and a legendary symbol of Lanna. Crowning a tall hill just west of the city, it receives a steady stream of pilgrims from all over Thailand, and from other Buddhist countries nearby. To a non-believer, it is still an impressive example of Buddhist architecture and a living piece of history. The views from up there are not bad either.
The full title of the temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, implies that it guards a holy relic (phra that). And so does the legend claim: in the 14th century a monk and a seer, named Sumanathera, followed his vision to discover a shoulder bone of Siddhartha Gautama, Lord Buddha. Such relics are believed to have supernatural properties, such as the ability to multiply (conveniently, also a way to explain why do various temples around the world possess at least a few hundreds of Buddha's teeth in total). Yet when the bone was brought to the king of Sukhothai, he found no mysterious abilities in it, and gave it back to the monk, dismissively. The king of Lanna, Nu Naone, showed greater wisdom by inviting Sumanathera to Lampang (a town just south of Chiang Mai) and believing his story. The bone was loaded onto a sacred white elephant, which was then released into the forest. The animal climbed Doi Suthep hill, raised its trunk, trumpeted three times, and died on the spot. Accepting this as a holy sign, the Nu Naone ordered a monastery built on top of the hill. The temple was constructed in 1386 and has been flourishing until now.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was never intended as a hermitage - on the contrary, relic temples have to be accessible to pilgrims. Yet, until 1935, there was no road to the monastery, and visiting required hours of arduous trekking through thickly forested hills. In 1935, Khruba Sriwichai, known as the "engineer monk", enlisted volunteers to build a road there from Chiang Mai, and the project was soon completed. Nowadays, Doi Suthep is served by regular transport, yet a hike in the forest may be a nice alternative if you have a day to spare. One day when thousands of pilgrims still reach the temple on foot is New Year's Eve. Motorized traffic on this road gets restricted or entirely forbidden, and a significant portion of the Chiang Mai population, with the occasional tourist here and there, walk steadily up the hill. Food stalls predictably line the road during this event, and monks from neighboring monasteries bless the travelers by sprinkling holy water and tying sai sin - sacred thread - on their wrists.
Songtiaews (passenger pick-ups) to Doi Suthep depart from a stop next to the North Gate of Chiang Mai. You can also catch them along Huay Kaew Rd, assuming you can catch one at all - they are very infrequent. An alternative would be to take one as far as Chiang Mai Zoo or Huay Kaew Waterfall, then hitchhike or walk from there. The final climb of a few hundred steps to the legendary temple itself can be replaced, if you are feeling lazy, by taking a cable car. There is an entrance fee of 50 THB for foreign tourists, normally waived on New Year's Eve. While charging a fee to enter a place of worship is a highly arguable practice, this temple is worth ignoring the minor injustice. It is a landmark that Thais tend to equate to Chiang Mai as such, and the gilded jumble of stupas and Buddhist statues around the central spire is very impressive.
Did you like the travel story?
Get more! Subscribe to our monthly inspiration newsletter.