Wat Doi Suthep Temple:
Location: Doi Suthep Mountain (West of town)
Visit Length: Assume a solid half day at least to see everything
Fun Scale: 8.5 out of 10
Locals say you haven’t truly arrived in Chiang Mai until you’ve been to Doi Suthep Temple. The Mountain was originally called Doi Aoy Chang (Sugar Elephant Mountain) with the summit being high up in the jungle and the first peak housing the famous Doi Suthep Temple.
How To Get To Wat Doi Suthep:
Originally it took a 5 hour climb up the mountain to get to the Temple but thanks to 1,000 volunteers who built the current road the journey now only takes about 40 minutes. The best way to go up is buy flagging down a red Songthaew truck taxi. If you are only going to the main Temple and back it will take you about 40-45 minutes each way from Chiang Mai and will cost 200 Baht around trip. We recommend hiring a taxi for a full half day to take you to all the site which will cost 400 Baht for an open Red Songthaew Truck Taxi or 500-600 Baht for a Cat Taxi. Either option will wait for you while you look around and you pay at the end. Overall getting to Wat Doi Suthep Temple is easy and cheap.
If you wish to have a tour guide the whole time, tours like this one stop by the Temple and Hmong Village on 4 hour trip for about $50 a person. A little more high end guided tour, listed here, goes to Doi Suthep Temple, Tiger Kingdom, the 5 Hill Tribe village, and to 2-3 of Old Towns major Temples one an all day trip for $75.
Top Things To See On Doi Suthep Mountain:
1. Chiang Mai Zoo: This zoo may be a little below the standards of a large American or European city zoo, but it makes up for it with some unique experiences. You can hand feed the Giraffes all day long from a raised platform as long as you buy some feed, which is pretty cheap. You can also feed, hold and take pictures with a cuddly Koala Bear which is always really fun. While we don’t normally include zoos in our tours, this one is unique for how many animals you can get close to. Koala Encounter: 1000 Baht you gets your group 10 minutes of time to feed, hold and take photos; runs Daily 9am-3pm. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Zoo Website: (HERE).
2. Huay Kaew Waterfall: Pha Ngerb and Wang Bua Baan make up the upper and lower tiers of this rolling waterfall. The grassy park area isn’t that big, but there is a huge area of gradually sloped rocks follow the path up the falls. You can go to the waterfall without paying the Doi Suthep Park entrance fee as the trail is right across from the Park Headquarters. Expect to see a lot of locals here who come to the falls for daily picnics.
3. Wat Pa Lat: The Temple Wat Pa Lat doesn’t look like much from the road, but upon closer look it’ll be a pleasant surprise. Two half lion, half human warriors mark the front entrance which leads you a short walk to the Temple grounds built into the Jungle. The main Temple building is an old world teak pavilion with a series of old gnome-like stone statues guiding the way.
Past the main building the grounds opens up to a small waterfall and a number of different smaller temple building terraced below you with a good view of Chiang Mai. It is very peaceful and just feels like a place where Monks should live and they do! Feel free to explore the side pathways which lead to large Buddha statues on a jungle backdrop. The coolest trail leads to a cave, more like a rock over crop, that houses a few sitting Buddhas. Other paths lead to moss covered Chedis and rows of small Buddha statue in the mountainside. Even just a 20 minute stop at Wat Pa Lat will give you a since of calm and serenity and will serve you well just in case Doi Suthep Temple is crowded when you get there.
4. Chiang Mai Viewpoint: You would think that going up a mountain right by the city you would have excellent views of Chiang Mai the whole time, but this view points is one of the only places you’ll get the view you were expecting. Most of the rest of the road only leads to Jungle views, but the Eastern facing view of Chiang Mai from here does not disappoint. You will easily be able to make out airport and the square made by Old Town Chiang Mai’s city wall. There are no bathroom facilities at the viewpoint but patio built on the edge of the parking lot will assure you get the view and pictures you were hoping for. Doi Suthep Temple also has a decent viewpoint, but there are bound to be a ton of tourists there and it is not as peaceful.
5. Orchid Jade Factory: If you’ve been looking for real jade jewelry on the cheap the Orchid Jade Factory is the place for you. Located right across from Doi Suthep Temple, the Jade Factory has a huge handcraft production area with over 30 jewelers and a large gift shop. Feel free to stop in to see how they create all types of Jade jewelry and souvenirs by hand. In addition to seeing how everything is made, they will illustrate simple techniques on how to tell jade from its imitations. We also have a mini museum featuring antique jade collections from around the world. There are so many gem shops all around Chiang Mai, but locals have told us the Jade Factory is a safe bet to make sure you’re getting authentic Jade.
6a. Doi Suthep Temple (Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep): In the 1300s a monk named Sumanaost found a intriguing relic believed to be part of Buddha’s shoulder bone, which he deemed so precious it needed to be concealed. The Monk believed the relic had special powers and hid it in a series of silver Chinese boxes which he put into a bronze casket. With the relic in safe keeping, Chiang Mai’s King Kuna built Wat Suan Dok, whose name means Flower Garden, to house it. While moving the relic into Wat Suan Dok it miraculously divided itself into two pieces, with each piece growing back to the size of the original. This was considered a major miracle in olden day Chiang Mai.
While the one half of the newly split relic remained here at Wat Suan Dok, the King felt the second half needed its own temple. King Ku Na declared that a new temple needed to be built to honor the miracle but he wanted divine guidance on where to build it. The King placed the second half of the relic onto one of his White Elephants and sent it off into the jungle. The White Elephant climbed and climbed until he reached the a peak on Doi Suthep Mountain then trumpeted 3 times, made three counterclockwise circles, and laid down refusing to go any farther. This was the sign the King needed and Doi Suthep Temple was built in 1383.
Arriving at Doi Sethup Temple you are first greeted with a daunting 306 steps which were built in 1557 and are guarded by giant snakes or nagas. These huge snakes run the entire length of the steps and are truly one of the highlights of the the visit. Legend has it that the King of Nagas once protected Buddha from a terrible storm by using his cobra hood to shield Buddha and ever since the cobra has been an icon of protection. If you can’t do the steps there is a nearby funicular that can shuttle you to the top for 20 Baht.
Emerging from into the main Temple grounds you are greeted with a White Elephant statue which pays respect to the White Elephant who originally carried the Relic to this location. Continuing the entrance you’ll pass a Bodhi tree similar to the sacred fig tree Buddha meditated under, a hermit statue you can give offerings for good luck, and the four-faced statue of the Hindu god of creation named Brahma. As you go into the entrance and pass through the main Wiharn your first view of the Golden Pagoda will be jaw dropping. The gold leaf on the large Pagoda and large parasols on each of its four corners, glisten in the sun. The Pagoda was originally 26 feet and built tall to house the Relic, but was expanded to the current 52 foot tall Golden Pagoda in the 1400s.
Exploring the rest of the Temple, the wall around the Pagoda has many rows of Buddha statues flanked by colored murals depicting the life of Buddha. We really like the replica Emerald Buddha statue, the statue of the Hindu god Ganesh, and the numerous bells that line the grounds. Outside of the wall is a great museum goes further into detail on the origins of the Temple which is right next to a large terrace view point overlooking Chiang Mai. If you want to check out either the Monks residence or the International Buddhism Center, they are located right behind the Wooden Wiharn. In total it takes about an hour to see the grounds of the Temple.
Temple Hours: 5:30am-7:30pm. Dress Code: Conservative with long pants and covered shoulders. Temple Facebook Page: (HERE).
6b. International Buddhism Center: Attached to Doi Suthep Temple is the International Buddhism Center which has 4-21 day courses teaching foreign visitors about meditation. These courses are called Vipassana Insight Mediation and are run off of donation only with no course fees. If you enroll in the courses, you will be fully immersed, and I mean fully! You wake up at 5am, start you day by 5:30am and continue until 9pm with a series of Dhammatalk, Meditation, Chanting, and Teachings both group and individual. In the monk tradition you will have a 7am breakfast, a noon lunch and no more food the rest of the day. It’s pretty hard core but can be life changing and you go on your journey toward enlightenment. You if you go through the whole program, you first start with a Short Stay Program from 4-14 days, then are if you wish to continue you can join a 21 day Foundation Course, and finally a 13 day Advanced review course. You typically need to contact them 2 weeks in advance to participate.
Even if you aren’t going to enroll in the lengthy course, the International Buddhism Center has many programs set up for day visitors as well. Information about Buddhism and Meditation is available from 9am-5pm, Informal Monk Chat and discussion is from 1-3pm, Meditation demonstration runs from 1-2pm, and you can participate in chanting from 5:30am-6pm. Center Website: (HERE).
7. National Park Accommodation Center: The accommodation center isn’t a very high end place to stay, but is clean and affordable. It is a favorite among visitors who are spending multiple days studying mediation, school groups, and hikers wanting to hike the jungle trials to a series of waterfalls without having to stay in the campground. The most popular hiking trail goes to both Sai Yoi and Mon Tha Than Waterfalls.
8. Monk Cave: To get to the cave, take a five minute walk down the path marked Cave from the parking lot. The cave itself is made up of a few hanging rocks leaning against each other and has a monk living inside. That path is easy and the unique jungle flowers and vines you’ll see on the way are interesting.
9. Palace Market: Just before the Royal Winter place is a large local market with great prices and a wide selection of items. They have everything from souvenirs to fruit and some stands are some times staffed by members of Local Hill Tribes.
10. Royal Winter Palace (Bhubing Palace): Built in 1961 and is fairly modest as far as Royal Palaces go. On days the royal family is in it is closed to the public, but typically they only stop in over the Winter months while all the flowers are in full bloom after the raining season. The grounds are a little underwhelming and have a main modest palace, royal log cabins for family, guesthouses, and a large rose garden. Royal guards are usually always by the gate and serve as wardrobe watch.
Hours: Daily 8:30am-4:30pm, closed on random days January-March when the royal family is staying there. Cost: 50 Baht, ticket office is only open from 8:30-11am and again 1-3:30pm. Dress Code: Must have long pants and covered shoulders, wraps can usually be rented for 15 Baht.
11. Doi Pui Hmong Village (Maeo): If you want a taste for Hill Tribe life without having to book a full day side trip we highly suggest swinging by the Doi Pui Hmong Village. The village if pretty big and gives you a great glimpse of how some local Hmong groups balance modern conveniences and old traditions. During the day many younger residents will be off selling in the markets but the village will still have plenty of people in traditional dress doing chores and working on crafts. The Village has some makeshift shops where you can buy souvenirs, clothing, woven purses, and even take pictures while wearing Hmong clothing. Most of the women have tradition dress with bells and colorful tassels on their hats although our photo to the left shows some of the women in more casual clothes. We tired on some of their clothes, but unfortunately my fat American head was too big to fit in their hats. If you are more pressed for time and want to see the Hill Tribes the best place to do it is at the 5 Hill Tribe exhibition village next to the Tiger Kingdom as you can also see the Long Neck Tribe. The positives to the villages up Doi Suthep mountain, although they only have Hmong Tribes, is they have slightly less tourist and are wear the Villagers actually live.
Off The Beaten Path Stops Near Wat Doi Suthep:
At the fork in the road before the Doi Pui Hmong Village, a one lane road leads the way to sights most tourists don’t even know about. Plan on needing either a dirt bike or 4×4 Songthaew to see the remain sights as the road turns into a gravel road further down the line. A 4×4 also makes life a million times easier if you come across another car and have to pass. Don’t be surprised to see hiking backpackers and mountain bikes far up the mountain.
12. Doi Pui Bureau of Monks: There isn’t much to do at the Bureau of Monks, but with its Harry Potter-like name, it is a fun one to point out. If you do happen to mosey down the the complex it is mainly the headquarters for the Monk “Forestry” Department which takes care of a number of local Temples.
13. Doi Pui Viewpiont: This view point gives you a great view of the Doi Pui Hmong Village and jungle below. If you have already visited the Village it is definitely cool to get a different perspective on it from above.
14. Sanku Ruins: The Sanku Ruins is a pretty cool overgrown ruin of an ancient Temple Chedi. The Chedi isn’t huge, but the plant covered exposed brick is unique. The Ruins are about 50 meters off the road down path and while there is no sign per say, the path should be fairly obvious as you look for it.
15. Doi Pui Summit: The actual summit of the mountain doesn’t have very good views but if you are camping up here you might as well do the hike to say you made it to the top.
16. Campground: After the mountain of Pi four hours to the North, this campground is considered the second best place to camp in Thailand. There aren’t much for amenities, but the Jungle campground is considered very safe and has numerous nature trails for hikers of all experience. Camping overnight will give you a great opportunity to hike to the summit and check out nearby secluded Hill Tribes.
17. Khun Chankian Hmong Village: Khun Chankian is a large Hmong farming community and probably the most authentic Hmong Village in all of Thailand. It is a lot bigger than the other and lacks the tacky tourist feel, which is a huge plus. If you want to see how the Hmong Hill Tribes truly live, this is the place to do it. Tourists rarely make it all the way up to the Khun Chankian Hmong Village since the road turns to dirt/gravel just a ways past the campground. The 4km from the campground to the village will take you about an hour to hike or you can get there in about 10 minutes if you have a 4×4 or dirt bike.