Chiang Mai's Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Guide
With its glistening stupa, said to house a fragment of a bone of the Buddha, and mountaintop setting with views over nearby Chiang Mai, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of northern Thailand's most sacred — and most visited — sites.
It's a place well worth exploring for a couple of hours; you'll discover some fine northern Thai architecture, catch a glimpse of monks in their orange robes, and pass countless golden Buddhas.
History of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Historians believe that Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was founded in approximately 1383, although the circumstances surrounding its founding are unclear. A popular legend has it that a monk named Sumanathera from the Sukhothai Kingdom was told, in a dream, to go in search of a relic. On doing so, he discovered a bone fragment — believed to be from the shoulder of the Buddha — that displayed supernatural powers, including the ability to vanish or glow.
He took the relic to his king, Dhammaraja, who was ultimately unimpressed with the find. However, the Lanna king Nu Naone heard about the bone, and invited Sumanathera to take it to him in northern Thailand. On arrival, the relic broke into two pieces, one of which the king enshrined at Wat Suan Dok temple in Chiang Mai, the other he placed on the back of an elephant, which was set free into the jungle. The elephant climbed the hill now known as Doi Suthep and dropped dead, so the king ordered a temple to be built there to house the second bone fragment.
What to see at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
More than 300 steps — lined with mythical serpents known as naga — lead up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep from the car park. However, if you don't feel like tackling the climb, there's also a funicular cable car to take you up.
Once you've entered the temple complex, you'll come to a terrace. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is about 1000 metres above sea level, and you can take in sweeping views out over the forested hills, and down to Chiang Mai and the surrounding plain. For the best chance of getting a cloud-free view, visit during the cooler, dryer months between November and February. Also bear in mind that agricultural burning takes place around Chiang Mai mainly in March and April, so the views over the city can be obscured, plus the smoke could cause problems for those with respiratory conditions. Whatever time of year you visit, it's a good idea to get to the temple early in the morning before the crowds arrive and when the heat is less intense.
While you're on the terrace, you can also admire the shrines and breadfruit trees, as well as the statue of a white elephant, said to mark the spot where the king's elephant died. At the time of the legend, albino elephants were considered holy.
To enter the inner courtyard, you'll need to remove your shoes — the ground can get uncomfortably hot in places, but you should find plenty of shade — and cover up your arms and legs (coverings are available to rent if you forget to bring suitable clothing). You can follow the walkway around the temple's crowning glory, its golden chedi, or stupa, which towers 24 metres above the complex, has multiple tiers, and is said to contain the fragment of bone from the Buddha.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of Thailand's most sacred pilgrimage sites, and you'll probably see pilgrims making offerings of lotus petals at the temple's many shrines, which contain statues of the Buddha in a variety of poses. Look out too for murals depicting scenes from the Buddha's life and travels, as well as intricate wood carvings, a model of the Emerald Buddha, the wihan (an assembly hall for monks), plus a few Hindu symbols, including a statue of the god Ganesh. There are also prayer bells you can ring for good luck.
Within the grounds you'll also find the Doi Suthep Vipassana Meditation Center. If you're interested in learning meditation practices, this retreat offers a range of courses, lasting from a few days to a few weeks.
If you need refreshments or souvenirs, there are many shops, stalls, and cafés around the car park area.
Getting to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
The temple is approximately a 15-kilometre journey west of central Chiang Mai, with much of the route following a winding mountain road. A taxi will take about 25 minutes (£5 one way), while you can also catch a songthaew — a converted pick-up truck used as a bus — from near Chiang Mai Zoo (20 minutes, around £1 per person).
If you're feeling fit, you can walk up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. It's a good idea to get a taxi to Chiang Mai University in the west of the city, then hike the Monk’s Trail up to Wat Pha Lat, a Buddhist temple and monastery that's surrounded by forest and well worth visiting. It was built at the spot where the king's elephant supposedly took a break on its way up to the top of the mountain.
This tranquil temple is full of striking statues and there's a waterfall next to it. Spend some time there and you're bound to feel refreshed, ready for the final push up the trail to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. The total length of the walk is about three kilometres (around 80 minutes). Wat Pha Lat is also on the main road to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, so you can easily visit it by taxi.
Entry to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep costs THB30 (about 65p) — it's free for Thai nationals. The funicular railway costs THB10 (about 25p) each way.
For more inspiration about where to go and what to see in Thailand, check out our ultimate Thailand travel guide, or search our collection of holidays to Thailand.
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Nick Elvin contributed to this post.