Chiang Mai residents have always regarded Doi Suthep as sacred. It plays a role in the folklore of the ancient Haripunchai Kingdom, which long predates Chiang Mai’s establishment. And the original inhabitants of the area, the Lawa people, believed the mountain to be the home of their ancestral spirits. Nowadays, in addition to scenic waterfalls and hiking trails, the mountain is home to the tourist hotspot of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, in addition to well-kept secrets like Wat Pha Lat.
Doi Suthep is also home to thousands of different plant and animal species. In fact, the mountain and its surroundings are all protected by the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. As such, Doi Suthep has plenty to offer both nature and culture lovers, and the mountain can be enjoyed over the course of multiple excursions. But in the following guide, we’ll be taking a look at an itinerary you can carry out in a single day, provided you have some kind of private transport (more below).
The White Elephant
While, as mentioned, Doi Suthep has been highly revered by locals for centuries, it became an important part of the Lanna Kingdom’s history and folklore in the 14th century. According to legend, a monk from Sukhothai took a shoulder bone relic of the Buddha to King Kue Na (the same king enshrined at Wat Chedi Luang).
The king then placed the relic on a white elephant, intending to build a temple wherever the elephant chose to go. (Not entirely uncommon in Buddhist kingdoms in those times – at least according to the ancient chronicles!) The elephant then proceeded to climb all the way up Doi Suthep, where it loudly trumpeted atop the mountain before collapsing and dying. And so, in 1368, Kue Na enshrined the relic in a large golden chedi over 1,000 meters above sea level.
Wat Pha Lat
Wat Pha Lat is one of Chiang Mai’s most interesting temples. About halfway up the mountain, accessible by either hiking trail or by road, the temple is overlooked by most tourists. The secret is slowly getting out, however.
The story of Wat Pha Lat’s founding is intertwined with that of Wat Pha That Doi Suthep’s. According to one version of the legend mentioned above, the white elephant with the Buddha relic loudly trumpeted at the top of the mountain before retreating to this spot and dying. Other versions, however, simply state that the elephant rested here before dying at the top.
In any case, the temple has long been used by monks as a resting spot during pilgrimages to the top of the mountain. No roads on the mountain even existed until the 20th century.
Visitors can still hike up to the temple today, using a trail that’s called, quite fittingly, the ‘Monk’s Trail.’ You can find the start of the trail behind the Chiang Mai Zoo. Keep walking down the narrow roads all the way west of Chiang Mai University. The entrance is marked on Google Maps above, and you’ll know you’ve found it when you eventually pass by a park ranger’s office.
All along the scenic trail, the path is marked with cloth from orange monastic robes which will eventually lead you to the temple. The walk should only take around 30 – 45 minutes. Understand, though, that if you want to visit Wat Pha Lat in addition to all the other sites mentioned below, a vehicle is a must.
Wat Pha Lat is a unique and stunning temple for a number of reasons. It’s surrounded by lush greenery, while also providing views of central Chiang Mai in the distance. But the temple’s defining characteristic has got to be its sculptures.
The sculptures found throughout the complex have a surrealist, dream-like quality to them. They’re both highly detailed and expressive, and just don’t look like what you typically find at a Thai temple nowadays. You’ll encounter guardian lions, naga serpents, ogres and human-animal hybrids, among other things.
The temple has an old brick chedi, while visitors can step into various open-air viharns around the complex. Some of the structures were made of bamboo, which you won’t find anymore at city temples these days.
And the temple complex even has its own gentle waterfall that you can sit by to admire the Chiang Mai cityscape. You’ll also find a coffee shop on the premises. And if you’re staying in the city longer and fall in love with the place, Wat Pha Lat also hosts a meditation retreat.
On your way onward to the main temple, you can make a quick stop along the road to see an interesting shrine that few tourists know about. Animism is alive an well in Thailand, and it’s unsurprising that a sacred mountain like Doi Suthep would contain a few nature shrines of its own.
A staircase next to a small parking area will take you all the way down to a cave shrine, where local mountain spirits are ‘fed’ with incense and offerings. The walk itself, which takes around 5 – 10 minutes each way, is scenic and peaceful. You’re unlikely to hear anything but the sounds of nature.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, one of the region’s most important temples, is situated on the very top of the mountain. From the carpark area, visitors still need to walk up a long staircase of over 300 steps to reach the temple entrance. But if you’re not up for that, there’s also an optional cable car available for 35 baht.
As mentioned above, the temple was originally established by King Kue Na to enshrine a bone relic of the Buddha. The relic is kept inside the stunning golden chedi at the temple’s very center. Though there’s plenty to explore around the periphery, many visitors instinctively head right for the chedi, as if sensing some kind of magnetic pull.
The chedi is stunning to look at from both up close and afar. First built in 1368, it was later expanded to its current size in the 16th century. At each corner of its base stand 4 golden umbrellas. When religious pilgrims complete their hike to the top of the mountain, they traditionally apply gold leaf onto them.
Also around the base of the chedi, you’ll find a large and colorful assortment of Buddha images. They vary in their poses, or mudras, as well as artistic style. For example, you’ll see modern golden Buddha, images, Emerald Buddha replicas and even big-headed statues from Myanmar.
The outer area, meanwhile, features numerous shrines. At one of them you’ll notice an assortment of several Buddha images which each signify a day of the week. Locals then come and bring offerings and prayer to the image representing the day on which they were born.
The temple also has two viharns on either side of the chedi, added in the 16th century. Perhaps due to the space limitations at the top of the mountain, the structures are much smaller than normal, and are almost entirely filled with Buddha images. There is some sitting room in front, though, should you wish to rest your legs meditate with locals.
The temple is also home to an impressive outer gallery, completely decorated with colorful and vivid murals. They depict events from the Buddha’s life, as well as scenes from his numerous past incarnations. Collectively, these stories are known as the ‘jataka tales.’
But one of the real highlights of Doi Suthep temple is its outer terrace. Here you’ll find numerous sculptures and statues, including that of the white elephant from the legend. And one unlabelled statue of a king sits in his own pavilion. Could this be King Kue Na, the founder of the temple?
Elsewhere around the terrace, you’ll encounter more statues, pavilions, a small garden, a bell tower and multiple smaller bells. And there are also a few small coffee shops and restaurants if you’re hungry.
And of course, you can’t forget about the views. On a clear day, the trip up to the top of the mountain is worth it for the views alone.
Just a quick drive from the main temple, not a whole lot of visitors stop by Bhuping Palace (also commonly spelled Bhubing Phuping). But if the weather’s nice, there’s no reason not to – especially considering the general lack of crowds!
Established in 1961, this peaceful palace is one of the Thai Royal Family’s many retreats throughout the country. And while they still make use of it during visits to Chiang Mai, the gardens surrounding it are open to the public when nobody’s staying inside.
The gardens bear a lot of similarities to the Mae Fah Lang Botanical Gardens on Doi Tung in Chiang Rai. Namely, most of the plants and flowers here are from temperate regions of the world. That makes them especially exotic to Thai visitors, but nothing too out of the ordinary for most Westerners. In any case, the gardens are beautifully manicured all the same.
Though none of the buildings can be entered, you can see some of them from the outside. The styles range from traditional Thai construction to European-style cabins. Around the palace grounds you’ll also find a greenhouse, reservoir and plenty of benches to sit on under the shade.
On your way to the next destination, the Hmong Village, be sure to stop at least once along the way for some spectacular views. At some point, you should pass by a small coffee shop with a spacious terrace overlooking the mountain range.
Doi Suthep mountain is also home to members of the Hmong community, one of Northern Thailand’s numerous ‘hilltribes.’ But what are the hilltribes?
Northern Thailand as well as neighboring Laos, is home to a number of ethnic groups which have traditionally practiced animism. Though there are several of them in total, each has maintained its own distinct language and culture for hundreds of years. Most of them, however, aren’t native to Thailand. Many can trace their roots to Myanmar or China.
The Hmong are one such group that can trace their roots back to southern China. In fact, they’re a subgroup of the Miao people, many of which still live in south and southwestern Chinese provinces today. Many Hmong started migrating south by the 19th century due to friction with the Qing dynasty.
Traditionally, the Hmong have adhered to their own unique animistic traditions. Shamans played a central role in the community, while there was a major emphasis on ancestor worship. But in recent times, many have converted to Christianity after contact with foreign missionaries.
In Southeast Asia, the Hmong are the 2nd most populous hilltribe after the Karen, numbering about 60,000 people in total. And this community in Chiang Mai is home to about 1,300 people.
Officially titled the Doi Pui Hmong Tribal Village, visitors first pass by a large market area on their way up to the village itself. This is a place to buy local handicrafts as well as things like sweets and tea.
Arriving at the village, you’ll find a replica of a traditional Hmong house, comprised of bamboo and a grass thatch roof. In addition to signboard with information on Hmong culture and history, there’s a wide array of common tools and artifacts from daily life.
Traditionally, tribes like the Hmong have relied on slash-and-burn techniques. In addition to crops like rice and maize, groups like the Hmong and Akha have also relied on the opium trade. Fortunately, coffee has gradually been replacing opium as a major cash crop.
While Doi Suthep’s Hmong village has clearly been commercialized, with much of it set up to make an impression on tourists, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit. While perhaps not 100% authentic, you’ll get to learn about Hmong culture, contribute to the local economy, and enjoy some more beautiful scenery.
There are a number of different ways to get to, and then around, Doi Suthep mountain. As mentioned above, it’s possible to hike up the mountain, but you would only be able to see a couple of the attractions mentioned in this article if you choose to do so. The start of the Monk’s Trail is indicated on the map above.
For those in town for awhile and want to do some hiking, check out the Facebook group Doi Suthep Walkers. Every weekend, a group will meet up for a hike on various parts of the mountain.
In central Chiang Mai, there are various songthaews (converted red pickup trucks) that can take you directly to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep for around 40 baht. From there you can also find a songthaew to take you further on to Bhuping Palace for the same price.
Note that you can also easily hire a Grab car to take you up the mountain. But unless you’re able to strike a deal with your driver, it may be hard to find a single Grab driver willing to take you around to multiple destinations around the mountain. Also note that some areas of the mountain get no internet or cell phone reception.
But to get to all the locations mentioned above in a single day, you’ll need to do one of three things: rent your own motorbike, hire a private driver for the entire day, or join some kind of group tour.
I don’t particularly recommend renting a motorbike as a tourist due to the fact that it’s highly unlikely your travel insurance company will cover you in case of an accident. It’s not uncommon for foreigners to crash, get hurt and then get stranded in the country due to unpaid hospital bills. With that said, you’ll surely meet people who ride around everywhere and recommend it. The decision is up to you.
Though I’ve visited different parts of the mountain as separate trips in the past, I ended up hiring a private driver with a group of people to tour the whole area in a day. I used the company called GetVanGo, which costs 2,200 baht for the day for a driver with a minivan. While not incredible cheap on its own, it’s very reasonable if you have enough people to split the cost with.
If you’re just in Chiang Mai for a short time, staying in the Old City is a good idea. If you look at a map of the city, you will spot a square surrounded by water. Staying anywhere within or just outside of the square would be fine, as you can easily get around the Old City on foot. Most of Chiang Mai’s prominent temples and other historical sites are located here.
The other best area to stay is the Nimman district mentioned in the article above. This is a reference to the general area around Nimmanhaemin Road. Basically, if you’re within walking distance of Maya shopping mall, you’re in Nimman. This is where you’ll find a lot of Chiang Mai’s trendy cafes and restaurants, while new shopping complexes are popping up all the time. At the same time, though, there’s no shortage of cheap, local eats. Furthermore, the location is conveniently located in between Doi Suthep and the Old City.
Chiang Mai is the transport hub of the north and can be reached in a number of ways. The easiest would be to simply fly. Thailand has plenty of budget airlines, and it’s easy to find a one-way ticket from Bangkok (usually DMK airport) for just around 1,000 baht (roughly $30).
You can also easily reach Chiang Mai by bus from virtually any city in Thailand. Chiang Mai is also connected to the rail system, meaning you can get there directly by train from Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Phitsanulok and other cities.