By Benjamin Malcolm
There are plenty of legends surrounding the mountaintop temple
of Doi Suthep. Stories from long ago tell tales of a wandering
14th-Century monk and a dying elephant, a hermit and of villagers
coming together to build a road to a holy shrine. Combined
with the physical aura of the place, these stories weave a
magic concoction for northern-bound travellers.
Rising 1676 metres above the city of Chiang
Mai, Doi Suthep is one of the most revered religious destinations
in Thailand and is often packed with interested onlookers,
especially when the weather is cooler and the days crisp and
But first a legend. A 14th-Century monk from Sukhothai had
a vision one day - he saw a fire and when he followed it,
he found a relic (apparently a bone) from the Buddha himself.
He took the relic to his king, but it failed to reproduce
its magical powers and the king lost interest.
However, King Keu Naone of the Lanna Kingdom heard of the
monk and invited him north to Chiang Mai and offered to enshrine
the relic. The building was completed and preparations were
made to house the relic. When the time came to do this, the
relic broke in two, leading the king to make a new plan.
At the northern gate of the city, now known as Chang Puak
(white elephant gate), he placed half of the relic on the
back of a sacred white elephant and sent it off into the wilderness.
The elephant headed due west, climbed slowly up the slopes
of Doi Suthep, trumpeted a last call and then dropped dead.
On that spot, legend goes, the temple was built in 1383. Doi
Suthep is actually named for a legendary hermit, named Sudeva,
who lived on the slopes. Before this, about 1,000 years ago,
it was still known as Doi Aoy Chang (Sugarcane Elephant Mountain).
It is easy enough to get to Doi Suthep. Public transportation
may be used to travel the road 16 kilometres northwest out
of Chiang Mai, past Chiang Mai University and ascend the winding
road up the mountain to the base of the temple.
There are two choices once you have reached the base of the
temple - either hike up the 300 steps to the temple gate (admiring
the longest Naga staircase in Thailand on the way) or, hop
on one of the cable cars and get conveyed to the top. Most
opt for the walk.
Once inside Wat Suthep, you are free to wander the grounds,
admiring what each section has to offer. Like many temples
in Thailand, there are elements of Hinduism mixed in with
Buddhism and an intriguing array of statues, including the
god Ganesh, peek out from corners, cubby holes and from the
sides of temple buildings.
Metal bells, double-stacked, line a couple of walls and are
kept busy throughout the day. Signs above the bells admonish
visitors "not to push the bell."
The lookout area is the other side from the entrance gate
and viewers can gaze down at the city of Chiang Mai and its
international airport far below. From here, you have a clear
view of the winding Ping River and the surrounding mountains.
In the middle of the temple is the sacred square cloister
area, where, upon shedding shoes and ascending another dozen
steps, visitors can see the Lanna-style, copper-plated chedi
topped by a five-tiered gold umbrella. It is considered one
of the holiest areas in Thailand. Monks inside are kept busy
blessing the devout with holy water and the smell of incense
and burning candles fill the senses as you circumnavigate
Another more recent legend about Doi Suthep concerns a monk
in the 1930's. In 1934, there was still no road leading
up the mountain and the faithful had to make the arduous climb
in order to visit the temple. Pra Krubra Srivichai, a local
monk, thought that the temple needed better access and organized
the local villages in order to build a road.
He asked each village to construct 10 metres and with this
plan in hand, the locals finished the job in just six months.
A recent expansion of the road covered over plaques honouring
each village, but a statue honouring Srivichai still remains,
at the base of the mountain. It is believed to be good luck
to pay homage to him before ascending Doi Suthep.
Many who visit don't realize that Doi Suthep is actually
one part of the larger Doi Suthep National Park. The National
Park encompasses 261 square kilometres. Evergreen hills, mixed
deciduous and pine forest are all represented at the park
and there are over 300 bird species and nearly 2000 species
of fern and flowering plants that thrive there. During the
late day and early morning, the bird species are much in evidence,
flitting around the periphery of the temple.
Phra Tamnak Phu Phing, the vacation palace for the royal
family, is also in the immediate area and is often included
in tours to Doi Suthep, along with a visit to a local Hmong
Thanks to the industriousness of Srivichai, it is now easy
to pay a visit to Doi Suthep, although the old hiking trail
does still exist for those yearning for a more difficult challenge.
Either way, the beauty, the holiness and the legends of Doi
Suthep wait to be explored.