Doi Suthep - Chiang Mai, Thailand
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Chiang Mai : Doi Suthep

Chiang Mai : Doi Suthep
 Chiang Mai : Doi Suthep

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 clear.

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 the cloister.

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 hill-tribe village.
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.


- December Issue, 2002

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