The Epic Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple of Chiang Mai

posted in: Asia, Heritage, Thailand | 32

“You have not really visited Chiang Mai if you have not been to the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple. The Doi Suthep Temple is so auspicious that every Thai person needs to visit it once in their lifetime”  And with those words, Nicky, my guide whisked me up a mountain to visit one of the oldest temples of Thailand. In my mind, it was a sign of good times in Chiang Mai, for I was starting my journey in this city with this temple.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple, Chiang Mai
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple, Chiang Mai

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is often referred to as Doi Suthep Temple, though technically Doi Suthep is the name of the mountain where it is located. The temple is significant as it holds the relics of the Buddha. For me, that was not the only treasure that I found here. The stunning architecture with beautiful idols in every nook and corner coupled with magical views of Chiang Mai City – it was a whole package. No wonder that it is one of the key Chiang Mai Attractions. Best you discover it here through my journey.

History of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple

The story of the Wat Phra Doi Suthep Temple is quite an interesting one. It starts with the legendary shoulder bones of Buddha that were procured by a Buddhist monk called Sumanthera. The bones were magical as they could become invisible or glow or multiply at times. King Nu Naone of the Lanna Kingdom heard of these and summoned the monk to see for himself. The monk met him at Lamphun in North Thailand and here the bone broke into two pieces. One of them was enshrined in a temple – Wat Suan Dok while the other was hung onto a White Elephant that was set loose.

Shrine of the White Elephant at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple, Chiang Mai
Shrine of the White Elephant at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple, Chiang Mai

The White Elephant ended up at Doi Suthep mountain and at one spot, trumpeted thrice. He fell dead at that very spot after this. Considering this as an omen, the King ordered a temple to be built. Thus, came into existence in the 1360s, the famous Wat Phra Doi Suthep Temple.

Initially, the temple was just a small one but over time, there were other buildings like the Viharin (sermon hall), ubosot (ordination hall) and a library that was built around it. The entire temple is now much more than a single stupa and as I discovered, a destination in itself.

Climbing the Doi Suthep temple in Chiang Mai

There are two ways to get to the main temple – one is by climbing 306 steps along a beautiful Naga lined staircase. The other is by taking a funicular to the top. Nicky suggested that we ascend using the funicular and descend the steps to save a bit of time. And that is indeed, what we did.

The Naga staircase to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand
The Naga staircase to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand

However, it was later that I realized that climbing too, might not have been a bad deal as the steps were quite easy.  And frankly, the ornate staircase and the views around would have made the climb short  – just as it made our descent seem like a flight of 20 steps. The bejeweled serpent banister was there by design for these creatures are revered as protectors by the Buddists. As the story goes, a many-hooded serpent (Naga) protected Buddha from a storm, when he was meditating.

The Goddess of Mercy - Guanyin's temple outside Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple, Chiang Mai
The Goddess of Mercy – Guanyin’s temple outside Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple, Chiang Mai

The funicular ride was quite enclosed. However, it was before the ride that I found interesting things. Like this statue of Buddha and the little temple of Guanyin – the Goddess of Mercy. So, all in all, I think whatever we did, was definitely a good thing.

The Sweeping views of Chiang Mai City

Wooden pavilion for the Chiang Mai Views at Doi Suthep Temple
Wooden pavilion for the Chiang Mai Views at Doi Suthep Temple

Nicky first directed me to a gorgeous wooden pavilion from where you could see the Chiang Mai City. No doubt that the views were lovely but I was quite distracted by the intricate pillars of the wooden pavilion. Each pillar was a picture story of different themes. Over 100 years old, these teak wood pillars have been hand-carved. And that for me, was a very astonishing fact.

Close up of carved pillars at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple
Close up of carved pillars at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple
Oriole at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple
Oriole at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple

I wish I had more time here for around this pavilion were plenty of birds. In the short time that I was there, I saw a woodpecker, an Oriole and a Sunbird. Had I stayed around, I am sure I would have had a field day. However, regretfully or maybe not so regretfully, I set off to explore the epic Doi Suthep temple.

Finding Mom at Doi Suthep Temple

MOM - the mythical Thai guardian at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple
MOM – the mythical Thai guardian at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple

Meet the MOM – short for Dtuwamaum, who is a mythical guardian in the Lanna Culture. Between the carved wooden pillars that I shared above, you will notice ornate temple roofs. These belong to a Viharin guarded by the fierce MOMs. These creatures, as Nicky shared, are supposed to be an amalgamation of 8 animals. See if you can spot them in the picture –

  1. Dragon Eyes
  2. Sheep Horn
  3. Snake Tongue
  4. Crocodile Teeth
  5. Fish tail and Scales
  6. Elephant’s head
  7. Monkey Body
  8. Birds Legs.

Entrance to the Doi Suthep Temple

Statue of Suthep at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Statue of Suthep at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

While the main shrine of the temple is a mind-blowing experience, the entrance to it is a story in itself. First in line is the memorial of the White Elephant who marked the sacred spot for this temple. Next to that, in a small cell is a statue of a Hermit in a Tiger Skin. It is he after whom the mountain – Doi Suthep is named. This hermit also, called Sudeva, used to live in these mountains which was earlier called  Doi Aoy Chang (Sugarcane Elephant Mountain). The belief here is that paying respect to this Hermit Suthep brings a lot of Good Luck.

Ganesha at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple
Ganesha at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple

There are smaller shrines with monk statues and Hindu Gods. Among the many here, the one that stood out for me – possibly owing to familiarity was the Blue Ganesha. Here he is referred to as  Phra Phikanet and symbolizes “good beginnings”  – quite like how it is here at home.

The Main Shrine of Wat That Doi Suthep Temple

First Glimpse of the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
First Glimpse of the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

What greeted me as I entered the main temple area was quite literally a glittering scene. The focal point of the square was a huge Golden Chedi (Stupa) around which were small shrines and line of Buddha Statue. The corners of the square had a dazzling golden umbrella.

One of the temples in the main square of Doi Suthep Temple
One of the temples in the main square of Doi Suthep Temple
Inside the shrine of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple_Chiang Mai
Inside the shrine of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple, Chiang Mai

Ritual demands that you walk around the square in a clockwise manner. Following the tourists and locals who were holding Lotus buds, I made my first stop inside a small temple. Around the central Golden Buddha, was a monk who spoke to these devotees and performed a few rituals to ensure their well-being. This is where I clicked this heart-warming exchange between the monk and this little boy.

Monk at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple
Monk at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple
Buddha Relics at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple, Chiang Mai
Buddha Relics at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple, Chiang Mai

Outside the shrine, was a small enclosure where the famous relics of Gautama Buddha were encased. One can argue about the authenticity of these bones and there is no way to prove that. However, you cannot curtail the devotion of the people visiting the shrine. It was quite soothing to watch them light a candle and offer those lotus buds to the main Chedi.

Offering at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple
Offering at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple

Nicky told me that the various statues of Buddha around the square were actually donated by devotees from across the world. If you care to look at them closely, there are several different Asian styles that you will observe. And having done a trip to Nepal and Bhutan recently, I could quite identify a few 😉

The various Buddha Idols around Doi Suthep Temple
The various Buddha Idols around Doi Suthep Temple

The architecture in Wat That Doi Suthep Temple

Smaller temple of Wat Phra Doi Suthep_
Smaller temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

The Wat That Doi Suthep temple is a treasure trove of architecture. I was quite fascinated with the way bright colors like blue, green and red were used in the gilded roofs of the various buildings around the Temple. Unmissable were the nagas or the Serpents that protruded out of these roofs and on the stairs.

Close up of the doors and roofs of Doi Suthep temple
Close up of the doors and roofs of Doi Suthep temple
Artistic windows of the temple at Doi Suthep
Artistic windows of the temple at Doi Suthep
The architecture of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple
The architecture of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple

A line of silver bells paved the paths to many of these buildings. Some of them even had a large gong outside its entrance. These things made the whole aura so mystical and in some ways, serene.

Statue of King Rama IX at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple
Statue of King Rama IX at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple

Near the Viharin, was a huge statue of the last King of Thailand. The same is a recent addition to the Doi Suthep temple, following his death.

Another statue of the King at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple
Another statue of the King at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple

There are plenty of other gems in the Wat That Doi Suthep Temple and if it were up to me, I would have spent at least half a day discovering them. The atmosphere in the temple too, makes you want to stay here. I am sure that by now you too agree that a visit here is merited So, go on and pin this to your list of key things to do in Chiang Mai.

Getting here

  • Chiang Mai is well connected by Air to Bangkok. There are plenty of low-cost airlines that will get you here. You can also, get here by road.
  • Click here to get Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple on your mobile. It is around 15 km from the city. You can get here by hiring the Red Songthaew from Wat Phra Singh Temple or the Chiang Mai Zoo. It costs around 40 – 50 Bahts per person one way.
  • You can even trek to this temple. It takes about an hour and a half each way and the hike level is easy-moderate. In fact, it is a common practice for University students in Chiang Mai to do this when they join the first time. It is a belief that if they manage the trek, they will complete their graduation. 🙂

Travel Tips

  • The Doi Suthep Temple is open from 6 am to 6 pm every day
  • The entry fee for the temple is 30 Thai Baht. If you take the Funicular, it will cost you 20 Baht each way.
  • There are restrooms and a small restaurant at the Temple. You will find a few shops selling accessories and food at the base of the Temple
  • You will need to remove your footwear when you enter the main shrine.
  • Please ensure that your shoulders are covered. Avoid shorts and sleeveless outfits at the Temple as these are not allowed.
  • There are no Chiang Mai Hotels at the peak but plenty in every budget in the main town.
  • When you visit the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple, you can also, visit the Bhubing palace that is close to it.

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32 Responses

  1. Sarah

    Lovely photos! Used to live in Chiang Mai, always love reading about places there. Brings back memories!

    • Ami

      It feels nice to get you all nostalgic. I loved the city myself and envy you for having stayed here.

  2. Mack

    What a great and interesting post. I wish that I had read it before I was at Doi Suthep a couple of years ago.

  3. Ryan Biddulph

    So funny Ami; we did 2 house sits over the past 2 years at a home bordering Doi Suthep National Park and we never visited the wat LOL. We’re talking months in the area and I’ve no clue why we have not seen the place. I do love the area though. Being up in the hills is quite peaceful and serene, save the snakes coming out of the woods, and the 8 inch long centipedes crawling into the house hahaha….fabulous post.

    Ryan

  4. Hannah

    Wow, I am blown away by the gold on the Doi Suthep temple! Contrasted with the purple, it makes the detail really pop. I think I would choose to walk up the stairs and not take the funicular, just so I could see the Naga along the stairs! If I ever visit Chiang Mai, I will definitely visit here.

    • Ami

      Ha ha Hannah, as they said – You cannot leave without having seen this temple. 😀 Hope you get to Chiang Mai soon

  5. Alouise

    I haven’t been to Thailand, but the Doi Suthep Temple is definitely on my list now. The amount of ornate detail in and outside of Doi Suthep is incredible. I can see why you wanted to spend all day here.

  6. Jen Joslin

    I have visited Was Phra on Doi Suthep and can vouch that it is definitely worth a visit! There are many steps to get up, but lots to look at between the beautiful staircase and nature that like you said, it goes quick. The detailed architecture of the temple and the views of Chiang Mai from the top are spectacular! I didn’t even realize there was a funicular, so will have to try that next time. I also think I’d like to go with a guide next time as you certainly learned more about the place than we did. Thanks for sharing and bringing back some lovely memories!

    • Ami

      Thank you Jen. I do think having a guide adds a lot of meaning to the things that you see around. Thanks to Nicky, I discovered them all. Cheers

  7. Shweta

    The intricate details of the wooden pillars are mind-blowing. I am quite amused to know about the amalgamation of animals that the mythical creatire you named Mom is!

  8. Linda de Beer

    What a long name for a temple. Do you know how to pronounce Wat Phra That Doi Suthek? I’ll definitely allow time to climb the 306 stairs to the top. The views of Chiang Mai City look like a great reward.

    • Ami

      By the time you learn to pronounce it, you will be up those 306 stairs 😉 Just kidding. Not just the views but the temple is well worth the effort.

  9. Paige

    This is one of my favorite spots in Chiang Mai. Next time I’m there, I want to do the hiking trail to the top. That golden stupa is one of my favorites in the whole area. The details here are just over-the-top amazing!

    • Ami

      So true Paige. The stories behind those stupas are what make them even more attractive. I know that I too, would want to visit this again.

  10. Carol Perehudoff

    I love the legend of the glowing shoulder bones. It’s nice to learn about the temples and the story behind them – it makes it a richer experience. Somehow I missed seeing this temple when I was in Chiang Mai. Clearly I missed out.

  11. Sandy N Vyjay

    The Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple looks grand in every sense of the word. The legend of the elephant and Buddhas bones also makes for fascinating reading. The statue of the white elephant looks magnificent. I especially liked the beautiful wooden pavilion and the ornamental pillars.

    • Ami

      Every nook and corner was a delight to discover. Am sure you will love it too. Hope you can visit it soon.

  12. Medha Verma

    I love the architecture of Thailand;s temples and Wat Phra Doi Suthep looks amazing. Climbing 306 Naga lined steps to that temple sounds painful but worth it. Would love to have a vantage point offering fantastic views of the city. I’ve already thought to myself that I need to go back to Thailand only to visit Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai and I have to add this temple in my list of things to do!

    • Ami

      I missed Chiang Rai this time but will be back to see it as well. Hope you get to Thailand soon.

  13. Vicky and Buddy

    I loved my visit to the temple as well! Walking up those steps and then seeing all of the beautiful architecture was amazing. I could have wandered around for hours. I went during sunset, so it was a bit crowded. But the views were worth it. 🙂

    • Ami

      My guess is that the temple is always crowded and naturally so, given its importance. However, like you might agree, it is unmissable and am glad you made it there

  14. Indrani

    Wow amazing sights within the temple. Their sculpting talents are amazing. I especially liked the huge table. The mythical creature – amalgamation of 8 creatures – never heard of it before. Not a part of Hindu mythology I am sure. Great pics.

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