The Epic Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple of Chiang Mai

posted in: Asia, Heritage, Thailand | 34

“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 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

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

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 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

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
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

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

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

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

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
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
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

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 architecture in Wat That Doi Suthep Temple

Smaller temple of Wat Phra 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
Artistic windows of the temple at Doi Suthep
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

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

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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