05 Dec Chiang Mai’s Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Set with grand splendour on top of the hill overlooking the city, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of northern Thailand’s most sacred temples and its founding legend is learned by every school child in Chiang Mai. With beautiful Thai architecture and a monastery that is home to many monks and student monks, it is a must visit when in Chiang Mai.
Established in 1383 by King Keu Naone to house a piece of bone said to be from the shoulder of Lord Buddha himself, the bone was brought to the area by a wandering monk from Sukhothai. It broke into two pieces at the base of the mountain, with one piece being enshrined at Wat Suan Dok and the second fragment mounted onto a sacred white elephant that was set free to wander in the surrounding jungle until it died. It chose to do so right on the top of the hill, in the process selecting the spot where the temple would be constructed.
From the car park at the temple’s base, visitors have the option of climbing the 300 plus stairs that are lined by an intricately carved Naga serpent, which is said to help devotees accrue Buddhist virtue, or you can take the tram. Either way, arrival at the top introduces you to a beautiful example of northern Thai architecture. There are pagodas, statues, bells, a museum and shrines to marvel at, as well as a model of the Emerald Buddha and a statue of the Hindu God Ganesh.
Within the inner terrace a walkway circles the original golden Chedi that protects the relic. Here you will also see the five-tiered umbrella that marks the city’s independence from Burma and its union with Thailand. Visitors queue in this area to leave offerings at the shrines, before walking past the many Buddha statues that sit and stand in a variety of positions just beyond.
One of the acts of worship Thai Buddhists engage in here is slowly walking around the central Chedi clockwise 7 times, while holding a lotus flower and incense stick between their hands in a prayer position. After 7 times the incense is left in front of the shrine. Another activity is to ring one of the bells that skirt the courtyard.
Outside this main area you will find the shrine to the White Elephant and the story of how the temple on Doi Suthep was founded. There is a wide walkway around the main temple, which leads you to a large viewing terrace with wonderful views down over Chiang Mai. Just past the viewing terrace is one of the world’s largest gongs, which you may want to chime while asking for a blessing.
Within the monastery compound, the Doi Suthep Vipassana Meditation Center offers a variety of programs that draws people from around the world. If you’re lucky, your visit will coincide with the evening chanting and prayers of the resident monks, a humbling ceremony to witness.
Some useful information for your visit
– Wat Doi Suthep is located 15 kilometers north of Chiang Mai in the Doi Suthep National Park and the drive from the centre of Chiang Mai takes about half an hour.
– If you allow one hour for the round trip and another hour there for sightseeing, you could hire a red songthaew for the duration. Simply negotiate a price with the driver. Otherwise share one with other visitors.
– Many people cycle up on mountain-biking tours from Chiang Mai, which is undeniably easier on the way down, than up, and makes for a lovely excursion with rewarding views.
– There are numerous stores and vendors at the bottom of the staircase selling refreshments and souvenirs. In particular look out for the Hill tribe people’s beautiful goods.
– This sacred temple is a much-respected place of learning and you are reminded to dress respectively, keep your voices down and refrain from inappropriate behavior as a courtesy. You will be asked to remove your shoes when you enter the temple grounds.