The Monk's Trail to Wat Pha Lat
Table of Contents
An old Pilgrimage Route
The Monk’s Trail is a lovely short hiking trail on Doi Suthep, the mountain overlooking Chiang Mai. In recent years it has become a very popular trail for local people and tourists. Wat Pha Lat, the temple where the trail ends, has become very popular as well. For many years few people visited this wonderful temple, and tourists didn’t stop there on their way to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Some people told me that the temple was in poor shape, as recent as 2012. That has changed. In February 2021, I visited the temple. Maintenance and construction were going on, and there were several visitors. I met quite a few people on the trail as well. They were all locals as the borders were closed.
The Monk’s trail was supposedly part of a trail that monks and other people used to go to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep before they constructed the road.
Where is the start of the trail?
The trail starts behind Chiang Mai University. The starting point is indicated on Google Maps as “Monk’s Trail ((Wat Pha Lat Trail).” The trail ends at the Buddhist temple Wat Pha Lat. You can take a red songtaew, the Chiang Mai public transportation truck with two parallel benches, to the start of the trail.
From within the old city, that would cost you probably 150THB one way (about 5USD). From Wat Pha Lat, there is a fairly steep trail to the main road. You can either jump on a songtaew to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep or down to the Zoo. That should cost you 40THB either way. From the Zoo, you will have to find another songtaew to bring you back into Chiang Mai. You can also opt to hike further up the mountain to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep.
This map awaits you at the start of the trail:
The Monk’s trail is a short trail
The Monk’s Trail is an easy and short (2 km) trail, but I recommend wearing good shoes because the surface is very uneven and can become slippery in the rainy season. The trail goes up gradually but never becomes steep. Take your time as it is a lovely walk through the forest. Occasionally the vegetation on the right is open and affords a nice view of the city. The trail is not marked but easy to find. You will probably not be the only one on the trail. It is a very popular trail with locals.
After about 700 meters, you will pass an open area on your left-hand side. It is worth going there because you will find the remains of a temple called Wat Sam Yot, translated “the temple with three spires”. I have not been able to find any information about this history of this temple.
The Monk’s Trail to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
You can continue to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. You have to walk from the temple to the main road and follow the road for a couple of kilometers until you see electricity poles. The trail to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a lot more difficult than the first part of the trail. A couple of years ago, they closed the trail because of the construction of a line of electricity poles that runs parallel to the trail. This, sometimes steep, trail won’t bring you all the way to the temple. You will meet the road again, a couple of kilometers before the temple. You can walk along the main road for about two kilometers to the village, from where you can walk up the Naga staircase to the temple or find a trail directly to the temple. I did the latter, and it was not easy.
Wat Pha Lat, the “jungle temple” of Chiang Mai
A short history of the temple
Wat Pha Lat is a beautiful temple complex on the slopes of Doi Suthep, the mountain overlooking Chiang Mai. It is about halfway on the road from the Chiang Mai Zoo to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. The entrance is on the left-hand side of the road. The temple is also the finishing point of the popular Monk’s Trail, also known as the Wat Pha Lat Trail. It is not easy to find information about the history of this temple. For centuries, it probably has been a resting place on the walking trail pilgrims used to take to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep before the followers of the monk Kruba Srivichai constructed the road in 1935.
Pha Lat, the sloping cliff
The first time this location known as “Pha Lat” (sloping cliff) appeared in the annals is in the legend of the foundation of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. In very short, it says that a white elephant took one of two relics of the Buddha up the mountain. It rested for a while at Pha Lat, the sloping rock, and then continued. It stopped at a place higher up the mountain, trumpeted three times, and died. People decided to build a temple at the location, which became Wat Pra That Doi Suthep.
After the temple’s foundation, Pha Lat became a resting place for pilgrims on their walk up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. According to information at the temple, there was a pavilion with Buddha images of stucco and brick and images of giants. Later monks probably established a temple at this spot, but it is unclear when this happened.
Burmese influences at Wat Pha Lat
Burmese or European influences are visible at Wat Pha Lat. The stupa seems to be very old and influenced by Burmese architecture. The pavilion, which is mentioned on the plaque at the temple, is probably the now restored white building that contains several ancient-looking Buddha statues. It is in European style and looks very different from other buildings at Wat Pha Lat.
Employees of the teak industry
According to an article in the Bangkok Post, Burmese people, who worked for one of the British teak logging firms, constructed this building. They must have been workers from either the Borneo company or the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, the only two firms with an office in Chiang Mai. A picture, shared by K.Nheurfarr Punyadee, shows how the building looked like about 100 years ago. This picture probably was taken during the visit of Prince Damrong Rajanubhab in the late 19th or early 20th century. The Fine Arts Department’s Chiang Mai Office used it to reconstruct the building in cooperation with the Lanna Architect Group.
Restoration of the Ho Phra Chao Rim Nam
The building, called Ho Phra Chao Rim Nam, probably was a prayer hall or a place for meditation. Ho Phra Chao Rim Nam means “shrine of Buddha images next to the water.” It originally also housed a reclining Buddha statue, but that had disappeared. They finished the reconstruction in 2019, and the building is now known as the Hor Phra Chao (the Buddha images shrine).
A long-time resident of Chiang Mai told me that Wat Pha Lat was not well looked after and was in a poor state about ten years ago. Bernd Linnhoff of Faszination Fernost allowed me to share a picture he took before the restoration. Recently the temple has gained popularity with young travelers and has been going through somewhat of a revival. Restoration of other buildings is underway, and there is the construction of new buildings.
References for this article
I hiked the Monk’s Trail several times and visit Wat Pha Lat regularly. These were my other sources:
Sarassawadee Ongsakul, History of Lanna, Chiang Mai, 2005
Michael Freeman, Lanna, Thailand’s Northern Kingdom, Bangkok, 2001
Hans Penth, A brief history of Lanna, Chiang Mai, 2000
The Bangkok Post
Wat Pha Lat in tours of Chiang mai a la Carte
A visit to Wat Pha Lat features in these tours: