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The Monk's Trail to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
An old Pilgrimage Route
The Monk’s Trail is a hiking trail on Doi Suthep, the mountain overlooking Chiang Mai, that ends at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai’s most famous temple. In recent years it has become a very popular trail for local people and visitors. Wat Pha Lat, a temple along the trails, has also become increasingly popular. The total length of the trail is 6,3 km.
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 grounds were in poor condition, as recently as 2012.
The Monk’s trail was one of the main trails for pilgrims and visitors to go to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep before followers of the “engineer-monk” Kruba Srivichai finished the construction of a road in 1935.
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).” 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) for a chartered songtaew (the red truck, Chiang Mai’s public transportation). You can also try to take a public songtaew, which will cost only 20THB per person, but then you will have to walk about 1,5 km to the starting point of the trail.
This map awaits you at the starting point of the trail:
The Monk’s trail to Wat Pha Lat
The stretch of the Monk’s Trail to Wat Pha Lat is an easy and short (2 km) hike, 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 the history of this temple. Wat Pha Lat is a beautiful temple with a great atmosphere and nice views of Chiang Mai.
The Monk’s Trail from Wat Pha Lat to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
You can continue to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which is a hike of a bit more than 6 km. I recommend good hiking shoes because this part of the trail is much steeper and more difficult.
You have to follow the trail that runs along the waterfall at Wat Pha Lat. It is a rather steep but short trail that leads to the main road. Here you have to climb over a guard rail and cross the road. Be careful.
A couple of years ago, they closed the trail because of the construction of a line of electricity poles that run parallel to the trail for a while. It is not pretty and it caused erosion that makes a short stretch of the trail tricky and outright hazardous in the rainy season.
This second part of the Monk’s Trail is more difficult than the first part. It is steeper but not too difficult for a person in reasonable shape. There is the very short steep part, where you have to cross the open space where they put the electricity poles. After that, it is a nice steep forest trail that leads again to the main road. There you have to turn right and continue through a gate without a door.
Arriving at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
The trail through the gate leads to a private house. Before you reach the house there is a forest trail starting on your left-hand side. Walk up and follow this trail that continues into a stairway. It is quite a steep climb and you end up at the back of the monk’s quarters of Wat Pha That Doi Suthep. Walk up the steps between the houses and you will see the gilded chedi of Chiang Mai’s most famous temple: the magnificent Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Some of the visitors might be surprised to see a person sweating heavily. In December 2021 it took me about 1,5 hours to do the whole trail. I chartered a red truck back to Wat Pha Lat for 100THB and walked down to the start of the trail where I parked my car.
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. Its entrance is on the road from the Chiang Mai Zoo to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. It is not easy to find information about the history of this temple. It probably dates back to the 14th century but I have not found any evidence to support that.
The Fine Arts Department recently put an information board on the temple grounds but it gives little information. For centuries it was a resting place on the trail pilgrims used to take to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep before the followers of the monk Kruba Srivichai constructed the road in 1935. The Burmese merchant Mong Panyo, later called Luang Yonakarn Phichit, funded the construction of a building and the restoration of other parts of the temple more than 100 years ago.
Pha Lat, the sloping cliff
In the past this location was 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 influences are clearly visible at Wat Pha Lat. The stupa is inspired by Burmese architecture. The pavilion, which is mentioned on the information board at the temple, is the beautifully restored white building that contains several ancient-looking Buddha statues. It looks very different from other buildings at Wat Pha Lat. This building, called Ho Phra Chao Rim Nam, was a prayer hall and a place for meditation. Ho Phra Chao Rim Nam means “shrine with Buddha images next to the water.”
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. A picture, shared by K.Nheurfarr Punyadee, shows how the building looked like about 100 years ago. This picture allegedly 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.
Luang Yonakarn Phichit aka Mong Panyo
In the Wat Ket Museum at the temple Wat Ket Karaam I found more information about the person who funded the construction of the Ho Pra Chao Rim Nam. It was Mong Panyo, (1845-1927), an immigrant from Moulmein in Burma. He was a teak trader, working with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation. He funded the restoration of many temples in Chiang Mai, such as Wat Chedi Liam and Wat Phra Singh. King Rama V bestowed on him the name Luang Yonakarn Phichit, for his services to the community of Chiang Mai. After this, he became known as Luang Yo. Later on, the king granted him the family name Upayokin. Luang Yo’s former house is on Charoenprathet Road in Chiang Mai.
Wat Pha Lat was a resting place for pilgrims on their way to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Luang Yonakarn Phichit decided to construct a place of worship and a resting place for pilgrims to worship and meditate. This explains the unusual design of the pavilion, which was constructed probably in the early 20th century.
Restoration of the Ho Phra Chao Rim Nam
It originally also housed a reclining Buddha statue, but that had disappeared. They finished the reconstruction in 2019. 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 new buildings are being constructed as well.
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
The Wat Ket Museum at Wat Ket Karaam
Wat Pha Lat in tours of Chiang mai a la Carte
A visit to Wat Pha Lat features in these tours: