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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 seen an increase in visitors.
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. Take your time as it is a lovely walk through the forest. The trail goes up gradually but never becomes steep. 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.
Ernest Satow on the Monk’s Trail in 1886
The eminent British scholar and diplomat Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) visited Chiang Mai in late 1885 and early 1886. Satow was a Minister-resident in Siam from 1884 until 1888. In early 1886 he walked the Monk’s Trail up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. I found his story in the Satow Papers in the National Archives in London.
Satow stayed at the British consulate on the Ping River and rode his pony to the foot of Suthep mountain. He passed through the Suan Dok gate and passed Wiang Suan Dok on his way to the start of the trail. He wrote: “Here I left the ponies, as the path was too rough for them, and began to ascend the foothills, which are covered with scrubby trees now almost denuded of their foliage.” He followed the Monk’s Trail but he doesn’t mention Wat Pha Lat. At least one guide must have accompanied Satow on this walk but he doesn’t mention this.
The below picture, probably taken in the 1950s, gives an idea of the empty landscape Satow passed through 70 years earlier. The unknown photographer took the photo from a helicopter, I guess. In front, we see the chedi and assembly hall of Wat Suan Dok, in the background Doi Suthep. This space has been developed now with roads and buildings.
Satow reaches the temple
He continues: “The pagoda stands at the top of a detached knoll, and is approached by a long flight of steps at the back, on either side stands a row of lofty pines, evidently planted there, for although the tree can be seen in abundance on the summit of the mountain, there are none growing in the woods which surround the knoll.”
It seems that Satow arrived at what is now the back of the temple. He reached the temple at noon and waited for his “luncheon” to arrive until a quarter to two: “The plain was almost enveloped in mist at this hour so that the mountains on its further side were indistinguishable.” Because he was hungry he started to descend and met one of his men with his luncheon about halfway down.
He continues: “Just below was the junction of the two paths, so I hastened down and enjoyed my meal in the cool shade, while the servants hunted for orchids. From this spot, it took me half an hour more to the place where the ponies were waiting, and I got back to Chiengmai about the hour that it was expected I should have reached the pagoda.” It is possible that Satow took his lunch close to the location of Wat Pha Lat.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in 1886
It is just speculation but I believe that the temple in 1886 maybe only consisted of a stuccoed pagoda, containing the relic of the Buddha, simple monk’s quarters, and a staircase. It is not clear when they constructed the famous Naga staircase. The above photograph shows the staircase slightly overgrown and in a state of neglect. Satow seems to have arrived at the other side of the temple, the same side I arrived at when I hiked the Monk’s Trail.
I suppose that there was also a different trail or an extension of the Monk’s trail leading to the base of this staircase. That probably was a much longer, less steep trail suitable for elephants and for open sedan chairs, consisting of a seat, mounted on two bamboo poles, which was carried by two men, one at the front and one at the rear. This is how King Prajadiphok and Queen Rambai Barni, traveled up the mountain during their visit to Chiang Mai in January 1927.
Wat Pha Lat, the “jungle temple” of Chiang Mai
The remarkable revival of a forgotten temple
Wat Pha Lat (วัดผาลาด) is a beautiful temple complex on the slopes of Doi Suthep, the mountain overlooking Chiang Mai. The name of the temple translates as the temple of the sloping cliff. Wat Pha Lat is also known as Wat Skathadami (วัดสกทาคามี). Sakadagaminship is the second stage of the four stages of enlightenment in Buddhism. You often see the spelling “Wat Phalad” instead of “Wat Pha Lat”.
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 in support of that. The Fine Arts Department recently put an information board on the temple grounds but it gives little information. I have been trying to piece the history together from visits, articles, books, videos and other sources, which has been very interesting indeed.
Resting place on the Monk’s Trail to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
In the past this location was known as “Pha Lat” (sloping cliff). It is mentioned 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 this Pha Lat became a resting place for pilgrims on their way to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. The water well might be the oldest structure in the temple complex.
The Ho Phra Chao Rim Nam
The oldest photo of the temple is below picture, that was taken during the visit of Siamese Interior Minister Damrong Rajanubhab in 1898 (BE2441). It shows a remarkable building, called Ho Phra Chao Rim Nam, which translates as “shrine with Buddha images next to the water.” It dates back to the period between 1886 and 1898. Satow certainly would have mentioned this building if he would have passed it on his walk to the temple.
This structure shows influences of Burmese and colonial architecture. It is plausible that the people who built this pavilion also constructed the chedi of the temple, which also show Burmese influence. So who constructed the chedi and the Ho Phra Chao Rim Nam?
Who constructed the Ho Phra Chao Rim Nam?
I spoke with Phra khru Thirasuttapoj (Phra Maha Sa-ng Theerasangwaro), the abbot of Wat Pha Lat. He told me that the last ruler of Chiang Mai, Prince Kaew Nawarat, and Princess of Chiang Mai Dara Rasami, the Princess consort of King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, were involved in the construction of this pavilion. He confirmed that Mong Panyo, the wealthy Burmese teak traders, hired the workers.
In the Wat Ket Museum I found information that links Mong Panyo as a major contributor to the construction of the pavilion. He als might have been involved in the construction of the chedi. Both structures show Burmese influences.
Luang Yonakarn Phichit aka Mong Panyo
Mong Panyo, (1845-1927), was 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.
King Rama VII visits Wat Pha Lat
King Prajadhipok, Rama VII, was the first king of the Chakri dynasty to visit Chiang Mai from January 22 until February 5 in 1927. The King and Queen Ramai Barni also visited Wat Pha Lat on Doi Suthep. The footage of this visit starts at 2.41.23 in this film that lasts more than four hours. In the video the bridges are visible as well as the assembly hall, the Ho Prachao Rim Nam, the water well and the chedi.
The chedi looks severaly damaged. Part of its spire has disappeared. It is remarkable footage. The caption of the picture below the video states that a French national took the photo in 1925. I think that is wrong. They probably restored the chedi after the visit of the royal couple so the picture was taken after 1927.
Wat Pha Lat becomes a forgotten temple
In April 1935 followers of the monk Kruba Srivichai finished the construction of the road from the foot of the mountain to the base of the staircase, that leads to the temple. It had taken them five months and twenty-two days. With the new sealed road the Monk’s Trail became obsolete. This also had repercussions for Wat Pha Lat. Over the years lack of maintenance probably caused the Ho Phra Chao Rim Nam to collapse.
I have found no photographs from the period from the 1940s until about ten years ago. Bernd Linnhoff of Faszination Fernost allowed me to share a picture he took in 2012. The original building, as it appears on the old photograph, had completely disappeared. It also once housed a reclining Buddha statue, but that was not there anymore.
The Ho Phra Chao Rim Nam in 2017According to an article in the Chiang Mai News periodical from October 2017, the Ho Phrao Chao Rim Nam was in such a bad state that the abbot alerted the Fine Arts Department. After this K.Anirut Khaipo, deputy director of the 7th Regional Office of Fine Arts Department visited Wat Pha Lat to have a look with the abbott at the gallery with the Buddha images. They observed that the makeshift roof was about to collapse and damage the centuries old statues.
The reconstruction of Ho Phra Chao Rim Nam
The Fine Arts Department decided then to reconstruct the original building, using old photographs. An article from Kreangkrai Kirdsiri and Isarachai Buranaut tells the story of the reconstruction. The article is in the Thai language and you can find the title in the references section below.
According to the abbot, the budget of this reconstruction was 12 million Thai Baht, less than 400000 USD. This covered the reconstruction of the Ho Phra Chao Rim Nam as well as some restoration to the bridge, the viharn, and the chedi. I will verify this. Below are photos of the reconstruction that come from the Facebook page of Kreangkrai Kirdsiri.
Reconstruction finished in 2019, which was a remarkable and laudable achievement.
Wat Pha Lat in 2022
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. The first part of the Monk’s Trail has become very popular. During my last visit I saw that a bridge was under construction on the place of a rickety bamboo bridge on the trail. We will keep you updated.
Practical information and facts
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
เจ้าอาวาสวัดผาลาด ร้องสำนักศิลปกรเชียงใหม่ เร่งตรวจสอบความเสียหายบริเวณจุดหอชมศิลป์, article In Chiang Mai News, October 19, 2017
Kreangkrai Kirdsiri and Isarachai Buranaut, สถาปตยกรรมหอพระเจานํ้าตกผาลาด วัดผาลาดสกทาคามีเชิงดอยสุเทพ จังหวัดเชียงใหม,
“วัดผาลาด” ความสวยงามท่ามกลางธรรมชาติ, article in Chiang Mai News, October 19, 2017
The location of Wat Pha Lat
Wat Pha Lat in tours of Chiang mai a la Carte
A visit to Wat Pha Lat features in these tours: