Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

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The temple on the mountain

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai’s most venerated temple

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is doubtless Chiang Mai’s most venerated temple on the mountain called Doi Suthep. It is a sacred site for most Chiang Mai people. The temple is about 15 km from the city of Chiang Mai. From the temple, you have a fantastic view over Chiang Mai. The temple is said to have been founded in 1383. Over time, the temple has expanded and looks more extravagant with many more holy shrines added. Followers of the Monk Kruba Srivichai constructed a road to the temple in 1935.

Doi Suthep mountain became a national park in 1981. The three main peaks are Doi Suthep, Doi Pui and Doi Buakha. The mountain is covered with various forest types at different elevations. On Doi Suthep you will find bamboo, mixed deciduous, dipterocarp and evergreen forest. The park covers 261 square kilometers and is part of the core area of the proposed Chiang Mai World Heritage Site project.

The foundation of Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep dates back to the year 1383. There are various foundation stories but we stick to the following version. According to legend a monk from Sukhothai took a piece of bone that was supposed to be a relic of the Buddha to Chiang Mai. King Kue Na of the Lanna Kingdom was particularly impressed with this monk, whose name was Sumana. The legend says that the bone broke in two. One piece was enshrined in Wat Suan Dok.

They attached the second piece on the back of an elephant and released it in the forest. The elephant climbed up the mountain and dropped dead. The King saw this as an omen and decided to construct a temple at that particular spot. That temple would become the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. The location of the temple is spectacular and made it a very popular destination for  international and local tourists.

Sunrise on a viewdeck
Wat Doi Suthep sunrise

A Wonderful video of the Fine Arts Department

Wat Prathat Doi Suthep through the centuries

Up to now, I haven’t found many references to the temple up to the mid-1930s. Followers of the “engineer-monk” Kruba Srivichai constructed a road from where now the zoo is located to the Naga staircase that leads to the temple. Before the road was completed in 1935, monks walked to the temple along a trail that is now called the Monk’s trail. In the early 20th century the German botanist Carl Curt Hosseus was one of the first westerners who explored Doi Suthep.

The famous Irish botanist Arthur Francis Kerr followed him. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the foreign (western) community grew fast. Most of these people were either members of the American Presbyterian Church or employees of the British teak logging firms such as the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation (BBTC).

Naga Stairway with dragons Buddhist temples
The Naga staircase to Wat Doi Suthep in the early morning

Sanatoriums or holiday bungalows?

The British and American residents of Chiang Mai found it difficult to cope with the climate, especially in the hot season months of March, April and June. To escape the hot and humid weather, they constructed bungalows on the mountain. In several sources, these bungalows are also referred to as “sanatoriums”. The British consulate in Chiang Mai had its bungalow on Doi Suthep but also the Bombay Burmah forest managers Arthur Queripel and Edward Hutchinson owned bungalows on the mountain.

There were also bungalows of the mission on Doi Suthep. Little research has been done into the history of Doi Suthep as a destination. We know that Dara Rasmi, the princess consort of King Rama V, had a rose garden on Doi Suthep. As far as I know, this rose garden was near to where now the flower garden of the Bhuping Palace is.

Group of people on a balcony
Kathleen and Evelyn van Millingen entertaining guests at their BBTC bungalow on Doi Suthep

Hideaway on Doi Suthep

Based on some research I think that most of the bungalows of missionaries, consulates, teak logging firms and of individuals such as Arthur Queripel were at the location of the National Park bungalows, just up from the temple. Bill Streatfeild worked for the BBTC in Bangkok. In the early 1930s, he visited Chiang Mai with his wife, Ursula. They stayed in one of the BBTC bungalows on Doi Suthep. You can read their story here.

They travelled in a “carrying chair”, a seat slung between poles. Four local people carried them to the bungalow. Others would walk or ride a horse. BBTC Elephants carried their luggage. They stayed up there for six weeks. Contact was through “runners” who acted as mail service with the BBTC office in Chiang Mai and also took care of the shopping.

Two houses in the forest
Doi Suthep National Park bungalows

Doi Suthep after the completion of the road

As said, followers of the “monk-engineer” Kruba Sriwichai completed the construction of the road on April 30, 1935. An unknown photographer took one of the most famous Chiang Mai photographs on that day. It shows the Monk with his followers, flanked by Luang Sri Prakad and a businessman of Chinese descent called Chin Ngow. Luang Sri Prakad was the mayor of Chiang Mai and later became a member of the Siamese parliament for Chiang Mai.

BBTC employee Maurice Colchester took a taxi in 1935 to the house of Evelyn van Millingen, the BBTC forest manager. He wrote: “…in order to make merit many Buddhists had made a motor road up to it (FB: the temple). This was very convenient for us, as we were to take a taxi almost to Van Millingen’s door.” Photographs of Edward Walter Hutchinson, another BBTC employee,  show a vehicle driving up to his bungalow on Doi Suthep in 1938. As yet I don’t know if the bungalow of van Millingen was privately owned or property of the BBTC.

People paying hommage at Kruba Srivichai shrine at the foot of Doi Suthep
Kruba Srivichai shrine at the foot of Doi Suthep
Bells in a temple
Wat Doi Suthep bells

Visiting Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

There are no official numbers, but I guess that several hundred thousand people visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep every year. If you visit the temple during the daytime, you will not be alone. The temple has an entrance fee of 30THB (about one USD) per person. For those who don’t want to walk up the 300 steps to the temple, there is a kind of elevator for an extra charge. The best time to visit is very early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Even though the temple is within the boundaries of the Doi Pui-Doi Suthep National Park, there is no entrance fee for the park. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one the most popular attractions of Chiang Mai.


Golden chedi with trees
A different view on Wat Doi Suthep

Spending the night on Doi Suthep

Surprising few people make use of the National Park accommodation on Doi Suthep. They have bungalows that are wonderful but a little too big and expensive for one person. They also have rooms that are basic but clean and fine for me. The park accommodation is less than ten minutes walk from the temple. At the parking lot of the temple, there are quite a few restaurants where you can have dinner and breakfast. From the national park office, you have a lovely view of the temple and Chiang Mai.

It is extraordinary to be at the temple after all the other visitors have left. It is tranquil and serene. I am an early sleeper, and a very early riser to I made sure to be at the temple before sunrise. It is an extraordinary experience which I will always enjoy. The Wat Pra That Doi Suthep is an exceptional place and worth spending the night. Please send us an email if you are interested in spending the night on Doi Suthep. Accommodation is on request so we have to check first. We can put together a customized itinerary for you.

View on big city Chiang Mai almsgiving tour
Chiang Mai panorama from Doi Suthep

Sources for this article

I have been to the temple numerous times in the past 30 years and spent the night at the national park accommodations. Apart from that I made trekkings and hikes in the park. I did my own research on the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation bungalows with help from my friend Oliver Backhouse. Here are some of the books I consulted:

David Wyatt and Aroonrut Wichienkeeo, The Chiang Mai Chronicle, Chiang Mai 1995

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

Carl Curt Hosseus, Walter Tips, Through King Chulalongkorn’s Kingdom (1904 1906), The First Botanical Exploration Of Northern Thailand, Bangkok 2001

Man in front of Buddhist temple
Stairway with dragons
Stairway Wat Doi Suthep before sunrise