Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Frans Betgem

Frans Betgem

Table of Contents

Buddhist temple tower Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
The chedi of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

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 Phra That Doi Suthep

The temple dates back to the year 1383. There are various versions of the story of the foundation 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. A piece of the relic 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 this 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.

Statue with white elephant Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
White elephant with relic on the back. Statue at Wat Doi Suthep.

Wat Pra That 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, pilgrims walked to the temple along a trail that is now called the Monk’s trail. In the past, this journey started at Suan Dok Gate, one of the five city gates of Chiang Mai. Until the early 1960s, the area stretching from the Suan Dok Gate to the base of the mountain was mainly made up of rice fields. 

Nowadays, the Monk’s Trail is a popular hiking trail starting at the base of the mountain to Wat Pha Lat and onwards to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. In 1886 British diplomat Ernest Satow rode his pony from Chiang Mai to the base of the mountain and hiked up the mountain to the temple. That is the first account of someone hiking the Monk’s Trail I found.

Golden chedi with trees Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
A different view on Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

The iconic Naga staircase of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

The Naga staircase leading to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of the most photographed objects of North Thailand, correct me if I am wrong. It is unknown when they constructed this staircase. The staircase appears on the famous pictures of Kruba Srivichai and his followers, taken on the day of the opening of the road leading to the temple in April 1935. It also appears on pictures taken during the visit of King Rama VII to Chiang Mai in January 1927. I have many old pictures of this Naga staircase and I will share a couple of them.

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

Followers of Kruba Srivichai construct the road

In late 1934 followers of the “monk-engineer” Kruba Srivichai started constructing the road from the base of the mountain to the staircase, leading up to the temple. I have heard that it took 5 months and 22 days to finish the construction. There are several photographs of people working on the road, one of the showing the last ruler of Chiang Mai, Major General Kaew Nawarat (Thai: เจ้าแก้วนวรัฐ) wielding a kind of pick axe.

As said, they completed the construction of the road on April 30, 1935. A business man of Chinese descent, by the name of Chin Ngow, drove the monk up the road to the base of the Naga staircase. There an unknown photographer took one of the most famous Chiang Mai photographs. It shows the Monk with his followers, flanked by Luang Sri Prakad and Chin Ngow. Luang Sri Prakad was the mayor of Chiang Mai and was the first member of the parliament for Chiang Mai.

Group of people with shovels
Prince Kaew Nawarat helping with the construction of the road. He is the person on the left.
Group of people and monks Kruba Srivichai Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Kruba Srivichai and his followers on Doi Suthep on April 30, 1935. Kruba Srivichai is standing in the middle. On the left with his arms over his knee is Luang Sri Prakad. The man in the white suit is Chin Ngow.

The shrine of Kruba Srivichai

I devoted a separate blog to the monk Kruba Srivichai (often spellt Siwichai), who is an omnipresent figure in North Thailand. If you drive up the mountain you will pass a shrine, devoted to the “Patron Saint of Lanna”. The shrine is a sacred place for Buddhists and it is often very busy with followers paying hommage to the symbol of North Thailand. The shrine is also a place where you can join almsgiving to monks around sunrise every day. Also at the location opposite the stalls there is a large statue of a sitting Kruba Srivichai. Then there is another statue at the entrance of the inner compound of the temple. 

People paying hommage at Kruba Srivichai shrine at the foot of Doi Suthep
Kruba Srivichai shrine at the foot of Doi Suthep

What is the best time to visit 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. I highly recommend to go very early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Surprisingly few people spend the night in the national park accommodation which is only a short walk from the temple. I have done that many times. It is a magical experience to visit the illuminated temple after dark.

The best is to get up before sunrise and to be at the temple with the first light. You will be able to make a picture of the famous Naga staircase without people on it, if you are lucky. Witnessing sunrise from the viewdeck is amazing if the skies are clear. You have a wonderful view of the city and the airport.

Sunrise on a viewdeck
The viewdeck of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep at sunrise
Sunrise over a city
Sunrise at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Some useful facts

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. Even though the temple is within the boundaries of the Doi Pui-Doi Suthep National Park, there is no entrance fee for the park. Please dress respectfully when visiting Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. This applies to all Buddhist temples in the country. Shorts are OK if they are not too short and show to much leg meat. Please cover your shoulders. There are sarongs available at the entrance of the inner compound. Buddhists will appreciate it if you will be quiet and soft spoken while visiting.
View on big city Chiang Mai almsgiving tour Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Chiang Mai panorama from Doi Suthep

How to get to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep?

There are many ways to get to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. You can join one of our tours but it is also easy to visit the temple on your own. Many tourists rent a bicycle, motorbike or car in town. You have to be very careful though. The road is winding and sometimes there are many vehicles going up and down. There are many local recreational cyclists going up and down the mountains as well. The road is not too steep apart from last couple of bends before you reach the parking area and the row of stalls.

Songthaews to Doi Suthep

There is also public transportation available. At the base of the mountain, in front of the Doi Suthep Nature Study Center, are parked red trucks aka songthaews (Thai: สองแถว, lit. ‘two rows”, referring to the two rows of opposing benches in the back of the truck. They transport people up the mountain to various destinations.  The fare one-way to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is 50THB per person. You have to wait until the truck has filled up with at least 5 persons before the driver departs. In front of the food stalls, drivers are waiting to take you down the mountain for the same price. You can charter a songthaew for 250-300THB one way if you don’t wait for other passengers.

The Monk’s Trail to the temple

Another way of reaching the temple is to hike up the Monk’s Trail I have written an extensive blog about this trail. It starts at the base of the mountain, behind the Chiang Mai University. The first part of the trail to Wat Pha Lat is easy. After this temple you have to cross the road to find the second part which is steeper and more difficult. The last time to I hiked the Monk’s Trail it took me about 1,5 hours to reach Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Instead of hiking back down I recommend taking a songthaew back to Wat Pha Lat and walk back to the starting point.

A wonderful video of the Fine Arts Department

References 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. 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

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