Point a finger towards the peak—you can’t see it, but know that it is there. The Golden Chedi of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, hidden amongst the mountain’s trees, is the center of a sacred temple built in 1383 that contains remnants of the Buddha, and an unparalleled legacy. Perched above Chiang Mai, the Wat has scenic outlooks of the city, and a historical significance that draws tourists and practitioners to the temple for around 1 USD for entrance. The temple and the mountain create a story that give them the potential to be one of your most memorable days in Thailand.
The radiance of Northern Thailand
A fruit tree curls overhead and provides shade while tourists sit and snap photos. Shoes are left at the entrance and the whispers of bare feet can be heard around the temple. Each side of the outer temple is unique, and the inside, sacred, housing hundreds of cultural subtleties for visitors to discover. You will find bells that are said to bring good luck when they toll, along with a terrace that gives a falcon’s view of Chiang Mai, and a sculpture of one white elephant depicting an ancient story. When the sun graces the bell shaped Chedi, its golden figure illuminates with beauty.
The dragon gates
308 stairs to the top, and no, the Thai people aren’t trying to give you a workout. When you arrive at the dragon gates, the meditative process begins. This climb is actually meant to pull you into the moment—listen to the drone of cicadas, and feel the damp air as you draw nearer to the temple.
(Alternatively, there is a lift for less than 1 USD, if you’re unable, or not feeling up to the climb.)
Meditate while the mountain air brushes over you
There are many reasons to visit, but one of the most common is spirituality. This temple has a rare atmosphere of being both sacrosanct and welcoming. On one hand, there is a venerable and practiced community of Buddhist monks, and on the other they invite you to take part in the ceremonies with them, making for plenty of opportunities to learn about the religion.
The incense ceremony where you bow and get closer to nirvana, a stupa circling ceremony for the grieving, and an enchantment by elder monks are all practices in which you are invited to partake. A meditation area overlooks the city of Chiang Mai. Serene and comfortable, cherish the mountain air, relax and calm your mind.
Courses in meditation are also taught at Doi Suthep. A link is attached below.
The mountain that holds it all
Doi Suthep is actually the name of the mountain that holds the temple. There are many stops before and after it, including a set of waterfalls to picnic, roadside coffee stands, small villages to visit, and my favorite—the panoramas. After spending a couple of hours at the temple, if the sun hasn’t set, and you still have energy for adventure, continue heading upwards.
Park at a trailhead and walk until you reach a clearing. The view of northern Thailand’s forests spread as far as the eye can see. The sunset drops into the smoky horizon like a silver spoon into warm honey. Unforgettable is the experience.
Follow the white elephant
Legend has it that over 600 hundred years ago, the shoulder bone of the Buddha was discovered by a great monk. A mystical force emanated from the bone, glowing, moving, teleporting on its own accord. After a country wide journey, and consultation among notables, the monk decided to erect a temple for the newfound article. He placed the bone on a holy white elephant, to walk up the mountain Doi Suthep. The elephant paced, and paced until finally it collapsed from exhaustion. In its memory and dedication to the holy Buddha, a golden stupa was created and now houses the bone.
One long, winding road
Motorbike up a twisting road with the wind tickling your ears and branches of the lush forest bowing towards you. It is impossible to miss. After about 30 minutes of biking, you will arrive at the Wat.
Other ways of reaching it include a tuk-tuk, one of the local taxis, or a bus company also provide shuttles to and from, and take approximately 45 minutes from the city center. But with these, you are giving up the freedom of what you will do afterwards.
Like the locals say, “If you haven’t seen Wat Doi Suthep, you haven’t seen Chiang Mai,” so make it a priority on your list of things to do.
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