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Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai

Doi Suthep is a constant part of life in Chiang Mai. A Thai saying goes, "If you haven't tasted Khao Soi or seen the view from Doi Suthep, you haven't been to Chiang Mai." This regal mountain overlooks the city from the northwest, providing commanding views from its summit. Aside from its dominating presence on the horizon, Doi Suthep is the home of some of the most deeply loved symbols in the Kingdom.

Doi Suthep Chiang MaiIn 1981 Doi Suthep, Doi Pui and Doi Buakha, along with the 161 square kilometres (62 square miles) of forest in which they are located, became Thailand's 24th national park. A year later a 100 square kilometre (38 square mile) annex was added, bringing the park's total area up to 261 square kilometres (100 square miles). Dense forests hang from the mountain's shoulders like a cloak; deciduous at lower elevations and evergreen near the peaks of the mountains.

The highest peak in the park is Doi Pui which tops off at 1,685 meters (5,528 feet), making it the eighth largest mountain in Thailand. Flowing from these heights are some of the most highly enjoyable and accessible waterfalls in the Kingdom's northern reaches. Mae Sa Falls, Huay Kaew Falls and Monthathan Falls are among the most popular sights of the park and are easily reached from the main road. The forest is also home to a variety of wildlife, including many small mammals and birds as well as the rare Crocodile Salamander, which is only found in four places in Thailand.

The park's high elevation keeps the temperature pleasantly cool, even during the blistering heat of June. Doi Suthep National Park also incorporates the Mae Sa Valley, a veritable buffet of activities and sights. Farther north, in the park's 100 square kilometre (38 square mile) annex you will find the delightful and often overlooked Mok Fa area which boasts a wonderful waterfall, a cave and a nature trail.

Despite all of this stunning natural beauty, the main reason many visitors come to Doi Suthep National Park is to visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a venerable and venerated temple that is one of the most holy Buddhist sites in Thailand. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a major pilgrimage destination, especially during the Buddhist holidays of Makha Bucha and Visakha Bucha (February 13 and May 11, respectively).

This awe-inspiring temple is crowned by an elaborate Chedi (Monument), 24 meters (79 feet) tall and gold plated from top to bottom. On a clear day the Chedi's golden exterior catches the sun and blazes like a beacon over the city. The temple dates back to the 14th century and the tale of its founding is a quintessential Thai myth, full of magic and mystery. Those moved by the serenity and spirituality of the temple may wish to take a meditation course at the International Buddhism Center located on the temple grounds.

Adding to the importance and prestige of Doi Suthep is the palatial Bhubing Palace, a vacation home of the Royal Family. When not serving as the Royal Residence, the Bhubing Palace serves as a guest house for foreign dignitaries. Built in 1961, the Palace's first guests were the King and Queen of Denmark. Visitors to the park can also pay a visit to the small hilltribe villages on the park grounds, which offer a glimpse into a way of life that has changed very little in hundreds of years.

Doi Suthep National Park is located a short distance from the city centre and is easily reached by car or motorbike. Hiring a motorbike (100 or 125 cc) for the journey is a great way to appreciate the sereneDoi Suthep Chiang Mai majesty of the park's forests and mountains. If driving yourself isn't your thing, you can always take a song thaew (red taxi) to the top or book a tour through your hotel or a tour company.

There are a number of small restaurants scattered around throughout the park, especially near Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, and there are a few options for those who wish to stay overnight. Most of the accommodation consists of small huts and rudimentary bungalows, however, and most of the park's highlights can be easily seen in a day.

Doi Suthep Topography and Climate

While not as lofty and rugged as Doi Inthanon, Doi Suthep still offers plenty of natural beauty. The road to the top meanders through verdant forests, runs along clear streams and flirts with mighty waterfalls, passing by a number of attractions along the way. The landscape of Doi Suthep is marked by rolling hills covered in thick tropical forest, which gives way to evergreens as you climb higher and higher.

The highest peak in the park is Doi Pui, which reaches a height of 1,685 meters (5,528 feet), while Doi Suthep itself reaches an altitude of 1,676 meters (5,498 feet) and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep stands on the flank of the mountain at an elevation of 1,056 meters (3464 feet).

Doi Suthep National Park boasts a number of highly enjoyable and easily accessible waterfalls-cascades of foaming water plunging from a series of cliffs and forming glistening pools along the way. The most popular of these waterfalls is Huay Kaew falls, which can be found just off the road near the entrance of the park. This lovely waterfall is an excellent place for a picnic before or after climbing the mountain to see the sights above. A little farther up the road, towards the temple, lies the Monthathan waterfall, which flows down over nine tiers and is another popular picnic spot, well worth the 300 baht admission.

With a good deal of the park 1,000 meters or more above sea level, Doi Suthep National Park enjoys a climate that is distinctly cooler than the basin of Chiang Mai. During the hot season (April to June) average temperatures run around 20 to 23? C (68 to 73? F), while during the cool season (mid-December to late March) the mercury can drop as low as 6?C (49?F). Rainfall is pretty much a given during the rainy season (July to mid-November) and the view from the top is usually obscured. During the hot months (March to June) the shade of the trees and the coolness of the waterfalls are blissful oases from the sweltering city heat.

Doi Suthep Flora and Fauna

Doi Suthep Chiang MaiDoi Suthep is a flourishing forest ecosystem, consisting of mixed deciduous forests (trees that lose their leaves in the dry season) at lower elevations and tropical evergreen forests above 1000 meters. Mixed in among the trees are countless flowers that scent the air and delight the eye with their brilliant colours.

Inhabiting this bountiful biosphere are a number of animal species, mostly birds and small mammals. Macaques are the most common primates but other species of small monkey can be glimpsed cavorting among the treetops. Wild boar tramp game trails in the park's deep interior and dozens of varieties of bats fill the skies at dawn and dusk. The park is also one of four places in Thailand that are called home by the rare Crocodile Salamander.

Like the nearby Doi Inthanon National Park, Doi Suthep is a wonderful place for bird watching and the park is home to over three hundred species. Dawn is the best time to lie in wait with your binoculars and camera and play Audubon Society.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Gleaming like a northern star from the heights of Doi Suthep is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. The mountain's temple is one of the most historically and spiritually significant places in Thailand and, as such, large numbers of Thais and foreigners alike come to experience the special magic of this holy place.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is an impressive embodiment of the Lanna (northern Thai) culture and is a symbol deeply cherished by the people of Chiang Mai. The temple's origins date back almost seven hundred years, to 1382 and the legend surrounding the founding of the temple is one of those mysteries of Asia that draw so many visitors to this enchanted land.

All legends and mysticism aside, the temple is a great example of the grandeur and power of the Lanna Kingdom and a visit to the spot is an absolute must for any visitor to Chiang Mai. Over three hundred steps lead from the parking area to the temple grounds, a staircase bordered by the longest naga (water serpent) balustrade in Thailand. Nagas are sacred water serpents which bring good luck as well as bridging the earth and sky. After three hundred-odd steps, you may well feel like you've climbed to the vault of heaven, but don't despair - there are a few food stalls set up at the top to replenish your energy. If the climb sounds like no fun, then simply ride to the top in one of the newly rebuilt cable cars (admission: 50 baht).

Once you've reached the top there's plenty to see at the temple. Of course, the golden Chedi dominates the area with its gilded, 24 meter (79 foot) tall bulk. Ceremonial parasols were added at the four corners of the Chedi in the 16th century and pilgrims make merit by sticking gold leaf to the parasol shafts. At the rear of the temple a long promenade provides a spectacular view; the city spreads out below, bisected by the ribbon of the Ping River. Make sure to take your camera to capture this unforgettable vista.

Scattered around the temple are various statues depicting everything from the legendary white elephant upon whose grave the temple was erected to the assorted gods and Buddhas of the Thai religion. You will find a particularly interesting rendering of the Buddha beneath the spreading limbs of a Bodhi tree, known as the Tree of Enlightenment, on your right hand side, just as you enter the temple grounds. Another highlight of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is the set of rakhang (temple bells) which are touched by devout Buddhists to bring good luck.

While at the temple, walk around and examine the numerous impressive murals which decorate many of the temple walls. As in most wats (temples) the murals depict events from the life and teachings of the Buddha. If you find yourself curious about the meanings and practices of Buddhism then pay a visit to the International Buddhism Center. Here you will find monks and lay practitioners who will be happy to answer any questions you might have. For those interested in truly exploring the teachings and practice of Buddhism there are meditation and study courses offered by the centre.

Other Doi Suthep Attractions

Today Doi Suthep is easily accessible to visitors, but it wasn't always so. The road to the top wasn't built until 1935 and the man responsible for its construction was a highly respected figure named Khruba Srivichai, also known as The Engineer Monk. Prior to his intervention it was a gruelling five hour climb to reach the temple. In order to make it easier for pilgrims to reach the temple and make merit, Khruba Srivichai decided to build a road to the top. His call for workers was answered by hordes of volunteers from all over the north. Finding himself with a wealth of labourers, he ordered that each village's workers should only construct 10 feet of road. Fuelled by devotion, the workers completed the road in record time. A monument to Khruba Srivichai stands at the foot of the mountains. Before you head to the temple, stop and give thanks that you don't have to walk.

Although the temple is the main destination for most people who visit Doi Suthep, it's not the only reason to visit the park. A little ways beyond the temple you will find the Bhubing Palace, a favourite vacation home for the Thai Royal Family. The Palace is open to the public most of the year, except when the Royal Family is in residence (usually mid-December to early February). When the Palace is open, visitors are welcome to stroll the grounds and admire the exquisite gardens where the blooming flowers create explosions of colour.

The flowers aren't the only colourful things on Doi Suthep; the park is home to a number of small hilltribe villages that continue to live very much in the same way as they have done for a thousand years. The largest of these villages is located a short distance beyond the Bhubing Palace. Although this village is somewhat commercialized it is still worth a look, especially if you are pressed for time and can't make it to the more authentic (and remote) villages.

Doi Suthep Travel Information

Many people find it a very rewarding experience to explore the mountain on their own. A 100 or 125 cc motorbike is more than sufficient for the ascent, which is a pleasantly meandering journey through lush rainforests and along clear streams.

To get to Doi Suthep from Chiang Mai take route 1004 northwest. The entrance to the National Park isDoi Suthep Chiang Mai located about 15 km (9 miles) from the city centre and the drive to the top of the mountain from the entrance takes about 20 minutes. If you don't want to take a motorbike then song thaews (red taxis) are your best option. Song thaews regularly run from Chang Puak market and the journey from there should cost about 150 baht. A cheaper alternative is to make your way along Huay Kaew Road to the entrance of Chiang Mai University. Song thaews from here will ferry you to the temple for only 30 baht (one way) but the taxi won't leave until there are six or more people.
The Steps to Doi Suthep

The temple is open from 06:00 to 20:00 every day, but weekends and holidays are usually very crowded. Admission is 50 baht, which includes a two way ticket on the tram. Hearty souls who chose to walk up the staircase are rewarded for their fortitude by only paying 30 baht. Remember that Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a sacred place and you should dress respectfully when visiting it. That means no shorts or skirts and no tank tops. If you find yourself at the gate wearing cut offs, don't worry - fisherman's pants can be rented for a minimal fee.

Most of the other attractions at the park are free, but there is a 300 baht fee for the Monthathan waterfall. There are some bungalows and rudimentary guest houses in Doi Suthep National Park but there's really no need to stay overnight; it's not like Doi Suthep is a long way from the city. There are plenty of rustic restaurants scattered all over the park but the prices are about ten baht higher than in the city. Shoppers will find a few stalls offering souvenirs and knick knacks and the hilltribe villages offer traditional clothing and handicrafts.

There are plenty of legends surrounding the mountaintop temple of Doi Suthep. Stories from long ago tell tales of a wandering 14th-Century monk and a dying elephant, a hermit and of villagers coming together to build a road to a holy shrine. Combined with the physical aura of the place, these stories weave a magic concoction for northern-bound travellers.

But first a legend. A 14th-Century monk from Sukhothai had a vision one day - he saw a fire and when he followed it, he found a relic (apparently a bone) from the Buddha himself. He took the relic to his king, but it failed to reproduce its magical powers and the king lost interest.

However, King Keu Naone of the Lanna Kingdom heard of the monk and invited him north to Chiang Mai and offered to enshrine the relic. The building was completed and preparations were made to house the relic. When the time came to do this, the relic broke in two, leading the king to make a new plan.

At the northern gate of the city, now known as Chang Puak (white elephant gate), he placed half of the relic on the back of a sacred white elephant and sent it off into the wilderness.

The elephant headed due west, climbed slowly up the slopes of Doi Suthep, trumpeted a last call and then dropped dead.

On that spot, legend goes, the temple was built in 1383. Doi Suthep is actually named for a legendary hermit, named Sudeva, who lived on the slopes. Before this, about 1,000 years ago, it was still known as Doi Aoy Chang (Sugarcane Elephant Mountain).

It is easy enough to get to Doi Suthep. Public transportation may be used to travel the road 16 kilometres northwest out of Chiang Mai, past Chiang Mai University and ascend the winding road up the mountain to the base of the temple.

There are two choices once you have reached the base of the temple - either hike up the 300 steps to the temple gate (admiring the longest Naga staircase in Thailand on the way) or, hop on one of the cable cars and get conveyed to the top. Most opt for the walk.

Once inside Wat Suthep, you are free to wander the grounds, admiring what each section has to offer. Like many temples in Thailand, there are elements of Hinduism mixed in with Buddhism and an intriguing array of statues, including the god Ganesh, peek out from corners, cubby holes and from the sides of temple buildings.

Metal bells, double-stacked, line a couple of walls and are kept busy throughout the day. Signs above the bells admonish visitors "not to push the bell."

The lookout area is the other side from the entrance gate and viewers can gaze down at the city of Chiang Mai and its international airport far below. From here, you have a clear view of the winding Ping River and the surrounding mountains.

In the middle of the temple is the sacred square cloister area, where, upon shedding shoes and ascending another dozen steps, visitors can see the Lanna-style, copper-plated chedi topped by a five-tiered gold umbrella. It is considered one of the holiest areas in Thailand. Monks inside are kept busy blessing the devout with holy water and the smell of incense and burning candles fill the senses as you circumnavigate the cloister.

Another more recent legend about Doi Suthep concerns a monk in the 1930's. In 1934, there was still no road leading up the mountain and the faithful had to make the arduous climb in order to visit the temple. Pra Krubra Srivichai, a local monk, thought that the temple needed better access and organized the local villages in order to build a road.

He asked each village to construct 10 metres and with this plan in hand, the locals finished the job in just six months. A recent expansion of the road covered over plaques honouring each village, but a statue honouring Srivichai still remains, at the base of the mountain. It is believed to be good luck to pay homage to him before ascending Doi Suthep.

Many who visit don't realize that Doi Suthep is actually one part of the larger Doi Suthep National Park. The National Park encompasses 261 square kilometres. Evergreen hills, mixed deciduous and pine forest are all represented at the park and there are over 300 bird species and nearly 2000 species of fern and flowering plants that thrive there. During the late day and early morning, the bird species are much in evidence, flitting around the periphery of the temple.

Phra Tamnak Phu Phing, the vacation palace for the royal family, is also in the immediate area and is often included in tours to Doi Suthep, along with a visit to a local Hmong hill-tribe village.
Thanks to the industriousness of Srivichai, it is now easy to pay a visit to Doi Suthep, although the old hiking trail does still exist for those yearning for a more difficult challenge. Either way, the beauty, the holiness and the legends of Doi Suthep wait to be explored.

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