The Golden Temple: Chiang Mai’s Wat Prathat Doi Suthep
The most famous temple in Chiang Mai is the golden Wat Phrathat perched on top of Doi Suthep, the mountain to the city’s west. The temple is usually referred to as Doi Suthep, but doi means mountain and is actually the name of the peak on which it sits. Regardless of what you call it, the wat is a stunning site and definitely worth the winding ride up to the summit.
There are a few options to get to the top. If you’re in the mood for a workout you can walk up the road (although there is no real sidewalk and only a small shoulder in some places) or hike up the monk’s trail. For a faster and less strenuous day, you can hire a songthaew (the red truck taxis) for about 400 baht. Your driver will take you to the top, wait for a couple hours while you visit the temple, and bring you back down. The final option, and the one we ended up taking, is to find one of the taxi stops along Huay Kaew road and ride up with a group of other tourists.
You can walk out to the stand, but we ended up stumbling on it by accident after a bit of a miscommunication with our driver, so we were driven there. You should be able to take a suangtaew for 20 baht per person anywhere around Old City, even out past the Maya mall, so don’t let them overcharge you! Most won’t, but it’s good to know that if someone says 100 baht a person you are well within your right to suggest a lower fare.
The taxi stand is located in front of the Huay Kaew Arboretum. There are two long benches and a sign with trip rates to help you find it. When we arrived, the driver there told us he needed to wait for 10 people before we headed out, so we sat with the others until the benches slowly filled up. We ended up waiting for about 20 minutes, and the round trip rate was 80 baht per person. This might be the best option if traveling alone or with one other person, but if you have at least three people once you add everything up you might as well opt for a private driver from wherever you are staying so you have no wait time.
- Hire a songthaew from your hotel or apartment: 400 baht round trip, no waiting and you get dropped off back at home
- Meet at the taxi stand: 80 baht per person round trip, wait for 10 people to form a group, and get dropped off back at the stand OR 40 baht per person one way (add 40 baht per person if you don’t want to walk to and from the stand)
- Walk along the road: free, but it’s steep and takes about 6 hours round trip plus time at the temple (we will give detailed directions for the monk’s trail in an upcoming post!)
- Bike: If you decide to bike up the mountain we will be very impressed. You won’t be alone, but we won’t be with you.
We decided to halfway challenge ourselves and walk back down, so we took a one-way trip for 40 baht each. Walking down along the road was pretty shaded, but of course it will be hotter the later in the day you go. We felt pretty safe on the road, but pay attention to blind curves and make sure you walk single file.
Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep
Wat Phrathat was built in 1383 after King Nu Na declared a new temple needed to be built for a relic believed to be part of Buddha’s shoulder bone. He sent a white elephant into the woods carrying the relic and where the elephants stopped, lie down and refused to go any further is where the temple now stands.
When you first get to the temple, the street is lined with stalls selling everything from fruit smoothies to live birds to traditional Lanna outfits. If you make it throught the throngs without buying anything, you will next be faced with the 300 steps up to the temple marked by two huge serpents. If you need to avoid the steps, you can take a cable car up to the top for 20 baht.
At the top of the steps you will need to pay the 30 baht entrance fee before continuing inside. There are a couple coffee shops with great views around the grounds, but your main option for food will be the booths at the entrance.
There are several prayer rooms around the perimeter. Keep in mind this is a functioning temple, so remember to be respectful. Sit or kneel when you enter prayer rooms and be mindful of monks and visitors who are using those rooms for their intended purpose. For a more in-depth look into Buddhism, visit the International Buddhism Center located inside the temple. You can even sign up for full immersion meditation retreats of various lengths.
One of the most spectacular sights at Doi Suthep is the 52-feet-tall golden pagoda at the center. On a clear day the inner area surrounding the pagoda is lit with its reflection and the golden Buddhas of various shapes and sizes around its circumference.
On the way back down, be sure to stop at one of several viewpoints. If you’re walking, they are an opportunity to take a quick break and if you are in a songthaew your driver should be happy to stop and let you take photos.
- If you decide to walk, bring plenty of water and wear sturdy shoes
- If you want to drive, we recommend hiring a saungtaew to drive you both ways and wait while you view the temple for 400 baht
- The drive to Doi Suthep takes about 45 minutes each way (if you get carsick take a dramamine!)
- Don’t miss the viewpoints along the road on the way up or down
- Remember to dress conservatively (cover your knees and shoulders) and take off your shoes before entering the temple