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.
In 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.
There are a large number of shops and 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.
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˚C to 23˚C (68˚F 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 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.
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.