Easygoing and fascinating Chiang Mai finds its abiding symbol in the form of Wat Doi Suthep, a Buddhist temple located around eleven miles from the city’s center. While Wat Phra Singh generally attracts more visitors due to its city-center location, Wat Doi Suthep is widely considered the city’s standout attraction. Standing high up the Doi Suthep Mountain, this Chiang Mai temple looms over the metropolis below, reminding tourists of its beauty wherever they happen to turn.
Wat Doi Suthep dates back to 1383, when the initial chedi (temple) was built. Since then, it’s gone through various iterations, with the 1990s proving a particularly tumultuous time in its history. Thanks to the economic boom in Thailand during these years, the temple underwent a massive regeneration project, under which it was not only restored but also modified, with much gold plating being utilized. As a result, this Chiang Mai temple now gleams golden in the sun, and while some may complain that it has consequently lost its authenticity, Wat Doi Suthep is certainly a sight to behold.
Aside from the main chedi itself, one of the principle attractions at the Doi Suthep temple is a shrine to a white elephant. According to legend, a white elephant had a large role to play in the founding of the temple. As the legend has it, a small piece of bone said to be from Buddha himself was making its way around Thailand when it split in two. One piece was enshrined in a temple at Suandok; the king put the other piece on the back of an elephant and let it roam the jungle. When the elephant ascended Doi Suthep, he trumpeted, circled a few times, and then sat down. This was taken as a sign that the spot was holy, and thus Wat Doi Suthep was commissioned. Today a life-size white elephant can be seen on the site in dedication to the legend.
In terms of reaching this Chiang Mai temple, it’s normally a case of catching a songthaew (shared taxi) from Pratu Chang Phuak to the base of the mountain. From here, 309 steps lead up to the Doi Suthep temple; if you don’t fancy the climb, there’s also a funicular car that ascends the hill for a small price. Given the temple’s spiritual importance, conservative dress and behavior are expected of all visitors.
Chiang Mai itself is one of Thailand’s most enchanting and unspoiled cities. Situated in the north, many travelers come here to spend a happy few days exploring the city’s many pagodas and lakes before joining a hike into the surrounding hills. These hills are known for their many hill tribes, and many hikes stop in various mountainside villages for food and sleep before commencing a further day’s walking. There are plenty of Chiang Mai hotels as well, should you wish to remain in the city for a few nights before heading on to other northern destinations such as Chiang Rai.
Travelers often arrive in Chiang Mai from Bangkok, which is about six hours away by coach, or just a short flight. The two cities are vastly different in feel; whereas Chiang Mai is about as laid-back a city as you’ll find in Thailand, Bangkok is a teeming, throbbing metropolis with a busy nightlife. Combining a trip to both cities proves an insightful way to spend your vacation in this part of Southeast Asia.