Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of the most sacred temples in all of Northern Thailand. Its origins are steeped in legend. According to lore and depending mostly on whom you ask, a monk named Sumanathera had a dream one night. In the dream, he was told to go to a place called Pang Cha and look for a relic. There he found a bone, said to be the shoulder bone belonging to Buddha, it was claimed that the bone had magical powers, glowed, and moved by itself. The monk brought the relic to King Dhammaraja who ruled over the Sukhothai Kingdom in northern-central Thailand at the time. However much to the king and the monk’s dismay, the relic failed to show its mystical powers. Disappointed, the king told the monk to keep the relic. King Nu Naone of the nearby Lanna Kingdom heard the tales of the relic and asked the monk to bring it to him. Once there it is either said that the relic magically copied itself, or alternatively, the relic broke into two pieces, the king placed one of the pieces atop a white elephant which was released into the forest. The elephant is said to have climbed up Doi Suthep Mountain and came to a spot near the top where suddenly the elephant trumpeted 3 times, turned 3 times and fell dead in the forest. This was considered an omen and there on the spot Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was constructed sometime between the 1360’s and 1380’s again depending on who is telling the tale. For the first 450 years one had to make an arduous climb up the mountain to see the temple, however, in 1935 a road was constructed to reach the temple.
Anyone’s visit to the Wat will start at the grand set of stairs constructed of 300 steps leading up to the temple. The stairs are guarded by enormous wooden Naga banisters that run the length of the stairs, these were added during the 1500’s. For the less athletic types, there is an adjacent funicular that can be accessed for around 30 baht. Once at the top of the staircase, there is a ticket booth on the right hand side, tickets can be purchased for 50 baht. Upon entering the lower temple complex one is greeted by the shrine of the white elephant.
The elephant shrine is at the northwest corner of the temples lower terrace. The lower terrace of the temple complex is surrounded by bells that pilgrims will often ring to bring good luck. Around the lower terrace, one can find many small shrines and statues as well as a Buddhist school, monks residences, and a museum where one can gaze upon other relics, old photographs, and pieces of the ancient Wat before restoration.
On the southeast side of the complex is a grand viewing platform where one can view Chiang Mai from an approximate elevation of 1000 meters. From this vantage point if you look carefully you can see the outline of the moat that surrounds the old city of central Chiang Mai, as well as Chiang Mai University and several other landmarks. On a clear day, one can even see all the way to the surrounding mountains as well as Doi Saket.
Before ascending to the main temple itself on the upper terrace it is important to note that one must dress respectfully, several volunteers are on hand to inspect your attire, if it is deemed inappropriate you will be asked to don pants or shirts for a small fee. Once properly attired make your way up the stairs to the upper terrace. There you will see the spectacular golden Chedi built to house the Buddha relic brought by the white elephant. At night from down in Chiang Mai city, it is a common sight to see there upon the mountain the brilliant golden chedi shining brightly. Around the Chedi are the terrace walls covered in spectacular Buddhist murals.
In the smaller Wiharn on the upper terrace, a lucky visitor might see an elder monk chanting blessings upon people and tying a white string that was blessed beforehand around their wrist. Feel free to approach respectfully and kneel before the monk and you may receive his blessing. According to custom and depending on whom you ask it is appropriate to wear the string for 3 days, others prefer to keep it on until it falls off naturally.
Feel free take in the sights and sounds of the temple for as long as you wish. Every year millions of people visit the temple and many locals and expats make it a habit to visit regularly to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, as well as to feel the cool mountain air.
The temple is open from 6am to 5pm, 7 days a week and the entrance fee is 50 baht. It is important to note that this is a functioning Buddhist temple with hundreds of monks as well as thousands of devout Buddhists visiting the temple daily and mixing with the tourists, therefore it is important to dress appropriately covering the shoulders and legs and keeping your voice low so as not to disturb prayers.