Doi Suthep: Temple of the White Elephant
You climb your way through winding mountain roads. Cool breezes flow around you. Green forest surrounds. As you rise towards the clouds, you feel a delicious chill in the air. Breathe in the freshness. Soak in the sights of lush northern jungle. As the truck comes to a stop, you find yourself beneath two towering dragons. You have arrived at the temple of Doi Suthep, one of Thailand’s most famous sights.
Highlights of Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai
In the Northern Thai language, doi means mountain. Doi Suthep claims its fame as one of the most well known mountains in the entire country. From the city of Chiang Mai, you can see the green giant soaring overhead. If you have a keen eye, you might even be able to spot the glimmer of the holy chedi at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, its celebrated temple.
While you need to look carefully on a clear day to see the glittering from the city, when you’re at the hilltop temple, the shining golden chedi, or Buddhist stupa, will be the centre of your attention. Topped by a five-tier umbrella, the main chedi at Doi Suthep glows with the sunlight. Statues of the Lord Buddha surround. Standing, reclining and seated beneath snakes, he stares out serenely offering peace to the many Thai worshippers who come here to pay their respects at the holy site.
Along with the Lord Buddha, you will discover a number of Hindu deities and mystical creatures from the Buddhist scriptures and local lore. The elephant-headed god Ganesh is one of the most important holy images on site. You will also pass a four-faced Brahma (the Hindu god of creation), a hermit statue, a sacred bodhi tree and a replica of the Emerald Buddha.
To reach the temple, you climb a 309-step staircase. The banisters are bejewelled nagas, or mystical serpents. At the base, they rear their heads – all five of them. The long body of each five-headed naga continues its way up the slope. Green and golden scales cover their surface. If the thought of climbing so many stairs is too much to deal with, a tram is on hand to carry you up to the temple.
The Legend of Doi Suthep
Over 600 years ago, a monk named Maha Suman Thera lived in the northern kingdom of Sukhothai. One day he had a vision of a holy relic, a shoulder bone of the Lord Buddha. He journeyed to the spot shown in his vision, and there he found the ancient bone.
The bone showcased magical powers. It could glow. It could move. It could disappear. The monk brought the relic to the King of Sukhothai. King Dharmmaraja hosted a grand ceremony, but the relic showed none of its magical powers. Unconvinced, the king told the monk to keep the bone.
Another northern king heard of the relic however and wished to see it for himself. King Kue Na of the Lanna Kingdom sent for the monk. The monk Maha Suman Thera brought it to to the Lanna king, who commissioned the building of a new temple, Wat Suan Dok (the Flower Garden Temple) to house the relic. When it was time for the relic to be enshrined, it miraculously duplicated itself. One bone was kept at Wat Suan Dok as intended. King Nunaone strapped the other bone atop a white elephant.
Upon release, the white elephant climbed Doi Suthep, which was then called Doi Oy Chang, or Sugar Elephant Mountain. Eventually the elephant stopped at a particular spot near the mountain peak, trumpeted three times, then laid down and passed away. At the spot that the white elephant had signalled, the Lanna King built a new temple to house the relic. It is here that you find the famed Wat Phra That Doi Suthep today.
Visiting Doi Suthep
How to Get to Doi Suthep
The easiest way to visit Doi Suthep is to flag down one of the songthaew, the covered pick-up trucks that serve as taxis throughout Chiang Mai. Roundtrip up and down the mountain should cost approximately 200 baht. The trip takes approximately 40 minutes each way.
You may wish to charter the truck for half a day at approximately 400 baht. This allows you take in some other nearby sites as well.
Share-taxi songthaew to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep leave from in front of Chiang Mai Zoo and charge 40 baht per person. However, you may have to wait a long time to reach the quota of 10 passengers before the truck will depart. Especially if travelling as a family, it’s much easier to just grab any songthaew in the city and rent it out on a private basis.
Doi Suthep Temple Opening Hours
The temple at Doi Suthep is open every day from 6 am to 8 pm. You will probably want to spend about one hour at the temple.
Doi Suthep Temple Entry Fees
Entry to the temple at Doi Suthep is 30 baht for foreigners and free for Thais. If you wish to take the tram instead of climbing the stairs, the ride is 20 baht round trip or 10 baht one way.
What to Wear
The mountaintop is much cooler than the city below. It can be surprisingly chilly. You may want to bring another layer of clothing to cover up.
As this is a religious site, dress modestly – including long pants or skirts that reach below the knee.