Sitting atop the Doi Suthep mountain overlooking the second largest city in Thailand, Chiang Mai, is the Wat Phra That. To get there is pretty easy, you can take a tuk-tuk or hire a driver. It is about a 21 km drive up the mountain. The views of the city were quite beautiful along the way and at the look out points. We were definitely surprised by how big the city was, and unfortunately by the amount of brown smog hanging over the city (thus the lack of view pics in this post). It was pretty cool to stand at the top and watch the planes take off from Chiang Mai Airport.
The rumor has it that there was a special relic, many people claim it is the Gautama Buddha’s shoulder bone, which was put on the back of white elephant by King Nu Naone of Lan Na after it broke in two pieces. The one piece made it up to the top of Doi Suthep with the white elephant. It is said that when the elephant reached the top it trumpeted 3 times and then fell over dead. The people took this as a sign and built a monastery and temple here.
Once you reach the top of Doi Suthep you have two options to get to the temple. We took the easy route, the tram and opted to take the 309 steps down instead of up. We have been walking an average of 8 miles per day in Thailand so the thought of taking 309 steps up wasn’t that appealing on a 92 degree day. Plus who doesn’t love a tram ride packed full of people…That is the one thing we weren’t prepared for, the people! Once you arrive at the top to buy tickets or climb the steps be prepared, there are tons of people and tour groups. Don’t worry it thins out at the top and you don’t feel so overwhelmed by the masses (although it is still pretty full).
At the top you will not be let in unless you are properly dressed, women don’t show your knees or shoulders, men don’t show your knees. This is pretty much the way it is everywhere in Asia so it is just good practice to remember this whenever you are visiting a temple.
Once you step inside there is so much to take in! The temple, which was built originally in 1383, now has both Buddhist and Hindu statues and influence. Inside there are people pouring oil and praying, or walking in prayer three times around the center of the temple (this was really incredible and moving to watch). I wanted to join in but all of the prayers were written in other languages…
I was so lucky that while we were there a Buddhist monk was giving blessings. My best friend (who joined us with her husband for 3 weeks) were able to be blessed. As we approached he asked us, in the cutest English, where we were from, then gave us the blessing and prayed. It was such a special experience for us both.
All along the roof line of the temple there are bells hanging. They sound amazing as the mountain top breeze blows through the temple. As a donation you can buy a bell and write on it and then hang it in the temple. As we always do, J and I bought one and left our message there. We also signed the huge scroll that was there for everyone to sign. All through Thailand we have relished the opportunity to leave a little message to mark our passing through, and send our wishes.
The architecture and statues in the temple were really breathtaking. There were so many small Buddha statues and little areas to pray and worship, it never felt overwhelming to be there with so many people. The surroundings of the mountain view felt like you were at the top of the country.
One of the little alcoves had people in it shaking a canister of sticks. We asked them what they were doing, since most alcoves are people praying. They explained to us that you shake the canister until one stick comes out. The stick has a number on it, then you go to the telling wall and find that number and there is a little message on it. That message is supposed to give you advice or guide you. We were told that if you get one you don’t like you can just put it back and move on or try again. J really loved that!
There was a strong sense of community in the Wat Phra That that I hadn’t felt anywhere else. I don’t know if it was the people chanting prayers as they walked in circles around the main stupa or if it was the amount of people praying, the monks blessing or the whole thing put together but whatever it was we found it to be one of the best temple experiences we had in Thailand.
When you leave the temple walk around at the top, take in the views and the architecture, the big bells and the meditation area. Then, descend the 309 steps and be ready for the merchants in their stalls all trying to sell you something!
You should be able to take a tuk-tuk to the top for around 800 thb and have them wait for you there or you can hire a driver and combine it with other events for the day, or just this single journey. We opted for the driver since there were four of us. It takes about 25-30 minutes to get to Doi Suthep and maybe an hour or so to walk around. As it really was the most spectacular temple we saw in Chiang Mai make sure to put it on your list.