One week after we had installed ourselves safely in our Chiang Mai apartment, it was Valentines Day. We decided to cement our love by taking a hike up to Doi Suthep temple (official name Wat Doi Suthep), which sits atop a hill to the west of the city (also called Doi Suthep) overlooking all of Chiang Mai.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of the most iconic temples in Chiang Mai – no mean feat in a temple-laden city. Most visit the temple as part of a tour, or by hailing a shared songthaew for the 10km or so up to the top of the hill. Not these crazy cats – we were walking every step of the way up the “Pilgrim’s Trail”, a 4.5km hike which leads up the side of the hill and winds its way to the top.
But first, we needed to get there. Sensible shoes donned, we set off far too late at 10am and headed down Nimmanhemin Road, past the university and past the back entrance to Chiang Mai Zoo. After a few hundred metres of walking along the uphill road, tailed briefly by a curious monk, we met the gates of Channel 7 broadcasting and veered left into the forest.
The trail was initially an easy one along a gentle incline lined by trees. After months of dry weather, it was dry and dusty but pleasant to walk along in the slight shade from the trees. The trail was well trodden – although we only saw perhaps seven other hikers during our walk – and marked by faded cloths that were the same colour as monks robes.
By and by, we came to a little wooden bridge that crossed a stream. We crossed it – following the yellow cloths – and found ourselves in a fairytale.
Well, technically it was a temple over a waterfall, but pretty close. We’d arrived at Wat Pha Lat – a small and quiet temple complex about halfway up the hill. This temple isn’t on the tourist trail so much, so it was just us plus a handful of other hikers, a small group of schoolkids doing an assignment in the stream and the odd worshipper.
The waterfall was more of a trickle (it being dry season and all) and we walked quietly around the temple complex, enjoying the cool shade, peaceful atmosphere and the beautiful carvings. It felt very “of the forest” and I sat admiring the view of Chiang Mai from a rock beside the stream. I wore my best contemplative face, but actually it was just nice to have a rest from the walk!
Eventually, I could pretend to be absorbing the view no longer and off we went again. After a near-vertical scramble (I suspect the cloth-trees may have been taking us for a mug) we stumbled (almost literally) onto the mountain road, which we crossed and headed back into the forest. The second part of the trail was far steeper, rockier and less shady than the first half had been. As we stumbled up the red dirt path, I bit my tongue to subdue a whimper about heading back to the road and hitching a lift. By now it was also baking hot, and we were dripping with sweat. A Valentines sight to behold indeed.
Eventually we came to the end of our 5km hike. Including our walk to the start of the trail, we’d hiked nearly 10km. A final hundred metres and we arrived at the Doi Suthep temple we’d come to see. Below us, Chiang Mai sprawled out towards the horizon.
Built in the 14th century to house a relic of the Buddha (reportedly his shoulder bone), legend has it the site of the pagoda was chosen by an elephant selected by the Lanna King Phaya Kue Na. The elephant, bearing the Buddha relic, circled the site of the pagoda and trumpeted three times, which the king took to as a signifier that this was a holy site. The temple was built at that site immediately. To this day, shoes cannot be worn in the temple complex and women are not permitted in the pagoda housing the relic (how rude).
The Doi Suthep temple had a very different vibe to Wat Pha Lat. Under the bright blue sky, the golden decor felt positively ostentatious and the temple complex was crowded with worshippers and tourists. Everywhere you looked, people were making offerings, taking photographs and praying. It felt more like a bazaar than a temple, but it was so beautiful you couldn’t help but like it.
After absorbing the bustling atmosphere, we had a choice. Did we hike back down or grab a songthaew for ฿50 each? We chose the songthaew, much to the distress of our fellow passengers who positively recoiled at the state of us, and our return journey to our apartment was far quicker than the journey up to the Doi Suthep temple!
If you want to hike to Doi Suthep temple
- From the start of the trail, the hike takes about 90 minutes to 2 hours, not including stoppage time at Wat Pha Lat or getting to the trail point.
- It doesn’t take fantastic fitness (I did it and am horribly unfit at the moment) but does involve mainly uphill walking, as one might expect.
- A great resource is here, which helps you to plan out each step of the route. We used that paired with Google Maps to make sure we got to the right place; the trail is easy enough to follow once you set off.
- Take LOTS of water and wear comfortable shoes and socks! The trail gets hot during the late morning and early afternoon, so set off as early as you can.
- Don’t forget that the temple has the usual “cover shoulders and upper legs” rule. I wore 3/4 length leggings and took a light kaftan in our rucksack to sling over my vest top when we arrived