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Doi Suthep Temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand: A Visitors' Guide
Located just a few miles outside, and to the west, of the city of Chiang Mai in North Thailand, Doi Suthep Buddhist Temple (Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep), is one of Thailand's most famous temples. It is located on the mountain, Doi Suthep (Doi means mountain in Thai), which is part of Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, and even for non-Buddhists is well worth a visit, not only for the beauty of the temple architecture but also for the great aerial views of Chiang Mai city three and a half thousand feet below.
The history of the temple isn't well-documented, but its roots can be traced back to the 14th century, and it has grown steadily over the centuries, with new buildings, chedis (pagodas) and sculptures being added at various times.
Legend has it that a white elephant carrying a relic of Buddha climbed the mountain, stopped on a hilltop, trumpeted 3 times and promptly died. Somehow that was seen as a good omen and that a temple should be built there.
Entry to the temple
The temple can be reached from its road level entrance by climbing a 309-step staircase lined by two naga serpent guardians. Naga, which originated in Hindu, rather than Buddhist, mythology, are a common sight at Thai Buddhist temples. They are are called 'nak' in Thai and are serpent-like temple protectors usually seen doing duty as a pair on either side of temple entrances. There's also a lift system in operation costing 20 baht (US$1=30 baht approx).
At the entrance at the top of the stairs, foreign visitors are expected to pay a 30 baht entrance fee. Thais can enter free, but as Buddhists, they're expected to make a donation inside. In typically illogical Thai style, foreign Buddhists have to pay the entrance fee while Thai non-Buddhists don't. In fact, no checks are made and there's nothing to stop anyone walking through without paying. There are a couple of shops at the top of the stairs selling souvenirs, refreshments and other sundry items such as camera batteries.
From the temple there are good views of the city below, although haze can be a problem. March and April are months to avoid because the amount of haze present greatly reduces visibility. Viewed from Chiang Mai, the whole mountain can disappear, so there's no way you'll get good views from the temple during those months. The haze is caused by the build up of heat as the hot summer season gets under way plus ash pollution caused by illegal burning of vegetation and scrub by hill tribes clearing land for planting crops on the mountain slopes of Doi Suthep and neighbouring Doi Pui.
Getting to Doi Suthep from Chiang Mai
If you go by hired car or motorbike, follow Huay Kaew Road, which runs from the north west corner of the 'old city' surrounded by a square shaped moat. Pass the zoo and continue for around 5 miles until you come to the temple. Paid parking is available opposite the temple entrance. There are also many crafts and clothing stalls here.
Alternatively, you can flag down a red songthaew taxi (pictured), and either be taken to the temple and back again after a visit for an hour or so, or, if you prefer, be taken to one of the departure points at the bottom of the mountain where other songthaews wait to fill up with passengers also headed for the temple. The first option will cost a few hundred baht, as it's a private hire, and you decide when you want to come back. The second option will cost 30 baht per person to the departure point and then around 100 baht per person for the ride up the mountain to the temple and back again. That's quite a bit cheaper, but the songthaew will be filled with other temple visitors, and you have to wait until everyone is back on board before you can make the return journey to Chiang Mai.
Beyond Doi Suthep
If you were to continue further along the road for a few miles past Doi Suthep Temple, there are two more places of interest. First is Phuping Palace, a royal residence that is open to the public provided there are no royals in residence at the time. Second is a Hmong hill-tribe village. It's a genuine village but has become very developed and touristy over the years.
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