“I have to tell you, I don’t think I’m gonna make it,” my friend pants, red faced and breathless as we climb the steep flight of stone steps. “Come on, we’re nearly there, you can’t quit on me now!” I pant back. Who would have thought that 309 steps would prove to be such a challenge? We should have taken the tram to the top, but it’s too late now.
Finally, we reach the top and nearly collapse in relief. The temple grounds of Wat Prathap Doi Suthep, situated at the top of the mighty Doi Suthep Mountain, are large and interesting, full of towering chedis, enormous bells and intricate stone carvings.
But it is the view that really makes this journey worthwhile. After circling the central chedi, I make my way to the white balustrade at the edge of the temple grounds and find myself breathless once more.
The view over Chiang Mai is simply spectacular. Wat Prathap Doi Suthep is located about 20 miles from Chiang Mai, Thailand’s northern capital, at an elevation of 1,685 meters above sea level. From my lofty perch I can see right across the mighty city to the jungle that surrounds it and a winding, sparkling river in the far distance.
The Buddhist temple of Wat Prathap Doi Suthep was founded in 1383 under unusual circumstances. A famous Thai legend tells that in the 14th century a monk from Sukhothai had a dream telling him to go to Pang Cha and look for a relic. Upon following the directions of the dream the monk found what is believed to be the Lord Buddha’s shoulder bone.
The relic displayed magic powers such as glowing, vanishing and self-replication, so the monk took it to King Dharmmaraja, ruler of Sukhothai. But the king was uninterested in the relic, which did not reveal its magic powers to him.
However, King Ku Naone of the Lanna Kingdom requested the relic, which was then placed on the back of a white elephant and released into the jungle so that the elephant might find a suitable location to build a temple to contain the relic.
The noble elephant climbed up Doi Suthep, trumpeted three times and died on the spot. This was seen as a sigh that the temple should be built on the top of Doi Suthep.
Wat Prathap Doi Suthep is highly revered and a major pilgrimage destination during Buddhist holidays, especially Makha Buja and Visak. Around Wat Prathap Doi Suthep are 47 murals that illustrate the past loves of the Buddha and of the Jataka Buddha before he became enlightened.
Another focal point of the temple is the large chedi, which is bell-shaped and formed in the Lanna style. There is also a model of the Emerald Buddha and a statue of the multiple-armed elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh.
After exploring all that the temple has to offer, I climb back down the steps and buy a cup of hot tea at the market at the base of the temple. The view over Chiang Mai is still spectacular from here, and it is a peaceful place to reflect in before returning to the madness and mayhem of the city.
Wat Prathap Doi Suthep is situated around 22 miles from the city of Chiang Mai. There is a winding road to the top of the mountain, but it is extremely steep. As I amble back down the mountain I pass a group of red-faced cyclists, who are clearly regretting their choice of transportation.
The easiest way to reach Wat Doi Suthep is to go by songthew, which is a small open-backed truck with two rows of wooden benches running down the sides. You can catch a songthew from the market area at the corner of the Manneenopparat and Chotana Roads. Expect to pay around 150 baht for a return journey.
About the author:
Kirsty Turner (Kay) is a freelance writer currently living in Bangkok. She has kindly agreed to write for KhaoSanRoad.com and share her love of all things Thai and, especially, all things Khao San Road!