Doi Suthep-Pui National Park is a wonderful place to get into nature and find some of the best that Chiang Mai Thailand has to offer. One of our favorite sites is only possible to experience on foot on a Doi Suthep (meaning Suthep Mountain) hike. Along the way you will find sacred trees with orange sashes, a mysterious ancient temple and waterfall overlooking Chiang Mai Valley and will emerge from the jungle at the base of this northern province’s most sacred site. It’s more than enough to awaken and feed the adventurous spirit and may prove to be the highlight your visit to Chiang Mai.
Doi Suthep Trail Head
Once you reach the Doi Suthep Trail Head most of the rest of the way up the mountain is pretty easy to navigate. (See directions to find your way to this point at the end of the post). The brightly colored orange cloth tied around many trees along the way make it pretty difficult to get lost. These orange bands are not actually trail markers, however. Monks have tied them around the trunks of trees in order to render them holy. Cutting them down is believed to bring a lifelong dose of bad karma. Once the band is installed the trees survival is all but guaranteed.
The hike from this point is very gentle and serene. On the several times that we have been on the trail there have been very few people and the grade isn’t steep. Within about a half an hour of easy hiking the area begins to open and reveal a temple complex only accessible by foot.
Wat Pha Lat Temple
The Wat Pha Lat (or Phalat) was originally used as a resting place for people on the pilgrimage to worship at Doi Suthep temple. In 1935 a road was constructed, and now most people make their way to the grand temple by car, bike, or taxi. I think this is a mistake, because they miss this serene mysterious place that is frankly difficult to describe.
Wat Pha Lat, translated as ‘Monastery at the Sloping Rock’ is a functioning monastery in the middle of the forest. You can wander (respectfully) through the path leading through the complex and marvel at the temples, interesting structures and figurines that dot the landscape.
Even if you decide to forego the rest of the hike, a trip to the Wat Pha Lat is clearly worth the trip. And fair warning, the next hour to hour and half of hiking is going to be more challenging. It’s steep, and the temperature is often quite warm. Oh, and bring bug spray, you’ll likely need it. But with all of those challenges it’s difficult to pass up the rest of the hike. It ends up at a magnificent site that is said to date back to the 14th Century and is considered the most sacred sites in Chiang Mai Province. That thought should be enough to inspire you to continue along your journey to the top of Doi Suthep.
The Trail to Wat Doi Suthep
After leaving the monastery, the next part is a little tricky. As you scramble up the steep path soon you’ll hear the familiar sound of traffic. But don’t worry, the serenity of the forest will soon return. Make your way over the guard rail and hike your way another 20 meters (65 feet) up the road. Cross the road and you’ll find where the trail resumes.
Celebrate a small victory for finding your way off the road and back on the trail. And then get ready for a lengthy hike up the mountain. Console yourself along the way with the knowledge that there are quite a few inexpensive Thai masseuses at the top, ready to apply themselves to aching muscles. You’ve got this!
Wat Doi Suthep
After about another 45 minutes of strenuous uphill hiking up steps carved into the clay, the road will come back into view. A short winding trip along its shoulder will bring you to a small town with plenty of street vendors selling trinkets and street food. Some fresh fruit here is a welcome treat. And then the next decision – to continue hiking up to the temple, or stop here.
Buy some fruit from the vendors. After this light refreshment, a deep breath and some consultation with the Buddha at the base of the temple, the answer is clear. You have come this far and the journey will not be over until you reach the top – even if you have to climb another 309 (really!?!) steps to get there.
Note that this photo of the elaborate Doi Suthep stairway was taken early in the morning. Most often you can expect them to be crowded with visitors. But still the making it to the top and touring the temple itself is well worth the extra effort.
The entire experience is very unique and one that many people, once they have done this particular hike, do it over and over again. Maybe it’s the physical challenge. Or the amazing sights along the way – knowing that even though you’ve been several times the experience and things you will notice will be different each time. Or perhaps, as for me, it is a day hike that made me feel more connected to Chiang Mai and Thailand itself than many experiences that I have had here. It’s a special day that I highly recommend having and repeating if you have the chance.
The Return Trip
Now you are faced with the next decision. Hike down, or hitch a ride. The Songthaew (think rudimentary truck taxi) drivers know you are tired and that if you don’t feel like hiking down (nope!), they can get a premium price. There is a line of them that fill up until you think they absolutely cannot fit one more person. And then they stuff in two more. Sometimes the last passenger is left clinging onto the ladder on the back for the entire twisty-turny journey down the narrow road. It’s still less than 2 dollars and the uncomfortable ride down with your new sticky friends only takes about 20 crushing minutes. Unless you want to walk (still nope).
Finding the Doi Suthep Trail Head
Getting to the base of the hike can be a bit of a challenge, but well worth the effort. I suggest hitching a ride on a songthaew, which you can pick up anywhere in Chiang Mai. Select a red truck and instruct the driver to bring you to the Doi Suthep Trail Head – which is past the large University of Chiang Mai complex and close to the Chiang Mai Zoo entrance. Be prepared with either a map on your smart phone or write Doi Suthep Trail on a pad of paper (most speak minimal English). If the driver agrees then jump in and they will drop you at the agreed upon spot for about 20 baht (less than $1). If he asks for more (maybe 50 baht depending on where you are coming from) it’s likely worth it, as that’s still less than $2.
Note: if you have having trouble negotiating with your songthaew driver you can ask to be dropped off at the Chiang Mai Zoo and get directions at the entrance booth to the museum to the trail head – it’s not far. Or ask to be dropped off at the Chiang Mai University and catch another songthaew the rest of the way (drivers next to the University will be better acquainted with the area).
Another option is to visit the “Chiang Mai Walkers and Talkers” facebook group and see if there is an event or ask a question.
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