How it all beganLegend has it that in 1383 a monk from Sukothai instructed Lanna King Keu Naone to take a piece of Buddha's shoulder bone and establish a temple. What's the best way to choose the location? Mount the relic to the top of a sacred white elephant and let it pick the place. (I should try this method the next time my kids argue about where to have dinner.) The elephant crashed around the jungle, climbed up Doi Suthep, and trumpeted three times before falling down dead at the top of mountain. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep stands upon that very spot today.
|Mural in the museum depicting the story of how Wat Phra That Doi Suthep began|
Keeping the Kids HappySince we were visiting in April, the hottest time of the year, I was determined to kick off our visit with the kids on a good note. We paid to take the tram up to the temple, thereby skipping the climb up 306 steps. If you take the Naga Serpent Staircase, be sure to stop plenty of times to "meditate" (a.k.a. catch your breath). As this was our second stop of the day, I
Strolling around the Lower LevelWe walked clockwise around the lower level of the temple, marveling at the Lanna architecture with its gilded ornamentation. So much beauty surrounded us that buildings I would normally consider magnificent did not attract the crowd's attention at all.
|Everyone seemed to be ignoring this Bhote where ordination services and prayers take place. |
Too much other stuff to see?
Rows of bells lined the walls of the lower level. Some were big, and some were tiny. Buddhists believe that good luck will come to the those who strike these bells. However, there were "Do Not Hit Bells" signs all over the place. No good luck for those who follow rules written in English, perhaps? Let me tell you, there's nothing like showing kids a hundred bells and them telling them not to touch them. Not being driven away by a cacophony of reverberating bells, I was able to visually enjoy the exquisite details on these instruments.
|So many bells, so little sound|
An expansive view looking down at Chiang Mai in the valley below greets you at the back of the lower level. At least, that's what I'm told. I couldn't see anything through the haze of the dry, burn season. Ugh.
My kids were especially amused by the signs for the monsters guarding a wooden Wiharn that housed a large Buddha statue. These fierce guardian statues are the mythical Lanna garden beasts called "Dtuwamaum" or "Mom" for short.
|Don't make me go all "Mom" on you!|
Living quarters and a school for monks are located in the buildings behind the Wiharn guarded by Mom.
Coming around full circle, we found ourselves at the small staircase leading up to the main level. You can tell that you have reached it by the huge collection of shoes on the ground. Yes, you must take off your shoes before going up.
|Cultural performance by the stairs leading up to the main level.|
The Main Level is the place to beWhile the crowd on the lower level was relatively sparse, the main level is where most of the action is. Devotees and tourists were everywhere. When I saw ALL THAT GOLD, I understood why so many people put it on the "Must See" list for Chiang Mai.
|Standing Buddhas, reclining Buddhas, and gold everywhere you looked.|
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of northern Thailand's most sacred sites as well as the home for the International Buddhist Centre. Monks and lay people made a circuit around the main level, praying as they stopped at key points along the way. The tourists were clearly identifiable by either being the ones snapping photos or awkwardly attempting to imitate the actions of the devout.
|A monk blocks out distractions to offer a prayer|
|A man pours water over the chedi as a way to symbolize cleansing the spirit.|
|Pausing the monk chat to take a phone call|
|An copy of the Emerald buddha located in Bangkok adds to the splendor.|
The covered terrace around the main level has 47 wall paintings depicting the lives of Buddha as well as his past lives before attaining Nirvana. My kids liked this area the best as it was shaded and the tile here did not burn their bare feet.
The big, golden chedi in the middle is bell-shaped which is unique to Lanna style. Tall, gilded filigree umbrellas stand at each corner, and devotees walk around the chedi in prayer. This is the most important part of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep because it contains the Holy Relic of Buddha.
|The main chedi contains the Holy Relic.|
It is topped by a 5-tier umbrella in honor of Chiang Mai's independence from Burma and union with Thailand.
I paused to take in one final look at this temple that began with an elephant who went for a walk over 600 years ago. Then, we turned, quietly walked down the stairs and began to search for our shoes.
IF YOU GO:
- Allot about 1 hour to explore the wat.
- Located 16 kilometers (10 miles) from Chiang Mai up a twisty road, my family appreciated hiring an air-conditioned van from the hotel for the 30-minute drive each way. Cheaper options are tuk-tuks and songtows. Every driver should know the way.
- The tram from the parking lot to the temple complex costs 30 baht one-way and 50 baht round-trip for foreigners.
- Dress appropriately. No tank tops or short hemlines, please. Sarongs and scarves are available to rent outside the main temple complex.
- Bring socks. You must remove your shoes to enter the main temple, and the tiles get HOT in the mid-day sun.
- If traveling with kids, pair this with a visit to the Chiang Mai Zoo on the way back to the city centre.
- I recommend skipping the Hill Tribe village on Doi Suthep. It was primarily market stalls with the same souvenir products available at the Chiang Mai Night Market and a few villagers dressed in traditional clothing for photo opportunities. Baan Tong Luang north of Chiang Mai is a much better option for experiencing hill tribe culture.
- Drinks and snacks are available both down by the parking lot and within the temple complex.
- An ATM is located by the tram ticket office.
Dirty, Hungry Elephants
Visiting the Long Neck Tribe
The Ruins of Chiang Mai's Chedi Luang Temple
Longing for a Chiang Mai Wet Market
Chiang Mai Sunday Market
Linking up at the following places. Check them out for more travel inspiration.
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