Thursday, April 10, 2014

Chiang Mai's Golden Temple on the Hill

Wat Phra That is the crown jewel of Chiang Mai's temples. Perched high above the city on the summit of Doi Suthep mountain, most tourists refer to is as "Wat Doi Suthep." Its signature golden spire and filigree umbrellas glitter in the sunlight, and the surrounding temple complex is filled with gorgeous, intricate Lanna art and architecture.

Chiang Mai, Golden temple

How it all began

Legend 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.

Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep, white elephant, temple, Chiang Mai
Mural in the museum depicting the story of how Wat Phra That Doi Suthep began

Keeping the Kids Happy

Since 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 bribed cooled down the kids with ice cream bars from the snack store at the top (just past the white elephant statue). Once we were rested and fed, off we went to explore the complex.

Strolling around the Lower Level

We 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.

Chiang Mai, temple, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep
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.

Chiang Mai, temple
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.

Chiang Mai, Wat Phrat That Doi Suthep, temple
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.

Chiang Mai, temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Cultural performance by the stairs leading up to the main level.

The Main Level is the place to be

While 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.

Chiang Mai, temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
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.

Chiang Mai, temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
A monk blocks out distractions to offer a prayer

Chiang Mai, temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
A man pours water over the chedi as a way to symbolize cleansing the spirit.

Chiang Mai, temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Pausing the monk chat to take a phone call

Chiang Mai, temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
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.


  • 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.
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  1. ALL THAT GOLD ... thankfully the place has remained intact to date!

  2. I've enjoyed going on another thorough tour of Thailand's monuments with you; thanks!

  3. I think I'd need to be bribed with ice cream and cool cloths owing to the heat at well. Your kids are troopers - though I must say it looks like a very beautiful temple.

  4. What an amazing sight it must be to see all that gold glittering in the sunlight. Apparently it doesn't have to be polished or it would be an on going job. Now that was a dedicated elephant to pick the most difficult place to go and give it's life.

  5. That looks very interesting. I wonder what it takes to get lucky with the bells - and how many times they get rung? They look appeeling :) Feel sorry for the kids not being able to have a go. Is the gold solid gold? I think we would tram it up, especially in the heat.

  6. What a beautiful temple. All that gold
    Thank goodness for the tram, eh? At 306 steps, I'd be taking a lot of meditation breaks.
    Good point on the dress requirement.

  7. While off the topic of temples, your mention of the sacred white elephant brought back memories of our beloved cat, Thai, a gifted 'child' we adopted from the Humane Society and who livened our days for some 18 years. He was white and we'd just returned from Thailand and he was such a precious boy, we decided to call him Thai for those sacred white elephants there (he was a bit of an elephant for a cat as well).

    1. Thai sounds like a great cat. Thanks for sharing your story.

  8. It's been too, too long since I've been in Thailand. Love all these golden structures - and the stories!

  9. I have wanted to go to Chiang Mai for awhile now just to gawk at all the gold on this temple complex. It looks stunning! It looks a bit blinding with all that sun shining on it. Ha, I like those Mom monsters too. I can just imagine the disappointment and hand twitches in every kid reading that no ringing sign on the bells. What a great and interesting beginning for this temple.

  10. Wow, so many golden blings! I had to wear shades just to look at your photos. What an amazing temple, truly worthy to be on the must-list list. This is the first I heard about Lanna. It certainly is a fascinating kingdom with incredible architecture and arts. It would drive me crazy seeing those bells and not be able to hit them and hear their chimes.

  11. Very interesting. I like how you take your kids to all these sites. It is very educational for them....Christine

  12. I've been here twice, and for some reason have never written a post. (Bad Blogger, I am) :). I didn't realize that there was a tram. Both times I was let off by the steps, and trekked up. Thanks for linking to Travel Photo Thursday this week.

  13. It looks beautiful - I love all the intricate details, and the legend about the white elephant. It must have been really hard not to ring the bells, though!

  14. It looks like a sunny and very crowded place! I have visited on the rainy and very mist day, no people, it was quiet surreal...

  15. I just recently planned a trip to Thailand for some clients which made me want to visit this area....your pics just added to that interest :)

  16. Seems a bit unfair if you're not allowed to ring the bells that bring good luck! Looks stunning though, love the Emerald Buddah :)

  17. Okay, so I wanna go on holidays with you so I too can be cooled off with ice cream. So lovely to see the place intact with all of that GOLD!! Fab to have you with us for #SundayTraveler :)

  18. I really like the 'Mom' dragon. :)

  19. These are gorgeous photos! And great tips to keep the kids happy... I think I would "meditate" often on all those steps.

  20. Unfortunately we missed this temple on our visit to Chiang Mai. Too bad... We were there for such a short time only - to do a hike and experience a private pool villa at the Four Seasons. Great post - you make us want to return and spend a little more time getting to know Chiang Mai...

  21. Wow, that's really a lot of gold! Imagined the tourists trying to act like they know the actions of the devout, and that made me laugh. I always do that at church weddings here in Croatia. And you can just tell I have no clue no matter how hard I try :)

  22. It seems I just keep reading posts about Chaing Mai. Now I really want to to go. Your photos are some of the best I have seen, so bright and cheerful. Thanks.

  23. Love Chiang Mai and the lychees in particular :)

  24. Wow, all that golden splendor! I hope to be able to make it to Thailand one day with my family... thank you for this mini tour :)

  25. So much gold! It looks beautiful, sparkling in the sunlight. I really would love to go to Chiang Mai someday.

  26. I LOVE all the gold! We didn't make it to this one when we were in Thailand, but definitely saw a lot of temples! It was VERY hot, so I would carry those light linen pants that they sell at stands and change right before going in.

  27. Gorgeous photos! It's incredible the amount of detail that is in all the temples. I wonder how the monks feel about all the tourists. It must be strange for them to see so many people flock to see the temples. Walking around in bare feet on the hot tiles doesn't sound fun. Thanks for linking up to #SundayTraveler again!

  28. Ohh definitely keeping this for November! Great photos and this temple looks amazing! Thanks for linking up to the #SundayTraveler! See you next week :)

  29. Great post, all the details we need and so very helpful for families.

  30. Did my comment get lost? Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this, such practical info for families - terrific!

  31. Looks gorgeous ~ though so much gold!!

  32. Just a Thai passerby.

    Too bad you cannot see CM in panorama view. be our guest again and try it again nex time. May be this winter, OK? :)

    There's a symbolic about "MOM" which is quite meaningful no matter what religion you belive. Acording to the legend, Mom is a powerful creature, so powerful than any creature including human, yet Mom is arogant because of his power. He don't know about humility, so he cannot reach nirvana. That's why Lanna artists ususally crave Mom at the front of the Viharn of a temple to warn people that no matter how smart, clever, powerful, etc. you are, you cannot reach happiness if you're egonistic. The highest you can reach is just at the entrance of the door to nirvana (heaven, hapiness. Whatever you symbolize Viharn to be). You cannot reach inside because of your own arrogant.

    Also there is a tradition by Chiang Mai University students, esp. freshmen, and CM residents. We would walk approximately 14 kms once a year to worship Wat Pratat Doi Suthep. For CMU students they would do it in July. Here's the clip of last year's trekking.


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