Temples of Chiang Mai: Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

The sun had not yet begun to rise over the city of Chiang Mai, but it almost didn't have to. As we stumbled through the dark at 5 A.M. and collapsed onto the bus that would take us to the Royal Temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai lit up the sleeping valley, shining like a sea of stars pushing against the above darkness from below.

We were a group of heavy eyes and light hearts, moving quickly through the city and onto the winding mountain road of Doi Suthep National Park. The voice of Boon, our tour guide, faded into the hum of our tires on pavement. Against the view of Chiang Mai from above, stretching for miles in every direction, it was hard to focus on anything else.

THE ROAD TO DOI SUTHEP

Built in 1935 by 5000 volunteers in less than six months (did I mention the volunteers used their own hand tools), even being on the road to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep felt profound.

Below, on the valley floor, the city had just begun to buzz to life, but up here, halfway to the sky, we were alone, riding quietly up the backbone of a mountain that has been a sacred site in the minds of millions of people for thousands of years.

Hundreds of years before the founding of Chiang Mai and hundreds of years before the King of Thailand would know that a relic of the Buddha would one day fall into his hands, Doi Suthep was already revered, regarded by the indigenous people to be the sacred spirit of their ancestors.

Days before, while meditating in the courtyard of Wat Chiang Man, I had sat in silence wondering if there were still places unknown and myths left to be tested. I wanted to know what Chiang Mai would have looked like in the past, and I wanted to experience what it would have been like to discover a lost adventure, but I knew that I was only dreaming.

Lost adventures were something of the past.

Photo by Heather Marie

But as our bus moved closer to The Royal Temple of Doi Suthep, it was hard not to imagine that I had found that lost adventure, trekking into the jungle to test the legends that surrounded this mysterious place - legends of great, white elephants, magical relics, and a temple built on the highest peak closest to Chiang Mai.

THE LEGEND OF DOI SUTHEP

There are many legends recorded about the founding of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, some of which I did not hear until after we had watched the sunrise over Chiang Mai, passed through the temple grounds, and again stood at the base of Doi Suthep, but my favorite story goes like this:

Sometime around 1360, a monk named Sumanathera from the Sukhothai kingdom had a vision of himself looking for a relic of the Buddha in a town called Pang Cha. After awakening from the vision, Sumanathera said, “Hey, why not?” and he traveled to Pang Cha, where he soon found a bone that he claimed had magical powers. The bone could glow, it could duplicate itself, and it could vanish at will. Upon hearing about this magical bone that the great, learned monk Sumanathera had found, King Nu Naone of Lan Na (modern-day Thailand) asked the monk to bring it to him. Of course, Sumanathera had to accept the king’s offer, and once he arrived in Lan Na, both of them said, “Let’s put this bone in a jar on the back of an elephant and see what happens.” The King then placed the relic in a jar on the back of a white elephant and released the elephant into the jungle. Trusting that the relic would guide the way, they followed the white elephant up Doi Suthep Mountain, where he stopped circled the area where Wat Phra That Doi Suthep now stands, trumpeted three times, and then dropped dead on the spot where Doi Suthep's Chedi now stands.

To this day, 700 years later, after following the tails of Naga up the stairs of Doi Suthep, a statue of the elephant is the first monument to be seen in the temple.

A temple dog lounging in front of the five-headed Naga that guard the stairs of Doi Suthep.  Photo by Heather Marie

A temple dog lounging in front of the five-headed Naga that guard the stairs of Doi Suthep.

Photo by Heather Marie

WAT PHRA THAT DOI SUTHEP (วัดพระธาตุดอยสุเทพ)

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is known by the locals as the spirit world. Two, five-headed Nagas rest at the base of the 309 stairs that lead up into the temple, and they represent the separation between the valley below and the holy sanctuary that lives above.

When entering into the temple, the Nagas consume the mortal flesh at the bottom of the stairway and leave the spirit to follow their tails up into the spirit world - into the place where the Buddha resides.

Days earlier, while strolling through the back alleys of Chiang Mai at night, I had seen a light in the sky, floating high in the mountains like grouped starlight. At the time, I had dismissed the lights, joking that they were a magical city that was floating in the sky yet knowing, more likely, that the lights were probably just a town in the mountains, shrouded by night.

Now, I know that my first impression was closer to the truth.

The temple in the sky

3000 feet above the city of Chiang Mai, in the face of the sunrise, time had disappeared. A haze hung over the valley with the morning dew, and I watched in reverence as beams of light rose over the distant mountains and were swallowed by the haze, softening the sun and creating a vermilion ball of fire that would pull my eyes toward it until I stopped, looked around, and realized everyone else had moved on.

Looking down on city streets that I had stood upon nights before looking up, I knew that now I must be floating with the Temple in the Sky.

THE RELIC OF BUDDHA

2562 years ago, Siddhartha Gautama (who would later be known as the Buddha) sat underneath a Bodhi tree, trying to understand why there was suffering in the world. Hundreds of years before either Mohammed or Jesus, Siddhartha Gautama sat in meditation, controlling his Mal - or bad - desires. He needed to know, as all of us one day must, what the meaning of life is to creatures who have had no choice but to exist - thrust into a world of love, longing, suffering, and loss, and told that we must find a place in it all.

Told that we must spend our lives trying on molds, hoping to one day find one that fits.

What he found through meditation were three non-negotiable truths: Beauty will fade. The impermanence of life brings suffering. And all creatures are born and must die.

Over seven hundred years ago, after the legend of the white elephant chose this place, the relic of Buddha was buried at the peak of Doi Suthep, seven feet down, cast over by a Chedi made of thick bronze, and then covered by real gold that has to be cleaned every seven years.

Surrounding the relic, Jade, Quartz, Marble, Emerald, and Gold all stand unguarded - guarded rather by the instruction of the Buddha himself that nothing means anything and all are welcome, no matter status, size, sex, beauty, or intent. If someone were to see the gold and donated money and decide to take them, the Buddhists know that those filled with evil will have their just reward in the next life.

In the West, we would say it like this, “What goes around, comes around.”

But in my mind, after seeing the fine jewels and gold and carefully crafted sculptures from all over Thailand, the most valuable treasure that the temple held was not beautiful inanimate objects, but a living thing.

Below the relic of the Buddha, down a flight of stairs and surrounded by statues of the Holy Follower watching with empty, meditative, man-made eyes, rests the Bodhi Tree.

A representation of Siddhartha gaining enlightenment underneath the Bodhi tree.

Photo by Heather Marie

THE BODHI TREE

Mangled limbs stretched over the courtyard of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Wooden fingers reached down from those limbs and planted themselves deeply into the vibrant earth, making the trunk of this ancient creature impossibly large and intimidating. Gold and bronze replicas of Siddhartha sat underneath the tree, cradled by the many strong arms that reached from the tree’s stone-like core.

Even before hearing that this tree was directly related to THE tree, I was drawn to it. I could feel myself being consumed by the earth around its roots, unable to move.

Despite the beauty that surrounded me in Chiang Mai and in every temple of Thailand, no experience was as powerful as standing under a tree that was a direct descendant of THE Bodhi tree, where a man once rested with intention, attained enlightenment, and developed a type of thinking that would change the face of the world.

In every branch, in every leaf, in every movement of the wind through its boughs, I felt like a child, rooted to the earth, understanding for the first time that the world is bigger than any understanding.

The tree was alive, and the temple came alive with it. Even as we stood on top of the Naga stairway, getting ready to leave the spirit world behind and descend back into the physical world of Chiang Mai, I knew that I had become different because of it.

I left a piece of myself at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

IF YOU GO

A monk worshiping in the inner sanctum of Doi Suthep.  Photo by Heather Marie

A monk worshiping in the inner sanctum of Doi Suthep.

Photo by Heather Marie

It is no secret that Doi Suthep is one of the most beautiful temples in Chiang Mai. While I think one could easily spend the entire day on Doi Suthep mountain visiting the Royal Palace, Doi Suthep National Park, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, and the local tribes that call the mountain home, for the actual temple tour there are a few secrets that could either make or break your trip to Doi Suthep.

During my time in Thailand, the secret to visiting temples and not being overrun by the crowd seemed to be all about timing. For Doi Suthep, I strongly recommend signing up for a sunrise tour or renting a motorbike and riding up the mountain before the sun comes up.

We left Chiang Mai at 5 A.M., and by the time we got to Doi Suthep, there were only a handful of others sharing the space with us. We spent about two hours on the temple grounds, talking to monks and slowly working our way through Doi Suthep with our incredible tour guide. By the time we were gathering to leave, hundreds of buses and taxis had begun to arrive, and I can't imagine what the experience would have been like if we had to share the space with hundreds of people.

tips

DO find a way to get to Doi Suthep to watch the sunrise. There is no shortage of places on every street corner and in every guesthouse that will gladly help you sign up for a sunrise tour.

DON'T wear clothing that would be deemed disrespectful. Wear clothing that covers both your knees and your shoulders. Remember that Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is not a tourist attraction. It is the Royal Temple of the Chiang Mai region, in a place where 94% of the population is Buddhist. The temple stewards will not let you up to see the relic chamber without proper clothing, so don’t read the rules and think that they do not apply to you. It would be a shame to trek the entire way to Doi Suthep and not be able to see some of its most beautiful monuments because of a lack of long pants.

DO ask about the picture of the chicken that hangs proudly facing the seven postures of Buddha around the relic Chedi. It was one of my favorite stories that I heard about the temple.

DON'T be loud. There are many monks who make the trek to Doi Suthep daily, and many people visit Doi Suthep to worship, not just to take pictures.

Nathan Standridge is a traveling writer based out of Asheville, NC. He’s been seen trekking through San Franciscan streets at 4 A.M., drinking whiskey during a tornado in the Ozarks, and buying wine after hours in Florence, Italy. His book Change was published in 2016, and he is currently working on a new novel.