By Benjamin Malcolm
There are plenty of legends surrounding the mountaintop temple of
Doi Suthep. Stories from long ago tell tales of a wandering 14th-Century
monk and a dying elephant, a hermit and of villagers coming together
to build a road to a holy shrine. Combined with the physical aura
of the place, these stories weave a magic concoction for northern-bound
Rising 1676 metres above the city of Chiang
Mai, Doi Suthep is one of the most revered religious destinations
in Thailand and is often packed with interested onlookers, especially
when the weather is cooler and the days crisp and clear.
But first a legend. A 14th-Century monk from Sukhothai had a vision
one day - he saw a fire and when he followed it, he found a relic
(apparently a bone) from the Buddha himself. He took the relic to
his king, but it failed to reproduce its magical powers and the
king lost interest.
However, King Keu Naone of the Lanna Kingdom heard of the monk and
invited him north to Chiang Mai and offered to enshrine the relic.
The building was completed and preparations were made to house the
relic. When the time came to do this, the relic broke in two, leading
the king to make a new plan.
At the northern gate of the city, now known as Chang Puak (white
elephant gate), he placed half of the relic on the back of a sacred
white elephant and sent it off into the wilderness.
The elephant headed due west, climbed slowly up the slopes of Doi
Suthep, trumpeted a last call and then dropped dead.
On that spot, legend goes, the temple was built in 1383. Doi Suthep
is actually named for a legendary hermit, named Sudeva, who lived
on the slopes. Before this, about 1,000 years ago, it was still
known as Doi Aoy Chang (Sugarcane Elephant Mountain).
It is easy enough to get to Doi Suthep. Public transportation may
be used to travel the road 16 kilometres northwest out of Chiang
Mai, past Chiang Mai University and ascend the winding road up the
mountain to the base of the temple.
There are two choices once you have reached the base of the temple
- either hike up the 300 steps to the temple gate (admiring the
longest Naga staircase in Thailand on the way) or, hop on one of
the cable cars and get conveyed to the top. Most opt for the walk.
Once inside Wat Suthep, you are free to wander the grounds, admiring
what each section has to offer. Like many temples in Thailand,
there are elements of Hinduism mixed in with Buddhism and an intriguing
array of statues, including the god Ganesh, peek out from corners,
cubby holes and from the sides of temple buildings.
Metal bells, double-stacked, line a couple of walls and are kept
busy throughout the day. Signs above the bells admonish visitors
not to push the bell.
The lookout area is the other side from the entrance gate and viewers
can gaze down at the city of Chiang Mai and its international airport
far below. From here, you have a clear view of the winding Ping
River and the surrounding mountains.
In the middle of the temple is the sacred square cloister area,
where, upon shedding shoes and ascending another dozen steps, visitors
can see the Lanna-style, copper-plated chedi topped by a five-tiered
gold umbrella. It is considered one of the holiest areas in Thailand.
Monks inside are kept busy blessing the devout with holy water and
the smell of incense and burning candles fill the senses as you
circumnavigate the cloister.
Another more recent legend about Doi Suthep concerns a monk in
the 1930s. In 1934, there was still no road leading up the
mountain and the faithful had to make the arduous climb in order
to visit the temple. Pra Krubra Srivichai, a local monk, thought
that the temple needed better access and organized the local villages
in order to build a road.
He asked each village to construct 10 metres and with this plan
in hand, the locals finished the job in just six months. A recent
expansion of the road covered over plaques honouring each village,
but a statue honouring Srivichai still remains, at the base of the
mountain. It is believed to be good luck to pay homage to him before
ascending Doi Suthep.
Many who visit dont realize that Doi Suthep is actually one
part of the larger Doi Suthep National Park. The National Park encompasses
261 square kilometres. Evergreen hills, mixed deciduous and pine
forest are all represented at the park and there are over 300 bird
species and nearly 2000 species of fern and flowering plants that
thrive there. During the late day and early morning, the bird species
are much in evidence, flitting around the periphery of the temple.
Phra Tamnak Phu Phing, the vacation palace for the royal family,
is also in the immediate area and is often included in tours to
Doi Suthep, along with a visit to a local Hmong hill-tribe village.
Thanks to the industriousness of Srivichai, it is now easy to pay
a visit to Doi Suthep, although the old hiking trail does still
exist for those yearning for a more difficult challenge. Either
way, the beauty, the holiness and the legends of Doi Suthep wait
to be explored.