This blog is out of sequence. The visit to Doi Suthep happened on the day after my previous dentist trip to Chiang Mai as we headed back to Chiang Rai.
We spent the night in Chiang Mai on the Thursday after a long dental procedure. I knew that the excitement of two bone grafts and two implants at the dentist plus recovery Mojito cocktails afterwards would prevent a return to Chiang Rai that day.
The next day we decided to visit one of the landmark temples in Chiang Mai, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, rated 8 out of 118 attractions on Trip Advisor. Remember the meaning of Doi and Wat? This temple seems to covers it all because it’s a Wat on a Doi (on hill/mountain = Doi). If you want a temple with a view go to one that has Doi in its name.
The drive to Doi Suthep is well worth doing. It is pretty easy to find as for once there are occasional signposts pointing in roughly the right direction, certainly from the centre heading out. The road from the old town passes a fine looking arboretum, which is going to be explored on another trip and the Chiang Mai Zoo, which I believe boasts a couple of pandas.
The Doi is situated on the highest hill overlooking the city and there are several other temples, a waterfall and a couple of viewing areas on the way up. You could probably make a day of it. As you can see from the following photo taken part the way up the day was pretty cloudy and also I suspect that some of that mist is probably pollution.
The road twists and turns through mostly natural vegetation and is a very pleasant drive in itself.
I had a slight sinking feeling when we drove up to the main entrance of the Doi, which is situated at the bottom of the final climb up to the temple buildings. This is one of the few temples I have visited where you can’t drive to the entrance or sometimes even park inside the temple walls. Although we are in the low season Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet were obviously pulling the crowds – mini cabs everywhere. I have an aversion to doing the sights with lots of people like me around!
The large poster you can see is of the King. The royal family support this Wat so it is more highly regarded by Thai people as a result.
Getting up to the Wat from the road involves either climbing 300 steps like so:
Or taking the cable car like so:
It may have been the day but I have to say that in all I was disappointed with this temple. I can now rate myself a Thai temple expert having visited so many(!) and I thought the presentation and general feel to the place was very run down and unattractive. I am obviously in the minority if you have any faith in Trip Advisor ratings so there you go.
Entry to the temple will cost you if you are a foreigner.
I have formally had to pay for entry to major temples in Bangkok and Doi Inthanon (the latter covered in my blog previous to this one) but they were all very well maintained. I felt slightly resentful after visiting Doi Suthep as I don’t know where the money is going but it certainly isn’t in upkeep.
The main temple area is on two levels. The first is a wide walkway that surrounds the main temple structures, which are on the next level up. Here you can leave your shoes either on racks or there are lockers provided if you think your shoes are likely to be pinched. This level gives you the best views over Chiang Mai, or would do on a clear day.
The designers of the temple have decided to give people the opportunity to meet their Buddha earlier than planned by installing the smoothest floor tiles they could find. Walking on them in the wet needs to be a careful exercise. There are a few warning signs around, which is a worldwide phenomenon to cover bad planning.
Apart from the view there’s not much to see on this level. I did however manage to find several points of interest that have very little to do with the spiritual but made the trip worthwhile for me.
In a previous blog I wrote about visiting a temple in Chiang Mai city where they were raising money by having people donate to write their name on a roof tile. This photo may remind you:
Now I had visions of “my” tile being used to renovate some ancient temple and archaeologists in years to come pondering on the name Tony Eastmead and why he was such a great benefactor to Buddhist culture. It was then a bit of a shock to discover that maybe my tile wasn’t quite as special as I thought.
There were several piles of these tiles propped up against whatever was handy. The old umbrella was an optional extra with this pile. A great marketing idea stuffed up by the boys in logistics! To the far right of the photo you can see the balustrade which defines the edge of the first level and get an idea of the walkway structure of this area. If walking in the wet step make sure you step on the brown tiles. Nothing spiritual just that they have a rough texture so you won’t fall over! The others are out to get you.
Stepping back into Buddhist history was just around the corner. I think these pre-date Buddha himself:
Some beautiful tropical flowers in the “gnome garden” I couldn’t resist adding to the blog.
The natural beauty of these real flowers is balanced by the Thais love of plastic arrangements as shown below. You will see these quite often in people’s gardens mixed in with bushes. In a climate that supports the growing of plants of such natural colour and beauty it is all a bit strange but each to their own. On the road from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai way out in the forest there is a whole group of stalls selling nothing but plastic flowers or “flowers not really” as Gaun calls them.
The final photo along this theme, which will be added to my favourites is this one:
There is a bench right under the sign and I had visions of young Thai couples using it for passionate activities prior to the installation of the sign. Want a grope? Let’s visit the temple! There was certainly NO groping when I was there so all good. I presume the translation to “Don’t touch”, referring to the gong, got a little lost on the way through.
The final interesting photo taken on this level is of a tree where presumably after an appropriate donation you can be remembered after death in the form of a photo plaque.
OK. Back to more serious stuff. The second level is where the main temple situated and is a lot smaller than the first level. The area is centred on a golden stupa which sits in the middle of the compound:
If you want to use the stupa to ask for something or for good luck then buy yourself a flower and walk three times around the base – clockwise. The Thais get a card which must have a series of prayers on as they seem to be reading it as they go round. Us English speaking people get a card which says go round three times.
There are some temple buildings you can go into. We did this one, which was the usual mish mash of themes.
In the photo above you’ll see that Gaun is wearing longer leg and arm covering required for women visiting a temple – you won’t be allowed in otherwise. Wraps are usually available at the entrance. No such restraints for the guys but Thai males are respectful in their temple dress code so do as the locals do. A closer view of the fake wood floor covering in this photo. There was lots of building work around the temple but whether that was active or just ongoing maybes I don’t know.
Having taken the lift up to the Wat I decided that I could make it down the steps on my own steam. If you want to participate in some child exploitation then make sure you have a photo taken with the cute hill tribe kids at the bottom. They certainly have the “give me money” well sorted in English. I have written this from the incredibly fortunate position of having money, a situation where labelling and judgement of others is always easy. Still……………
I left Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, to give the Wat its full name, slightly disappointed. If your interest is in the temple structures and the “feel” of a place then I found this a let-down, particularly after its high TA rating.
As a day out package including the views over Chiang Mai, on a clear day, the range of other attractions on the way up and the drive then it is well worth doing.
Update 7 October 2014:
Thanks for reading.