Shrouded in mist, a golden temple perches atop the peak of Doi Suthep. The temple, Wat Prathet Doi Suthep is an instantly recognizable feature of Chiang Mai and a beloved symbol of what it means to be Thai. Atop the smaller of two mountain peaks that overlook the city of Chiang Mai, the temple itself is clearly visible from this city below and is a constant reminder of the Buddhist philosophy and traditions that permeate the north of Thailand. It is said that if you visit Chiang Mai without making the 12 kilometer long journey up to the temple, then you have not truly visited Chiang Mai.
Legend says that Sumanathera, a revered and learned monk from the province of Sukhothai, had a vision of a divine power in a dream. He was commanded to journey to Pang Cha and search for a relic. There, he uncovered a bone, which displayed magical powers. The bone was said to glow and had the ability to replicate itself. The bone was eventually transported by Sumanathera to Lamphun in Northern Thailand. There, the bone split into two, one piece identical in size to the original, the other, a smaller replica of the original. The smaller piece of the relic was enshrined in Wat Suandok, another highly prodigious temple situated on the slopes of Doi Suthep. The other was placed on the back of a revered white elephant which was then freed into the jungle. It is said that the elephant made its way up the mountain, and upon reaching the current location of Wat Prathet Doi Suthep, trumpeted three times and fell dead at the spot. This was taken as a sign and construction on the temple’s first Chedi began shortly thereafter.
The written history of Wat Prathet Doi Suthep begins in 1382, when construction of the first Chedi was completed. Contemporarily, Wat Prathet Doi Suthep is a highly revered holy place and tens of thousands of merit makers, undertake the 12 km journey up the mountain to offer alms and gain good merit. The final leg of the journey is a climb up more than 300 steps leading to the temple grounds. Once at the top, visitors are astounded by the massive golden Chedi as well as other symbols which illustrate Buddhist teachings and philosophy.
Because of the high level of reverence for the temple, both Doi Suthep and the slightly taller Doi Pui were granted national park status in 1981. In 1982 an additional 100 square
kilometers was added to the park, bringing the total area of protected forest up to 261 square km. The ecosystem that is contained in the park, changes drastically as one travels from the bottom to the top. At lower elevations, the park is mainly composed of deciduous forest, while upon reaching the summit of Doi Pui, Thailand’s 8thtallest mountain, a drastic change is seen and evergreen forests take precedence. The park is also home numerous unique plant and animal species, including the Giant Atlas Moth, the world’s largest moth.
The highest point of the mountain is the summit of Doi Pui which tops out at 1685 meters. Due to the elevation, the temperature at the peak is mild all year long. Even in the summer months, April to June, when the temperatures in the city soar, the summits of Doi Suthep
and Doi Pui can be relatively cool.
Wat Prathet Doi Suthep holds a special place in the hearts of Chiang Mai residents and it has a special reverence for Thai citizens from all over Thailand. It is easy to see why residents of Chiang Mai say that without seeing the view of Chiang Mai from the temple, one has not truly been to Chiang Mai.
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Text by Mark Harrison, images by Thannaree C. © Ezistock Co., Ltd., 2011
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