Although I have been to Chiang Mai several times, each
time I go I visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Despite it being number one on
the tourist hit list for Chiang Mai, it stills beckons me as it stands
proudly from the top of the mountain, overlooking the city below. Whenever
the golden temple comes into my view as I’m walking along the streets,
I’m filled with a sense of peace and contentment, as if it’s protecting
me. It calls to me, and I go.
around the chedi, the scent of burning incense following me,
my eyes never leaving
the beautiful pagoda whose golden glow darkens to a deep copper colour in
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was established more than six
hundred years ago by King Keu Naone of Lanna, a kingdom in northern Thailand
of which Chiang Mai was the capital. The legend says that during that time,
a monk from Sukothai had a vision of a fire. When he followed the fire, he
found a bone that had come from Lord Buddha. He brought the relic to his
king, but the king soon lost interest when the bone failed to display any
magical powers. But King Keu Naone, who had heard the story, asked the monk
to bring the bone to Chiang Mai and constructed a new chedi (or pagoda) to
house it. When the time came to enshrine the relic, however, it split in
The king decreed that half of the bone should be placed
on a sacred white elephant, and the elephant should be followed. The
elephant left Chiang Mai by its northern gate (known today as Chang Puak, or
White Elephant Gate) and walked west into the mountains. The elephant
climbed up the 1676 metre Doi Suthep, or Suthep Mountain, but when it neared
the summit it trumpeted and died. On that spot in 1383 the King ordered the
temple to be built.
For more than 500 years, devout worshippers had to make
the arduous trek to the temple through the jungle to the top of the
mountain. But then in 1934, Phra Krubra Srivichai, a local monk, thought the
temple needed to be accessed more easily and organized several villages to
build a road. He asked each village to construct 10 metres, and within six
months the winding road was complete. Phra Krubra Srivichai was held in such
high regard a statue devoted to him was created at the base of the mountain,
where it still stands. It is believed to be good luck to pay homage to him
before ascending Doi Suthep.
my elbows on the railing, I look over the tops of trees to Chiang Mai below.
The sky is a clear blue with a few puffs of clouds in the distance, and with
little haze I can see for miles and miles.
The songthaew drops me off safely at the foot of the
stairs leading up to the temple, after spending many stomach-churning
minutes winding along the 13-km steep road through beautiful jungle to reach
the summit. I stare at the long staircase in front of me, which consists of
more than 200 steps, take a deep breath and begin my ascent, thinking that
this isn’t as bad as having to climb the entire mountain itself to reach
The staircase is flanked on both sides by the scaly
snake-like bodies of the nagas, whose fierce multiple heads form the
banisters’ bottoms. Thus, the nagas, who in Buddhist mythology protected
Buddha before his enlightenment by shooting down lightning bolts aimed at
him, guard the sacred temple.
After stopping halfway to catch my breath, sharing
exclamations about the strenuous climb with other tourists, I finally reach
the top and enter the temple grounds, first taking off my shoes. The temple
is breathtaking in its gold and vermilion splendour, twinkling in the
sun’s gaze against the deep blue sky.
Wiping my face with a handkerchief to catch the beads of
sweat dripping down, I enter the inner courtyard and am greeted by the sight
of the copper-plated chedi topped with a five-tiered golden umbrella,
glinting like golden fire. All around it are throngs of tourists, and I must
manoeuvre my way through to get a good view.
In front of the chedi people are praying, their eyes
closed, their hands placed together in a wai, whilst a candle, flowers and
joss sticks are pressed between their palms. After their prayers have been
said, they light the candles and place them in a rack that is dripping in
dried wax, then lay their flowers on a metal tray, and finally light their
joss sticks and position them in a sand-filled pot.
I walk around the chedi, the scent of burning incense
following me, my eyes never leaving the beautiful pagoda whose golden glow
darkens to a deep copper colour in the shadows. Behind the chedi is another
temple and I glance inside the dark room filled with Buddha effigies. As my
eyes adjust to the darkness, I see an elderly monk sitting on the floor,
murmuring and blessing an older woman seated in a lotus position in front of
him. Not wishing to disturb such a sacred moment, I quietly retire and
continue my walk.
Leaving the inner sanctuary and the chedi, I head outside
of the main temple where I had been told I would see a fantastic view of
Chiang Mai. Passing by a holy Bodhi tree, which people say had actually
grown from a clipping of the very tree under which Buddha became
enlightened, I come across two rows of large bells. A young man grabs the
gong of the first bell and gently taps the side, creating a resonating
sound. As he continues along the row, ringing each bell lightly, the sound
follows me as my eyes draw me to the bright pink bougainvilleas that reach
their limbs and paper-thin petals to the viewpoint.
Leaning my elbows on the railing, I look over the tops of
trees to Chiang Mai below. The sky is a clear blue with a few puffs of
clouds in the distance, and with little haze I can see for miles and miles.
The runway of Chiang Mai International Airport stretches out to my right,
and I watch as an incoming plane lands on the tarmac.
I gaze out to the horizon for several more minutes, feeling the
benevolent presence of the temple extending outward to those around me and
to the people of Chiang Mai below. Then the sweet scent of burning incense
tickles my nose, and turning my eyes towards the temple, I follow the smoky
trail back to the golden chedi.