Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is an absolute must to visit, and whilst you are winding your way toward the top of the 5,300 foot mountain, give a thought or two to the monk and his volunteer helpers who, in the 1930s, constructed the first proper road up to this holiest of temples. You’ll have some spectacular views of Chiang Mai, but I’d recommend that you save those for your return journey (craning your next to look behind is not advised on these difficult roads).
The legend of Wat Phra goes something like this. In the mid 1300s some holy relics were discovered and placed in a carrier on the back of a white elephant. The elephant was then allowed to wander freely, but, for some reason, it took on the toughest climb in the vicinity, and then collapsing, utterly exhausted, at the site of the temple. Its death at this place prompted the building of a holy place. Some of the buildings on this site date back to the early 16th century. Extensions and restorative work over the years has resulted in the magnificent group of buildings that you see today.
From the car park to the temple you’ll have to walk up a flight of 290 steps bordered by a banister carved with the Naga, a mythological gigantic snake. Buddhist legend says that they possess immense intelligence and magical powers and can transform themselves into humans to walk unnoticed in the world of men.
The temple itself is beautiful-well worth the walk up the steps. As you enter, you need to be a wee bit careful, as the highly polished tiled marble floor is a little slippery underfoot. It’s not overly patterned, but is extremely attractive in its geometric design. On this large "patio" are several trees-indeed the plant life in this temple is worth studying. The vibrant flowers and the variety of leaf hues complement the rich colours of the buildings. A gold leaf on the temple reflects the clear blue skies and glistens brightly in the sunshine. It truly is a colourful experience up here on Doi Suthep. And then we see the tangible confirmation of the White Elephant story. The monument established in its memory stands serenely in the shade, and the red adornments present a very powerful image.
As you would expect, the temple has a large variety of Buddha’s, some surrounded in incredibly gaudy mosaics. In the very centre of the temple complex, in the middle of an enclosed courtyard, is a massive bell-like construction, the Chedi, which is beautifully decorated, as befitting its status as a holy place.
There are some fantastic buildings in this complex that are decorated with rich colours and filled with religious symbolism in the wall paintings and engravings, and I just love to see the row of bells lining up outside of the houses of prayer. I find them strangely evocative of a bygone age-an age that is still an actual reality in this peaceful environment.