Doi Suthep Trek
A half-day hill walk in Chiang Mai to a spectacular temple....
With a half-day spare in Chiang Mai, I hooked up with old friend Amalendu from Canberra for a hike to Chiang Mai's most popular out-of-town attraction, the golden temple at Doi Suthep.
Finding hiking trails in this area isn't straightforward - trekking is seen as a multiday affair where you are expected to take a paid guide and include elephant riding and rafting in the package. Hiking for just a day, or even less, seems to be a bit out of the ordinary. Still, I had made a recce of this one to find the trailhead, and luckily bumped into an ex-pat who had walked this trail a few times and gave me a few tips. I've included all you need to know in this article in case you are reading this with a view to doing the walk.
To get to the starting point, we jumped on our hired bikes and rode across town, dodging the tuk-tuks and taking back streets where we could, to the Suthep Road which is the main drag heading west out of the old city. A typically busy highway with roadside stalls and colourful traffic, the road soon ended at a crossroads with a narrow lane leading straight ahead up the hill. Here, on the edge of town, we were right at the foot of the mountain that dominates the skyline to the west of Chiang Mai, the forest-covered Doi Pui. Doi Suthep is the lower end of the ridge, and the temple on its top (with the amazing golden chedi pictured above) is usually reached by taxi on a winding highway with "interesting" hairpin bends. Amalendu and I were both of the opinion that the hill would only prove inspiring if climbed on foot! At the aforementioned crossroads at the end of Suthep Road we took the right turn (signposted Zoo and Nature Trail) which wound steeply up past the temple of Wat Fa Hin to the back gate of Chiang Mai Zoo. There was a guard on the gate so we decided to leave our bikes locked to the fence here under his watchful gaze. Hiking on up the steep road, we came close to the red and white radio mast that you can see from the edge of town - this is a useful landmark for finding your way to the beginning of the trail and also when choosing your route back down (as the path frequently splits). You can't miss the trail - Amalendu suggested I took a picture, as you can see, so here it is. Once on the path between these signs we stuck to the most well-worn path and soon found ourselves rapidly gaining height in the hot afternoon sun.
The only person we saw on this trail was a monk who was coming down accompanied by two dogs - one black and one white. This path leads to a temple that is unfrequented by visitors, being in the shadow (quite literally) of Doi Suthep. It was forty minutes or so of steady walking before we came to this first temple - Wat Phalad. The Wat came into view throught the trees at a spot where a stream cascades down a stony course - in the wet season this must be quite a waterfall, but for now it was just a trickle. We crossed a bridge and saw the sheltered Buddha statues in fresh robes that adorn quite a few picture postcards in Chiang Mai shops.
We caught glimpses of the monks but didn't disturb them, and carried on up the hill past their laundry-place (so many robes drying by the stream - how do they know which one is which?) coming out of the peaceful forest to the highway which carries most of Doi Suthep's visitors to the foot of the Naga staircase. Still only half way up, we looked for the continuation of the trail on the other side of the road. If you're doing this hike, be careful here, this is the only tricky part. Climbing out on to the road just above Wat Phalad, we turned left towards a bend in the highway, and found the well-hidden mud steps just about half way between the point where we joined the road and the bend. The only object that might help you spot the steps is a white square on a post (too small to see it in the photo of Amalendu below, who is just starting up the trail) and if you find concrete steps, you have gone too far up the road.
The trail became steeper and took us through some very parched forest, with views behind us over the hazy city of Chiang Mai. Finally we emerged at another bend on the highway, and carried on along the road for just a few hundred yards before the Naga steps that lead up to Doi Suthep temple itself.
On the road section we passed this shrine decorated with elephants. If you're looking for the trail down, it's just a few yards down the hill from this shrine, on a bend, and the only landmark for finding the top of the trail is a big electrical circuit box of some kind fixed to the side of one of the trees.
At the Nagas, we joined the throngs who had come up by taxi (easier, but quite nauseous as I later discovered) and climbed the three hundred steps to the temple gate.
We must have spent an hour or so here in the peaceful surroundings, just enjoying the sight of so many golden buddha statues and the views from the terrace behind the temple. It was a weekday and there were more Thai visitors than foreigners - many coming to receive a blessing from the monks or make an offering. We had to drag ourselves away, though, and tramp back down the dusty trail in the evening sunlight. Doi Suthep deserves more than an hour for a visit, but coming up by foot is so much nicer than the helter-skelter taxi ride, so if doing this hike again I'd give myself a full day. If u want to see pics of the temple, there are doubtless millions of them on the web, but like mine they probably don't do it justice, or evoke the peaceful atmosphere that makes this place so special. I later came back on the weekend, and the mood here is definitely nicer on a quiet weekday afternoon.
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