Said to be the holiest shrine in the Northern Thailand region, the Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep was founded back in 1936 in the most miraculous circumstances. Nowadays, it is seen standing grandly atop the Doi Suthep Mountain in the western outskirts of the city of Chiang Mai. Its origins are no less majestic, as the tale would have it.
According to the legend, a magical relic multiplied itself just before it was enshrined at the Wat Suan Dok in Chiang Mai. A suitable place was then needed to shelter the new relic. Being unable to decide on a specific site, the King placed the relic on the back of a white elephant as a temporary shrine. He would then wait to see where the animal would take the relic. The elephant eventually ended up walking towards the top of the Doi Suthep Mountain, trumpeted his horn three times, turned around thrice, knelt down and then eventually died. The temple was then immediately arranged to be built on the miraculously chosen site.
Under the instruction of King Kuena, construction on the temple began in 1386 and was finished within a few years time. The temple complex was then continually expanded and embellished over the centuries that followed. Construction was almost an impossible task with workers having to carry supplies and equipment up and through the thick jungle. The now known road leading to the temple was only constructed in 1935 and was a joint effort of the communities of the Chiang Mai region with each contributing a section of 1,300 feet. Visitors today are required to climb a steep flight of 300 stairs amidst green shrubbery guarded by 16th Century snake figures called Naga. Some who find it a rather tedious task can opt to climb the adjacent funicular.
The temple is actually part of the Doi Suthep National Park, which is a thickly forested area home to 330 different species of birds. The Doi Suthep Mountain rises at about 3,542 feet above sea level, providing a spectacular view of the city of Chiang Mai. Visitors will be glad to take pictures at the temple’s lower terrace, which is surrounded by large bells rung by pilgrims to bring in good luck. A statue of the legendary elephant that chose the site of the temple can be seen on the northwest corner of the terrace.
The upper terrace, on the other hand, is home to a complex full of small shrines, gold umbrellas, bells and Buddha statues all close together. Shoes must be removed before entering the sacred temple and shoulders must be covered before entering the site.
As with all similar temples, the great chedi of the Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is found at the center of the upper terrace. It is actually a 16th Century expansion of the original chedi built in the 14th Century. The dazzling gold-plated façade of the temple is modeled after the Wat Phra That Haripunjaya found in Lamphin, which was formerly the greatest temple found in Chiang Mai.
The temple is host to the region’s largest celebrations such as the Maha Puja, which is Buddha’s sermon anniversary and the Vishaka Puja, which is the birthday of Buddha. Make sure to schedule your visit to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep during these times as amazing candle processions light up the mountain to the temple.