Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
If you are like we were, perhaps you are asking, "What's a wat?" A wat is a Buddhist temple in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. There are well over 200 wats within the old city of Chiang Mai, Thailand where we recently spent a week, and it seemed to us that there was one on every block! They are hard to resist, and we went in almost every one we passed. Some of the smaller ones are not open to the public, but we found them charming and sweet, and they were among our favorites. Although we couldn't go in, we could admire their elaborately adorned outsides and the surrounding grounds without other tourists around. A few of the large, open-to-the-public ones charge a very small admission fee, but most do not. All of them require proper dress - knees and women's shoulders should be covered, and removing shoes is a must to enter the temple. If needed, proper covering is usually available for a fee that is refunded when you return it.
We saved the best wat for last and went to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep on our next to last day in Chiang Mai. Doi Suthep as it is sometimes called, is located high above Chiang Mai on a mountain called Doi Suthep, thus the shortened name of the wat, (doi means mountain in the northern Thai language). It is considered by many to be the most sacred site in the area. When our airbnb host, Summer, heard that we had not been yet, he offered to drive us the next morning at 5:30. He insisted that we must be there for sunrise (spoiler alert: he was right!). I knew I would need to get up at 4:30 in order to be ready (I move slowly in the morning and I'm not going anywhere without coffee and makeup!), but you do what you have to do, so we agreed! It's only a little over 9 miles away, but due to the extremely curvy road up the mountain, it takes a good 30 minutes or more to get there. The most common way for tourists to go is to make their way to the north gate of the city and catch a songthaew, a red pickup truck "taxi," up the mountain. Private taxis and tours are also available. We thought it was very nice of Summer to offer to drive us, but we didn't realize how very nice it was - yet! He said that he could only stay a short time and we would need to get back on our own unless we wanted to rush through and go back with him, which he didn't recommend since he also advised us to visit Bhuping Palace while we were there. The palace is the residence used by the royal family during state visits to Chiang Mai and is located on the mountain about a ten minute drive from the wat. So, of course, we said we'd stay and get our own way back.
The drive up the mountain was pleasant with Summer explaining things to us as we went. Along the way up we stopped at a scenic overlook to see the lights of Chiang Mai below us.
Then we arrived at the foot of the stairs leading to the temple - 309 of them! It was dark when we arrived and we didn't stop to take a picture then, though I later wished we had. The one below is one we took after we came back down, and there were several people there by then. When we went up, we were almost the only people on the stairs. We were following Summer who literally ran up the steps while we were trying our best to keep up, panting heavily, and stopping to catch our breath every once in a while! A tram is available for visitors who are unable or unwilling to climb that many stairs. We're still willing and mostly able to climb stairs, so we did! Below you can see the banisters which are nagas, mystical serpents, whose five heads greet visitors at the beginning of the stairway and whose green and gold scaled bodies slither up and down all the way to the top.
Once we reached the top, slowed our heartbeats, and regained our breath, there was so much to see! Summer quickly gave us instructions on where everything is located, showed us where to leave our shoes, and took us in the temple. He told us exactly how many minutes until sunrise - 13 - and told us where to meet him for sunrise. And then he was gone. We spent some time in the temple and later realized we didn't take a single picture inside! Below is a picture we snapped before we entered the temple. As you can see, we weren't quite the only early morning visitors, but this is nothing compared to the numbers who would arrive later in the day.
Just before sunrise, we went in search of Summer and found him on a beautiful deck overlooking the city far below with a great view of the soon to rise sun. The weather was perfect and the atmosphere was one of calm and peace. If you ever meditate or would like to, this is the place to do it! Summer quickly assumed a meditation pose and quietly awaited the sun as we and the other couple of travelers who had also come to the deck stood breathing it in and soundlessly snapping pictures.
With the sun up and his mediation complete, Summer left us after again making sure we were okay with getting back on our own. We again assured him we were, told him we'd see him when we got back, and went to explore the grounds surrounding the temple. Below is a sample of what we saw.
The white elephant plays a key role in the legend of Doi Suthep. Over 600 years ago a monk had a vision of a holy relic and journeyed to the place he was shown. Once there, he found the relic he sought, a shoulder bone of Buddha. When the bone demonstrated the magical powers of glowing, disappearing, and moving, the monk took it to the king. Once there the bone showed none of its magic to the king who told the monk to keep it. Later, another king heard of the relic and sent for the monk. That king had a new temple built to enshrine the holy relic. The bone miraculously duplicated itself, and one of the bones was enshrined in Chiang Mai at Wat Suan Dok as planned. The king strapped the other bone atop a white elephant and released him. The elephant climbed to a place near the top of Doi Suthep where it stopped, trumpeted three times, laid down, and died. The king had Wat Phra That Doi Suthep built on that very spot.
Our 4:30 am cups of coffee had worn off by the time we walked all around the outside of the temple taking pictures and stopping to admire the beauty, so we found our way back to the staircase to go down those 309 steps (easier than coming up!) to the little village of shops and food booths at the base of the stairs for a bite of breakfast. More people were arriving as we were departing. As I said earlier, Summer had given us good advice about getting there in time to see the beautiful sunrise, and it gave us lots of time to look around and take pictures before the hordes of visitors overtook the mountain!