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To Wat Phra That Doi Suthep on 115cc of bike

Thai Tour: Day 2

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Young monks heading down from Doi Suthep for their morning alms collection

Related Posts: For more on Chiang Mai’s Temples, see my post Ten of the Best: Chiang Mai Temples.

Morning alms

A 05:30 wake-up and still I hadn’t beat the sunrise. It was already light outside. Lighter than I’d thought it would be. Lighter than I’d hoped. If we were operating on monk time, it was already alms-giving hour, and those quiet lines of orange-robed novices would be filing out onto the city streets ready to receive their offerings. I didn’t want to miss it.

I was heading to Doi Suthep – the main mountain overlooking Chiang Mai and the site of one of the city’s most renowned temples, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. According to legend, the temple was founded around 1383, after the same elephant that left Wat Suan Dok carrying the miracle replica of a recently arrived Buddhist relic, dropped dead after its walk up the mountain. On that spot, it is said, construction was begun on the temple’s main chedi – a 52 foot-tall golden pagoda, built to house the relic.

It was around 06:15 when I reached the foot of the mountain. The monks, as expected, were already well on their way to collecting their daily alms from kneeling locals and the few out-of-place-looking tourists doing their best to make their one-time-only- piety look sincere. It was a ritual that took place every day, as it had done, in a similar form, for hundreds of years: the young monks would make their way down the final slope of the mountain in groups of three or four, cradling their silver alms bowls in front of them, before blessing those gathered below, filling their bowls, and making their way back up the hill when they were done.

The cyclists too were already milling round at the bottom. Dressed in their lycra, their £2000 racing bikes ready to make their own personal Tour de Chiang Mai dreams come true (in their heads), they were preparing for their Saturday morning assault on the mountain – a 15km uphill drag from city to temple; not a short ride by any means, and certainly not the short hop into the hills that it seemed from city-level the day before, gauging the distance from the grounds of Wat Suan Dok.

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Monks circle the golden pagoda before the tourists arrive

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… as rows of green Buddha statues keep an eye on proceedings

Hike or bike?

My original plan was to park the bike near to the Kruba Sivichai Monument a little way up from the main road and have what I imagined would be a leisurely half-hour hike up the hill. The “12km to temple” sign some fifty metres further up put paid to that idea. Bikes and taxis had begun to sneak by as I tootled round the car park by the monument, suggesting a pretty good reason why nobody – not even the monks – were walking up. I realised I was looking at a 40 minute haul to the top, hoping the 115cc of my little red devil could cope with the ascent.

And cope it did, rather admirably in fact, arriving a respectable number of minutes before the first of the cyclists came gasping their way into view. The place had only barely woken up itself. The few souvenir sellers that had got round to opening were making a half-arsed effort to sell me yesterday’s reheated chicken on-a-stick as a tasty and nutritious breakfast, while I made my way through the bazaar towards the start of the climb to the top. 306 steps later, having climbed the Naga Staircase, I was taking off my shoes and entering the temple.

It wasn’t my favourite Chiang Mai temple. I expected more given the esteem in which it is held and the journey to get there. I expected monks and incense and chanting. I got tourists and souvenir stalls. Those alms-collecting monks of earlier in the morning hadn’t, as I imagined, returned to their cloud-shrouded retreat to spend the day in meditation. Instead, they’d most likely walked the short way back up to the car park where I’d briefly stopped to contemplate the possibility of hiking up, and returned to one of the couple of forest-hidden temples there.

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A plane takes off from Chiang Mai airport, seen from the half-way viewing point

A unique setting

Still, it is certainly unique in its mountain setting, and the temple itself, though smaller than some of the others in town, is of a markedly different style than those found elsewhere in Chiang Mai. The focus of Wat Doi Suthep is very much on the large golden pagoda in the centre rather than the main prayer hall, while around it, rows of Buddha statues stare serenely at the camera-toters and incense-wafters invading their quiet contemplation.

Like the cyclists still heading up as I made my way back down, I found my visit to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep to be more about the journey than the temple when you get there. From the view points on the way up, watching the planes take off over the city, to the waterfalls and villages, the mountain is an attraction worth a half-day’s ride in its own right. There’s even a royal palace and a campsite up towards the summit should you still be wanting of more exploration when your temple duties are done.

There was still plenty more to see by the time it was time to go. The ride up the remaining 10km of the mountain in search of the summit met a dead-end around the campsite. Heading down, the challenge was to see how far I could freewheel before I had to give it some gas. I managed just over 4km between Bhubing Palace and the Wat Doi Suthep car park before I was thwarted by traffic. It was only a little after midday. The afternoon lay ahead of me. What to do?

Related Posts: Click tag: Thai Tour for more from my Thai Diaries.

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27 km to Chiang Mai from the summit

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