Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
The one temple every first-time visitor to Chiang Mai absolutely, positively must visit is the mountain-top Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. On the west side of the broad Chiang Mai-Ping River valley rises a mountain range, and the major peak is Doi Suthep mountain.
At 1676 meters [5,500 ft] above the city, this wat is a "must see" not only for its importance as a pilgrimage temple, but also for the outstanding views it affords of the city and the surrounding plain below.
The temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is certainly one of the most important temples in Chiang Mai, as well as one of the most revered among all Thais. The temple is a major pilgrimage destination during the important Buddhist holidays of Makha Buja and Visak. Its importance, as well as its location, owes much to the legend of its founding.
According to a 14th century legend, a Buddha relic, which some say glowed, magically replicated itself just before it was about to be enshrined in the big chedi [stupa] at Wat Suan Dok located in the ancient city. The "cloned" relic was placed on the back of a sacred white elephant, which was allowed to roam where-ever it wanted.
The elephant eventually climbed to the top of Doi Suthep Mountain, trumpeted three times, turned around three times, knelt down and died. This was taken as a sign that this was the spot where the relic wanted to be, so King Ku Na built the original wat and chedi on Doi Suthep.
The temple has grown and changed in the 600 years since its founding. In particular, it was extensively renovated during the economic "boom" years of the early 1990's. From our admittedly western viewpoint, a lot of the charm has been lost as everything was covered in granite and gold. However, the temple remains an important sight that first-time visitors to Chiang Mai shouldn't miss.
The chedi sits in a rather small courtyard at the very peak of the mountain. The courtyard building sits on a larger plaza containing several buildings as well as a lookout point from which you can see all of Chiang Mai and the surrounding plain.
Among the buildings on the plaza is a small museum displaying old pieces of temple wares as well as some of the more ancient or unique monetary donations to the temple. Note that before entering the courtyard containing the chedi, you must remove your shoes, but this is true of all temples in Thailand. You must also be dressed appropriately, although the temple can provide some clothing on loan to cover up your naughty knees and slinky shoulders.
Now for the bad news: To reach the temple itself requires a climb up a Naga flanked staircase of 309 steps. For the faint of heart if it is a warm day, there's also a funicular cable-car to the top which has just been re-built. The fare for the new improved funicular is 50 Baht for the round trip ride.
At the base of stairs, where the parking lot is located, there is a large market of food stalls, jade factories and endless souvenir merchants.