Who would have thought a dying elephant with a bone tied to its tail could inspire the construction of Chiang Mai’s best and popular temple?!
I had just eaten breakfast at my hostel, which is unusual for me as I usually leave in the mornings with nothing more than a bottle of water. Mid-morning, I hailed a songtheaw to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep to check out what I consider to be the Thai comparison to Myanmar’s Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon – and I don’t just mean in terms of the golden colours!
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (or the temple with the long name, as I like to call it) is the main temple in Chiang Mai and a sure inclusion among all backpackers’ itineraries when in the area. Doi Suthep (as the temple is also known as) is a Theravada Buddhist temple and is named this way because it sits on a mountain of the same name. The views as I ascended the 309 steps to the top were incredible! Incidentally, you can get a tram up to the top if you aren’t too mobile, but this will cost you 50 Baht, whereas entrance to the temple if you are walking up is totally free! It pays to be fit in Thailand, it seems!
When you have made the climb from the bottom all the way up the mountain, you are rewarded not only with amazing panoramic views, but also some incredible Buddhist decoration on the prayer halls scattered around the temple grounds. It is said Doi Suthep was created in 1383 when the first chedi was erected here. The history of the temple is really enchanting – albeit steeped in typical Thai romanticism. The story goes that a monk had a dream in which he was instructed to find a relic. He eventually found a bone in the long grass at Pang Cha (which was believed to be a shoulder bone of Buddha). This bone could do all kinds of magical things, such as glow in the dark and make itself invisible. Anyway, to cut a long story short, part of this bone was tied to the tail of an elephant, who then made its way up the Doi Suthep Mountain, trumpeted 3 times, then died. This was seen as a sign by the then ruler of the Lanna Kingdom who ordered chedi to be built here. Nearly 750 years later, the site remains one of Thailand’s top tourist attractions.
There are plentiful golden statues of Hindu Gods and Goddesses dotted around the main site of the Doi Suthep temple, and the original chedi is still standing for all to see, although it was under reconstruction when I was there. Shoes must be removed before you enter the temple, although of course you can use your footwear to climb the many steps to the temple itself!