Chasing the Sunrise at Doi Suthep

If you are visiting Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, you will very likely find yourself taking a trip up to Doi Suthep.  Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the temple on the mountain, is about a 35-minute ride from the middle of Chiang Mai, making it easily accessible for those staying in the city. This mountain is part of the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park.

I had heard that it’s a busy spot in the afternoons, so I convinced Angela to get up at the crack (just after 5 am, which turned out to be a tad late for the sunrise) and truck up there with me. We bounded dragged ourselves out of bed, threw our backpacks on, and hit the street looking for a songthaew (red trucks that act as taxis in CM).

I was worried we wouldn’t find one that early, but we were lucky and one rolled up before long. After negotiating a price we jumped in the back of the truck and enjoyed the ride. That early in the morning there wasn’t much traffic, so we whipped through the city, the air whooshing through the back, keeping us cool on what was already a hot and humid day. Once you start to climb, the road twists and turns but it wasn’t unpleasant. It was a Saturday, so there were plenty of cyclists out, challenging themselves to climb the big hill.

Once we hit the top, our driver dropped us at the gates. We looked up. Greeted by ornate gates and a couple of serene Buddhas, it’s an impressive entrance. The setting is lush, green, and provides a perfect backdrop for Buddhas to be placed in nature.

There are a lot of steps to climb if you want to enjoy this temple and all it’s shiny goodness. 306, to be precise, so once you pass the first couple Buddhas, start stretching and mentally preparing for the climb.

It doesn’t look that bad at first, but in the tropical heat these stairs can take their toll. Angela and I were the only ones there this early in the morning, so I was happy that other travelers didn’t go blazing past me on my way up, making me feel shame. Instead, I felt like a champ when I reached the top, convinced that I had achieved a Rocky-esque level of peak fitness. For buddhists, climbing these stairs is a way of making merit.

At the top you pay a small fee if you’re a foreigner (50 baht), and then you are free to roam the grounds. Before being admitted to the main inner temple area, there is a beautiful tiled terrace sporting breadfruit trees, monuments, buddhas, and sweeping vistas of the town below.

As you can tell, we missed the sunrise by a bit, but we didn’t mind at all. Except for a few Aussies and a couple of Japanese tourists, we had the place to ourselves. It was pure magic; getting there early in the morning before the tour buses arrive is clearly the way to go.

We made our way into the center temple area and enjoyed taking in the bright gold chedi that serves as the centerpiece. It’s absolutely beautiful.

Walking around the main chedi, we enjoyed the early morning air and the relative seclusion. There were just a few monks and a couple of locals who had come to pay their respects inside the inner temple area.

We heard a bit of a commotion outside of the main temple area, so we made our way outside, where a crowd had gathered to watch the monks as they began chanting. It was mesmerizing; I didn’t take a photo as I was wrapped up in the ceremony, but it was a very nice moment that added to our visit. If you are able to visit in the early morning or at sunrise (when the monks also chant), it’s something worth experiencing.

Our visit over, we began the climb down the 306 steps, noticing the growing crowds on their way up. If you are looking for solitude at Doi Suthep, you will find it until about 8:30 am, but not much later.

The flower sellers and vendors were now out in force, ready to take on a new day’s horde of tourists.

When we had arrived a couple hour earlier, ours was the only songthaew in the area. By 8:30 they were streaming in, one after the other. One of things I loved about this temple was the serenity, the early morning calm that was punctuated by ringing bells and chanting monks; replace that with groups of tourists and no elbow space, and I think it would take away some of the magic of this place.

Overall, we loved our visit at Doi Suthep. It was definitely worthwhile getting up early to beat the crowds, and if you’re visiting Chiang Mai this is an easy excursion that should only take a few hours. There are hiking trails and waterfalls that I hear are worth exploring nearby, but we opted not to venture out beyond the temple on this trip.

Have you been to Doi Suthep? What were your impressions? If you haven’t, what are you looking forward to seeing once you do visit? Comment below – cheers!

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