Hiking Doi Suthep to Wat Pha Lat and Wat Phra That (Adventurer’s Style)

by | Apr 29, 2024 | 0 comments

Hiking Doi Suthep, we intended to go on a spiritual, connecting hike to a temple. We got that, plus a physically challenging adventure which led us through the Monk’s Trail to Wat Pha Lat, and onto an entirely unmarked trail to Wat Phra That.

Here to tell the tail, I’ve compiled a guide to help you hike Doi Suthep.

Physically, historically, and spiritually, this adventure is not to be missed if you’re visiting Chiang Mai. It’s a good idea to bookmark this article for when you head to the trail. 

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Hiking Doi Suthep At a glance:

How long is the hike?

Hiking the Monk’s Trail to Wat Pha Lat will take between 45 and 60 minutes; visiting Wat Pha Lat takes 45 to 60 minutes; hiking on to Wat Phra That takes between 60 and 90 minutes; Visiting Wat Phra That takes up to 2 hours. Total duration of adventure: 5 hours.

Do I have to hike to reach Wat Phra Lat?

No, you can take a cap from the city to the top of the mountain, or hike the Monk’s Trail and catch a cap at Wat Pha Lat. Alternatively, you can take a scooter all the way up.

When is the best time to visit?

I’d recommend starting the hike no later than 10am. Hiking during burning season will get you above the smog, however, you will have great views only outside of burning season.

What should I pack/wear for the hike?

2 liters of water per person, non-slippery/sturdy hiking shoes, cloths to cover shoulders and knees with, snacks, and sun protection.

Origins and Religious Significance of Doi Suthep

The most common way to start hiking Doi Suthep is by entering the Monk’s Trail. Doing so will lead you to three religiously and historically significant sites: The Monk’s Trail itself, the Jungle Temple ‘Wat Pha Lat’, and of course Wat Phra That which is one of the most significant temples for Buddhists in Northern Thailand.

The Monk’s Trail

The trail originally served Buddhist monks as a sacred pathway to Wat Pha Lat and beyond. It’s said that the Monk’s Trail symbolizes a spiritual journey towards enlightenment, offering seekers a transcendent experience amidst serene nature. The climb both of the Monk’s trail and to the Doi Suthep peak is said to help devotees accrue Buddhist merit. 

Wat Pha Lat

The significance of the temple, nestled into the mountain of Doi Suthep, dates back to the 14th century. King Kuena was transporting Buddhist relics to the top of the mountain. The white elephant carrying the relics collapsed and died on the site that is now home to Wat Pha Lat. King Kuena had the temple built in honor of his elephant passing on the site. Nowadays also known as  ‘Jungle Temple’, the temple still is an important retreat center for monks. It boasts architectural marvels, stunning views over the city, sacred relics, as well as a unique quietness. The temple invites spiritual seekers to come here in contemplation and prayer. 

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Perched majestically atop the Doi Suthep mountain range, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep’s construction is said to have begun in 1383. There are many legends surrounding the construction of the temple. Legend goes the temple was built to enshrine one of Lord Buddha’s relics, a part of Buddha’s shoulder. Accessible only via 309 steps, the temple stands as one of the most important symbols of Thai spirituality and cultural heritage. It is not uncommon for devotees to hike Doi Suthep to pray at Wat Phra That on Lord Buddha’s birthday. 

Preparation for hiking Doi Suthep

What to Bring and Suitable Gear/Wear

While the Monk’s Trail towards Wat Pha Lat is only moderately challenging, the hike from there to Wat Phra That is adventurous. Thus, some preparation is crucial to ensure a fun and safe ascend: 

  • Minimum 2 liters of water per person and some energy snacks such as bananas or nuts. 
  • Sturdy footwear, ideally hiking shoes. DO NOT wear sandals or flip-flops. Your footwear must be non-slippery.
  • Sun protection: a hat to protect yourself from a heatstroke, and 50+ sunscreen to protect your skin. 
  • Bring (or wear) clothes that cover your belly, shoulders, and knees in respect of the religious sites. You won’t be allowed into the temples otherwise.  
  • If you’re hiking Doi Suthep during the rainy season, bring a raincoat or poncho

Physical Fitness Requirements

There are two distinct parts of the hike, one leading to Wat Pha Lat, and the other continuing up to Wat Phra That. The first part is only moderately challenging and can be accomplished by any person who’s able-bodied.

However, the second part becomes quite strenuous and does require physical fitness. There is no safe way to return to basecamp once you’ve entered the second trail. The only way to go is up, which is why ensuring you’re properly equipped with water and a charged phone, and physically fit is not optional. 

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Hiking Doi Suthep: Step-by-step guide

Spark notes: 

  • Length of hike: 45 minutes to reach Wat Pha Lat, between 60 and 90 minutes to reach Wat Phra That, depending on level of fitness. 
  • The trail starts here (Google Maps) 
  • Give yourself at least 5 hours for the hike to both temples and bring a minimum of 1000 Thai Baht. 

Hiking the Monk’s Trail to Wat Pha Lat

Whether you’re by bike or hail a taxi, the Monk’s trail commences about a third of the way up Doi Suthep. This is the exact spot you’ll want to go to. Marked by large boards explaining the significance of the trail on the right, you’ll easily find the entrance which is blocked off for all vehicles. 

There are smaller temples along the trail, which are clearly marked. The main trail is marked by monk’s robes or flags, depending on the season. 

Since we went during burning season, we were wearing masks at the beginning. Once we saw the blue sky, we took them off, having climbed above the smog.

There are little passages towards a river left and right of the trail. While you shouldn’t swim in any of them, they are serene resting areas to catch your breath. 

Visiting Wat Pha Lat

After about 45 to 60 minutes, you’ll reach Wat Pha Lat, the first natural resting stop on your way up the mountain. The entrance to Wat Pha Lat is clearly marked by a bridge and sign requesting you to cover up. Unlike more popular temples, the entrance is not manned and there is no fee. 

On my two visits there, I did see tourists not covering up and leaving their trash behind. It should go without saying that local customs must be respected, so please be self-accountable, quiet on the grounds, covered up, and clean up after yourself. 

Wat Pha Lat offers multiple shrines inviting to prayer and inner contemplation. During the rainy season, the river flows right through the middle of the grounds, drawing the view towards the scenic panoramic overlook of the city. 

Hiking Doi Suthep
View from Wat Pha Lat

You could spend hours here in prayer, and choose to return to the city by descending the Monk’s Trail back to your bike. We took this option on our first visit, choosing meditation over hiking Doi Suthep. 

However, if you’re set and prepared to hike Doi Suthep all the way to its peak and Wat Phra That, you may want to keep your visit of Wat Pha Lat to about 60 minutes or less. 

Hiking from Wat Pha Lat to Wat Phra That

Now, for the adventure part of the hike. 

When overlooking the city at Wat Pa Lat, you’ll want to turn left, leaving the temple on your left and keeping the city on your right. Passing a little snack truck on your right, you’ll walk onto concrete pavement, noticing a slight incline:

Hiking Doi Suthep
You’ll see this sign on your left.

There’ll be some cute local shopping on your right, before you’ll see a parking area with taxis waiting to take tired hikers up to Wat Phra Lat. When I was there in April 2024, the ride cost 300 Thai Baht for 1 to 3 people, one way. 

There is no shame in taking the ride. If you’re still adventuring, stick with me. 

You’ll be following the concrete road for about 15 minutes.

5 minutes after leaving the first taxis behind you, you’ll have an opportunity to use the restroom, and be seeing more taxis on the right. Same price. 

Following, turn left and walk along the Main Street (marked 305) for about 10 minutes. If you see hikers coming your way, know that you’re on the right path. Most of these hikers, frankly, will have given up the hike and are returning to get a cab. Again, no shame in that. Please be safe and follow your gut. 

hiking Doi Suthep
Note the sign on the left and trail entrance on the right

After 10 more minutes, you’ll cross the street towards your right. The crossing is right on a turn of the road, so please be careful. 

Google Maps is remarkably accurate, once set to walking, and will accurately indicate the entrance to the trail. In fact, Google Maps marks the entrance much better than the actual entrance.

To enter the trail, I had to dug underneath some electric cables and climb over fallen trees. The entrance definitely reminded me of Harry Potter entering the Maze in the Goblet of Fire. 

Hiking Doi Suthep
Entrance to Trail

TAKE NOTE: Once you climb up the first bit of that trail, turning around is a very dangerous option as the likelihood of slipping is very high. Be sure your phone is charged, you’re fit, and have plenty of water on you. Not many people take this trail, so you’ll want to be able to call for help in an emergency. 

For the first 5 minutes of the hike, you won’t have service, but it will get restored once you’ve passed the first wire tower. 

Hiking Doi Suthep
You’ll regain service atop this first part of the trail.

While the entrance of the trail is fairly unmarked, the trail itself is quite obvious after that. Again, Google Maps is, in fact, accurate and a great guide if you’re second guessing your route. 

Hiking Doi Suthep

In part because of it’s strenuous nature, the hike is absolutely magical and indeed a spiritual journey in and of itself. With my boyfriend having turned around to get the bike, I was entirely alone on the trail, surrounded by nature’s sounds only.

I felt deeply connected to nature and found myself having deep contemplative thoughts. Don’t forget to turn and look around during water breaks. The views are stunning. 

Hiking Doi Suthep
About mid-way through the hike.

There are passages that might require holding on to trees and branches – don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty if it means a safe passage. 

From leaving the last taxis behind you to breaking through the jungle, you should calculate between 60 and 90 minutes. I’m a fast and competitive hiker and took about 50 minutes. 

A gorgeous tree that seems to have lifted itself off the ground will mark the final 10 meters or so of the trail. Sadly, there are many carvings in the tree. Please don’t add yours – it hurts the tree. 

Hiking Doi Suthep
Only 10 more meters!

Much like the entrance, the exit of the trail isn’t clear. On its left, there is a cute little Altar. You’ll have to literally break through the plants to exit the trail. 

Hiking Doi Suthep
Marking the exit of the trail

Once exited and dusted off, you’re invited to rest up while enjoying the views of the city spreading at your feet. 

Hiking Doi Suthep
You’ve finished the hardest part of the hike

From here, unfortunately, you’ll need to get back on the main road to hike up the final 200 meters to Wat Phra Lat. People on bikes will look at you as if you’re crazy…and you sort of must be to hike that trail. 

As deserted as the trail might be, arriving to the temple will have you squarely back in tourist-land within a second. 

Hiking Doi Suthep
Entrance to Wat Phra That

Arriving and visiting Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Rightfully, you may have been shedding layers on the hike. As you enter the temple grounds, it’s time to cover up again. 

A quite remarkable entrance way welcomes you into the temple grounds. There’s some shopping of souvenirs, a cafe, and restrooms right at the entrance. 

As if you hadn’t just hiked for 100 hours, you now get to ascend the beautifully decorated 309 steps up to Wat Phra Lat. 

Hiking Doi Suthep

Now reunited with my boyfriend and thankful to have a private ride down the mountain, we embarked on the strair case up together. Dragons guard the stairs, a symbol leading all the way back to the legends surrounding the spiritual ascension of Siddhartha Gautama to Lord Buddha. 

Once atop the stairs, you’ll need to purchase an entrance ticket for 30 Baht a person. 

And now, it’s time to walk into this very special, sacred, and revered temple. You’ll be asked to take off your shoes and cover up. You can rent a Sarong if needed.

Highlights of the temple complex

As you’re wandering around the grounds, note that there are two main levels. The top level has multiple Buddha statues and the main golden Pagoda of the temple. The lower level offers fantastic views over the city, and has multiple meditation halls. 

The main shrine, which houses the famous golden Pagoda of the temple, is mind-blowing indeed. But don’t forget to take good note of the entrance itself. You’ll notice the memorial of the White Elephant there, as well as a small statue of Hermit in a Tiger Skin – the name saint of the mountain Doi Suthep. Paying respect to the Hermit Suthep is said to bring Good Luck. 

Hiking Doi Suthep

You’ll find many visitors engaging in a walking meditation around the Pagoda, which you’re most welcome to join. Surrounding the Pagoda are fascinating statues of Buddha, including various replicas of the Jade Buddha statue. There’s a museum, opportunities to donate, and a temple inviting silent prayer. 

On the lower level, you’ll find multiple wooden carvings decorating an outdoor meditation area and wooden Buddha statues, as well as a meditation hall, and multiple viewing platforms. 

I don’t have a good picture of the view as we didn’t have one…having gone up during the burning season. 

Returning to your Bike / Chiang Mai

If you’ve chosen the adventure route of hiking up Doi Suthep, I don’t recommend hiking back down all the way. Instead, you’ll want to grab one of the many rides offered outside the temple. With that, you have a few options: 

To Chiang Mai: If you came to the Monk’s trail by taxi, you can have a taxi take you all the way back into downtown. The ride should cost between 300 and 500 Baht. 

To Wat Pha Lat: If you have to get your bike from the entrance to the Monk’s Trail, you’ll want to take a taxi down to Wat Pha Lat for 300 Baht and hike through the lower temple and the Monk’s trail towards your bike. This shouldn’t take longer than 60 minutes. 

Boyfriend’s style: As I mentioned before, my boyfriend ended up turning around to get the bike and meet me with the bike atop Doi Suthep. That way, we just rolled down the hill on our own ride. I will say that I loved mounting the final part of the hill by myself as I ended up having a deeply spiritual experience on the trail. However, the trail is strenuous and you should not hike it alone unless your phone is charged and you are fit.

Conclusion

Hiking the Monk’s Trail and adventuring up to Wat Phra That is both a physical challenge and a spiritual journey. I highly recommend incorporating it into your itinerary for Chiang Mai. AND, of course, you don’t need to hike at all in order to thoroughly explore the beautiful city of Chiang Mai.

While it’s a must to be physically prepared for the hike, I would strongly encourage you to set an intention for the hike as well. It’s a great trail to surrender to spiritually

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