Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a jewel in Chiang Mai’s crown

Inside the Wat Phra That temple grounds on Doi Suthep

If you’re ever in Chiang Mai and can only choose one temple to visit, choose Wat Phra That on Doi Suthep. Doi Suthep is the mountain West of Chiang Mai, the smaller of the two in that area. The other being Doi Pui and together make up the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. Although I haven’t been to every single temple in Chiang Mai, I have been to several and what makes Wat Phra That so special? It’s reportedly the temple that has a Buddha Relic, a piece of his shoulder, if I heard correctly. Now I didn’t get to see the Relic but this wat, to me, has a tranquil/serene “feel” to it, more so than any of the other temples I’ve been to in the Chiang Mai region. I truly lack the words to describe that feeling. No, it’s not like a life changing OMG Hallelujah kinda feeling…it’s more like a peaceful at ease feeling. I imagine “resting in peace” would feel like this. I’m not particularly religious but I do believe in certain principles from different religions. Yes, I’m a “confused child” haha.

Back to the Doi Suthep and one of Chiang Mai’s crown jewels, Wat Phra That. I’ll just do what the locals do and refer to the area as Doi Suthep. So how can one get to Doi Suthep? There are a number of ways both public and private. If you choose the private way, have a read of my post “Did I get scammed in Chiang Mai” for my recounting on private hire fiasco/scam that was run on me whilst going to a different “must see” Chiang Mai crown jewel. The most convenient way is to take a red songthaew to Doi Suthep. It can be as easy as flagging one down anywhere around the old city. A songthaew is a pickup truck with the back converted to bench seating. They operate like a public bus/shared taxi but with negotiable fare. The way to get a ride is you flag one down (like flagging a taxi) or they will honk at you, in which case just wave back if you want them to stop. Before you hop in, you have to negotiate your fare. The price will depend on where you’re going, how many passengers already in the songthaew and probably the way you look. So the better dressed you are, the less they will be willing to drop the prices. The number of people already on board will help decrease the price as well and/or if there’s no one already on board, you can pay a bit more and the driver will not pick up anyone along the way to your destination. Trips within the old city are $30-$40 TBH (as told to me by the hotel staff and $30 TBH is written on all the red songthaews (I can’t read Thai so don’t know what the context is) but as soon as you get outside the walled city they will start at $100 TBH (at least that’s always been the starting point whenever I asked). There are also different marked songthaews, the markings will indicate which attraction they are going to, so you can look out for those as those may have people in them already going to the same place making it cheaper for you to tag along (or at least you won’t be “forced” to pay the full single rider fare). If you prefer to hire out a songthaew (have it all to yourself) you can probably negotiate a price for him/her to wait for you and give you a ride back. If not, there are a lot of songthaews waiting up there to give passengers rides back into town. The only drawback is that they will not leave until the songthaew is full with 8 passengers so if you’re first on, there may be a wait. For me, I was lucky, I was the 8th. As I was about to pay the driver, 1/2 the other passengers started to negotiate a lower fare but to no avail so ya that’s something to consider too. Just to give you an idea, hiring out a songthaew cost me $350 TBH, I needed to get there as fast as possible but coming back only cost $80 TBH. The other public way are guided tours. Your hotel lobby will have info and be able to help you out, or you can find tour agent kiosks everywhere, seriously you can’t walk a block without seeing one. These are convenient if have minimal time and need a guide to show you around and/or rush you plus you won’t have to worry about haggling prices everywhere, where to go to the ticket booth etc. The private vehicles are in the form of metered taxis although you have to specifically book one from somewhere as they are nowhere to to be found on the streets. The only time I saw any were at the airport and twice in town dropping guests at a hotel. I’m pretty sure they will be the most expensive private car option with Grab taxi being the second most expensive. The least expensive is the non grab, private hires which the hotel can arrange for you and the tuk tuk’s (they look like motorized rickshaws) which you can flag on the street. Note: if you get motion sickness then take some motion sickness pills if you plan on taking the songthaew or tuk tuk. Also try to get on a newer model vehicle or at least one that doesn’t look beat up as that will affect the bumpiness of your ride as well as the amount of exhaust (if any) you’ll be subjected to.

Stairs leading up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep adorned on either side with giant King of Nagas’

Local tribes girls on the stairs leading up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep adorned on either side with giant King of Nagas’

Local tribes girls on the stairs leading up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep adorned on either side with giant King of Nagas’

Local tribes girls on the stairs leading up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep adorned on either side with giant King of Nagas’

Stairs leading up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep adorned on either side with giant King of Nagas’

Stairs leading up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep adorned on either side with giant King of Nagas’

Now that transport is sorted out and you’re at the drop off point of Doi Suthep, there’s two routes you can take up to the temple but first, there are shops/markets by the road side you may want to check out. If not, make your way to either the steps with the big archway (the left most stair case as you’re facing the mountain) if you’re looking to walk up to the Wat. If walking up stairs is not your cup of tea, take the path on the right where you can see ticket booths. That’s where you can buy tickets to ride the gondola up. I didn’t take the gondola so I can’t comment on the fees nor the ride. Taking the stairs isn’t that bad. you go up a short flight of stairs and it opens up to a plaza of sorts with statues to see and more shops and restaurants. From this plaza you can see the flight of stairs leading up to the Wat, kind of steep but not scary steep. If you see adorable little kids dressed in (I’m guessing) traditional attire of their culture, it’s ok to take photos but be prepared to offer a donation. They won’t be shy in asking for it. Although I had sniped a few shots of them from afar, pretty much without them knowing, as they were busy posing for other photo’s, I still walked by and gave them each a tip. I couldn’t help but feel sad, I didn’t notice their parents around and they were just hanging out, walking around the stairs. When you reach the top of the stairs you’ll be at the entrance to the temple area (not the temple grounds itself) and you’ll have to detour to the right because that is where the ticket office is and a snacks shop in case you need to buy a drink. Entrance fee is $30 TBH. Having taken care of the entrance fee you can enter the premises of where the actual temple is, you can see the stairs into the Wat in the photo below. The premises is quite big with lots to see and you can walk around with your shoes on but if you want to enter the Wat grounds, you have to take off your shoes at the designated area about a hop, skip and a jump away from the Wat’s entrance. No big deal, it’s relatively clean, as in free from debris as you can kinda see in the photo below. There’s more than enough room for shoes on the racks but there’s shoe lockers behind the benches too, just don’t forget where you put your shoes.

Pavilion area provides shade and benches for rest and removal of shoes.

SO MUCH GOLD!!! Was my first reaction as stepped through the entrance into the wat. I don’t know if it was gold leaf, gold paint, gold plated or what but boy was it impressive. Pretty much in the center of the temple grounds is the gold stupa with the prayer path around it. There are flowers you can buy and hold as you walk and pray on this path and then offer them to an altar of your choice. This prayer path is in between the stupa and a stone fence that has opening at the corners for entering and exiting the prayer path. On top of this fence, on two of the sides, are various statues and religious relics. Lining the walls to the temple complex are altars, prayer halls, statues and other religious artifacts. There are monks walking around doing various duties as well from what I saw when I was there such as “monk chats,” blessing ceremonies, sweeping of the grounds, putting up decorations etc. Along the walls that define the Wat grounds are open air but sheltered corridors with religious statues and artifacts and enough space for visitors to pray in front of. These corridors are sometimes broken up by rooms housing religious statue(s) with all the prayer amenities like kneeling mats, incense pots etc. There is also a larger prayer hall which more detailed and ornate and is where the monk chats/blessing were held. If you want the on location tourist shot, look for the golden tree/umbrella statue. This is the designated spot where an “in house photographer” will take the “tourist shot” that all the marketing shots were taken. The spot features a golden umbrella (or maybe it’s a bamboo tree), under which you’ll stand with the golden stupa in the background and hopefully a blue sky with a fluffy cloud or two. There will be assistants walking around that area trying to drum up business. If you don’t want to engage their services you can just wait until the umbrella is vacant and go get your shot. Although I planned to photograph everything, I kinda forgot to or maybe just too “taken in” by beauty, splendor, calmness and serenity of this place I really don’t have the words so here’s a few shots:

Inside the Wat Phra That temple grounds on Doi Suthep

Inside the Wat Phra That temple grounds on Doi Suthep

Inside the Wat Phra That temple grounds on Doi Suthep

Inside the Wat Phra That temple grounds on Doi Suthep

Inside the Wat Phra That temple grounds on Doi Suthep

Inside the Wat Phra That temple grounds on Doi Suthep

Inside the Wat Phra That temple grounds on Doi Suthep

Inside the Wat Phra That temple grounds on Doi Suthep

When you’re done inside the Wat, have a look around the grounds. There’s a huge hall, gift shop (the usual items that you’d find in a temple’s gift shop are cheaper here than in any other place that I’ve been to), café type eatery, prayer bells, prayer halls, large statues, defunct museum (well that’s what it looked like to me) and a very ornate pavilion that over looks the valley. If you walk to the railing you will see the city of Chiang Mai and the airport, it’s quite a view if the weather is clear. I visited in early May and got ok weather, a bit too smoggy for detailed images but still a spectacular view. There were not many people so I was able to set up my tripod for some panoramic shots however I did get interrupted by a tourist who came right up next to me to shoot her panoramic shots, so I took some candid profile shots of her instead of landscape shots for a minute or so, lol. There also a very beautiful, colorful and well landscaped flower garden. It wasn’t until I was looking through the photos back at the hotel that I realized the flowers were fake.

Walking around Doi Suthep just outside Wat Phra That

Walking around Doi Suthep just outside Wat Phra That

Walking around Doi Suthep just outside Wat Phra That

Walking around Doi Suthep just outside Wat Phra That

Walking around Doi Suthep just outside Wat Phra That

Walking around Doi Suthep just outside Wat Phra That

I spent 3 hours at Doi Suthep not including travel time but could have easily spent hours more. I didn’t visit any of the markets or explore any of the areas not part of the temple grounds. I was there around dusk and the sunset sets behind the mountain but with the smog/haze/clouds it wasn’t that ‘wow’ Perhaps sunrise would be better as it would rise over the city when you’re viewing from the pavilion.

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Review of Wooden Pagoda, Hanging Temple, Heng Shan mountain

So my second day in Datong started with a pre negotiated price of 500 Yuan for a taxi to take us to the wooden pagoda, Hanging Temple and Heng Shan then back to the hotel. A private tour guide will cost roughly 1000 Yuan and a price chart in the hotel lobby advertised this trip to be 750 Yuan. So I think we did alright. This price included the tolls but not parking fee up on Heng Shan and didn’t include lunch. As usual, the driver waited in the parking area.

We had arranged for this driver the day before and had gotten used to way of driving. This day though, he took us through corn fields and back roads when the “main” road was closed. At one point we had to get out of the car in order for the car to make it over a bump! It’s amazing how he managed to not get lost!  Anyways, he picked us up at 8:00 am.and the first stop was the wooden pagoda.

Yingxian Wooden Pagoda
Yingxian Village, Shanxi Province, China

The trip took roughly an hour and it was a nice scenic ride for the most part. The Yingxian pagoda is quite the site, it’s leaning a bit and as a result you can’t go up although we did see one or two people on the second floor balcony. From online reviews, I thought an hour should be enough time even if we could have gone up to the second story. We spent two hours there and didn’t even get a chance to look around the town as our driver was walking around looking for us!

In front of the Yingxian Wooden Pagoda

Behind the Pagoda is a temple and a yard. In the yard area is an exhibition hall and open space, some nice looking flowers there and an old looking door that’s closed and locked. The temple is cool too and if you go to the very back you’ll get a view to where that old door in the yard leads to. A very big courtyard of an old palace looking building (looks abandoned though).

Temple behind the Yingxian Wooden Pagoda.

Yard beside the Yingxian Wooden Pagoda.

I really do hope that the Yingxian Wooden Pagoda gets UNESCO World Heritage status, it really is a feat of engineering and a site to see! Was well worth the 50 Yuan entrance fee, in my opinion.

Hanging Monastery
Hunyuan County, Shanxi Province, China

Wide view of the Hanging Temple of Mount Heng.

Our next stop was the Hanging Temple (Monastery)  which took about 1 hour 15 minutes by taxi from the Yingxian Wooden Pagoda. The Entrance fee was125 Yuan. If you’re afraid of heights, you may want to give this a miss. The hanging temple is made of wood and the floor boards creak and may sway. The pathways are narrow (two people cannot pass shoulder to shoulder). The railings are around mid thigh height (I’m roughly 5’10”) in many areas and my be a bit unnerving. If you are wearing a back pack, going up and down the narrow stairs may be tricky, you may bump your head or get stuck.

Narrow stair case of the Hanging Temple.

Slender poles supporting the Hanging Temple.

Having said that, it is quite a sight and experience. Everything felt solid enough to walk on. We took an hour to see everything but rushed a bit as we think that’s what the taxi driver was saying since we had one more stop to go.

Overall we felt that there should be more to see for the ticket price but maybe we missed some? There was a blocked pathway leading up to areas you can see from up in the temple, so maybe it would be better when that section reopens.

Heng Shan
Hunyuan County, Shanxi Province, China

The start of the upward hike up Heng Shan.

Heng Shan’s scenic area is roughly 30 minutes up the mountain from the Hanging Temple. We spent 3 hours hiking up and down the mountain and couldn’t finish it as the path lead to a totally different part of the mountain in which we wouldn’t be able to communicate with our driver where to come get us. Also, what we thought was the peak, wasn’t we found another staircase going further up but running short of time (we had to get back down the mountain) we elected not to find out what was up top.

An entrance to one of the many temples on Heng Shan.

An entrance to one of the many temples on Heng Shan.

There are a few temples on the way up to the top but some were closed. Thankfully there was a “rest stop” about 1/2 way with toilets and a drink stall. The view is of the the valley below is nice. To get to what we thought was the top you have to climb a VERY STEEP flight of stairs. It was scary just looking at it. On the way up and down there were people making their way on all fours! There’s enough to see up there to make it worth the effort.

Steep stairs to the top most temple at Heng Shan.

Temple at the top of Heng Shan

To truly enjoy Heng Shan we feel you should devote more than 3 hours. The entrance fee of 50 Yuan plus the 10 Yuan parking fee we feel is more than reasonable for this place. It’s truly remarkable. One thing to note though. As you leave (towards the end of the day) you may get approached by other taxi drivers to take their cab. This one guy went so far as to tell our driver we wanted to go with him but told me that there were 2 more passengers to ride to Datong. So I ok, they can ride with us. It hadn’t crossed my mind that he was poaching us until he beckoned for us to follow him (we were already in our taxi) so I said no, closed the door and motioned for our driver to go. He seemed upset but I couldn’t ascertain whether he thought we tried to bail on him or that the other guy was poaching. Anyways, something to be aware of.

For more images taken in and around Datong, check out my Datong Flickr Album.