Wat Phra Doi Suthep, otherwise known in Chiang Mai as “the temple at the top of the mountain” sits 1,676 meters (5499 feet) above the city of Chiang Mai. Of course, Lonely Planet will explain how you can take a shared taxi up the road full of switchbacks or, if you want more of an adventure and some exercise, you can hike up through the jungle and feel triumphant at the top.
At the very eastern end of Suthep Road, we met our friend Carolyn and left our bicycles at Pun Pun Restaurant, where we planned to return for a well-deserved lunch. The walk to the trailhead is a steep climb on a paved road past a beautiful Buddhist temple in the forest, which we explored a bit before continuing up the hill. Eventually, we came upon the back entrance to the zoo on our right, a checkpoint that marks the halfway point to the trailhead, and we forged ahead on the road.
As we took our first steps on the trail, we gladly exchanged the noise of pickup trucks, cars and motorbikes whizzing past for the sounds of the jungle: leaves rustling in the breeze; birds calling loudly; and the natural silence. We smiled at several points as we came across many trees wrapped in orange monk’s cloth, signifying that they had been blessed and bad karma awaited any tree-cutters.
As if the jungle could sense we needed a break, we suddenly came upon a Buddhist temple that offered beautiful views. We enjoyed walking around a bit, exploring the grounds, reading the many quotes in English posted on placards and playing with little puppies before continuing on our way.
As we trudged along, the trail started to increase its grade was at its steepest when we arrived at the winding road. We watched a couple cyclists push their way up the mountain and countless song taews as we sat and caught our breath.
After finding the continuation of the trail on the opposite side of the road and a bit uphill, we discovered this section of the path maintained the steep climb. It was here along this part of the trail where we came across the biggest leaves we’ve ever seen and one of the most unique trees.
For about 45 minutes, we ascended Suthep Mountain, taking intermittent breaks for water and deep breaths, when we reached the traffic-filled road once again.
The next part of the hike was full of anticipation as we neared the top. We went around the gate to the right, walked up the gravel driveway, and took the stairs with their green handrail. We knew we were close when we passed through the monks’ quarters and then, almost without warning, there we stood at the final staircase, seeing the golden stupa of Wat Phra Doi Suthep. [Update November 2015: We’re no longer in the area, but based on comments you may encounter a pack of territorial and aggressive dogs during this stretch of the hike. Alternatively, you can simply continue up the paved windy road to the top.]
After climbing the steps, however, we simply became another tourist group and our sweat-drenched shirts likely attributed to the front steps. The three of us shared a secret pride, though. We knew we had arrived via a different route, a more fulfilling journey. We reveled in our achievement, overlooking Chiang Mai through the haze, and quenched our thirst with some freshly squeezed orange juice.
With our legs shaking, we opted to descend from the temple in the more typical fashion – out the front, down the steps and through the “vendor mall” where you can buy trinkets of all kinds, food and sadly, even a bird in a very small cage to release for good luck, and caught a shared taxi back to our morning’s meeting point.