For a temple lover, Chiang Mai is the place to be. The city hosts around 300 of them, some being packed with tourists due to being seen as the ‘best’, others hiding in alleyways so it takes dedication to find them all.
We’ve been exploring the local ones during our study breaks. However, there was one outside of the city that we were all eager to visit.
Doi Suthep is situated in the mountains of Northern Thailand, and glimpses of it can be seen from Chiang Mai. It also is one of the most well-known in the area because of its remote location and it’s covered in gold, so has a lot of tourists trying to catch epic images for their social media. Because of its Buddhist symbolism, statues surrounding the temple and resident monks, it’s also a popular place for the almost unanimously Buddhist Thai population. Despite being one of the most crowded temples in the area, that didn’t deter the group from wanting to go.
Several modes of transport were considered due to its respectable distance from our base (15 miles/24km) but we chose a songthaew. These little red buses are located all over the city and will take you locally for a price as small as 30 baht (74p) but it was still a bargain for the group at just 170 baht each (£4.22), which included the driver waiting the whole time we were at the temple. Imagine if UK taxis were that cheap!
We filed into the first bus we could find that would go out as far as Doi Suthep before spending the trip chatting. This was during the third week of the semester and icebreakers were definitely a thing of the past by then. Semesters will eventually have around fifty students in each location, but there are only eight in our group since we’re the pilot semester giving it a very intimate feel.
The songthaew took the group on a steep trip uphill so it surprised us that people willingly walk and cycle up the mountain. However, we quickly passed them because of the speed the songthaew went.
After giving a rough estimate on when we’d be back, the driver dropped us off in a small market area. Here we could buy food, drinks and trinkets for our loved ones at home. Before heading to the temple, we headed for some dinner which included rice, pad thai and fumbling around with chopsticks. Despite being near a touristic spot, the meal was a cheap 50 baht (£1.24).
Thailand has had a lot of stray dogs since the floods of 2011 and seeing a few in the area and capturing some ‘pho-dog-raphs’ was a quick distraction from what we needed to do to get to the temple. That, and the first squatting toilets most had witnessed, although I didn’t see them myself.
Between the markets and the entrance to the temple were 309 steps. While we’ve had plenty of chances to keep on track with our fitness, be it Muay Thai or running club, nobody was looking overly forward to heading up them.
The fact they were aesthetically pleasing with their dragon bannisters and the prospect of amazing views were motivators for everyone to get up. At the top, the group reunited briefly before doing laps around the area outside of the temple either on their own or in small groups.
The main feature on the outside area was the viewing points. From the top, students could see areas of undisrupted mountainside on one side and Chiang Mai on the other. Since students are located in the Old City, most hadn’t come to realise how big the place is outside of the city walls until they got an almost bird's eye view.
Shoes were removed and a few more steps climbed to get to the main part of Doi Suthep. The area was actually rather small although the number of visitors didn’t help with the fact. The temple was a square shape in the area's centre and left students in awe when they finally got to see it in person. Around the temple itself was a walkway where people were walking and praying.
On the outside of the upper area were walkways filled with statues of Buddha. These aren’t an uncommon sight in Thailand but seeing so many in one place was a first. There were also opportunities to light candles which Anju took.
After getting the chance to explore the whole area and catch some good photos, we took some time to watch the monks. We had noticed they were there and even caught photos with them but seeing them in prayer was on a different level.
While the crowded area had meant a lot of noise, all of it emanated as people found their space and sat at a respectable distance.
Most of us have heard the monk’s prayers before as they can be found around Chiang Mai, but this was on a different scale. Some of us felt emotional as we watched the event while sat in silence and amazement.
After a while, the monks bowed and went into a small room next to where they had been praying, which was filled with more Buddha statues. A lot of tourists followed with their cameras in tow to get their photos of the monks but the group headed back down at that point. Upon reuniting with their shoes, everyone trudged downstairs to find the songthaew.
The trip back was done in two stretches. Around ten minutes into the journey, the songthaew driver pulled to the side of the road. He was showing us another viewing point of Chiang Mai, and since they had been up at Doi Suthep when sunset occurred, they got to see the night illuminate the city. The completely different view left us all in awe yet again as they caught a few more photos of their current home.
After getting back to Chiang Mai and bartering with the driver to drop the price a little bit more, students headed back to the hostel for an early night. While in Thailand there is a concept known as ‘temple tiredness’ where you just lose the charm of seeing temples because of going to so many. Doi Suthep definitely didn’t cause it. All students were glad to have seen it due to being on a completely different scale and vibe to the ones they’ve been walking around during the day, and so it was described to be an emotional yet amazing day.
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About the author
Jasmin Dawling is one of Global Grad’s January 2019 students and is completing a full-time Bachelor’s degree with the Open University in International Studies. While this is her first time formally blogging, she has had plenty of writing experience in the past, from novel writing since the age of six to working on the school newspaper. Apart from seeing the sights of South East Asia and working on her degree, Jasmin spends most of her time either procrastinating or writing down her novel ideas, be it on her travelling-inspired new ideas or the 7-part series she’s been toying with for almost ten years.