Wat Doi Suthep (for short – the name of the mountain) is 15 kilometers up a switchback road that was completed in 1935. Before the road, the people would walk the path along the river from Chaing Mai…Our guide says it is still a pilgrimage to make the walk and sleep at the temple’s base at least once in a lifetime. This probably has to do the legend of the Wat’s establishment in 1368…Yes Anglos, that is over 100 years before Columbus !!!
The Tale of the White Elephant: The story goes that a monk had a dream which told him to look for a vision. He traveled north and found a bone which, he believed, was Buddha’s shoulder bone… It had magical powers to sing, replicate itself, and become invisible. When he took it to his local king, the bone did not display its magic. But the King of LAN Na summoned him. There, the bone split into two pieces. While the King kept one, the other was strapped onto a white elephant. When released, the elephant climbed up Mount Doi Suthep, bellowed three times, and dropped dead. The King decreed that the temple be built at the site where the elephant died. The bone, still believed to be that of Lord Buddha, is entombed at the site.
Needless to say, this Wat is considered to be very holy by locals and pilgrims alike. The Wat is very busy and can have as many as 120,000 visitors per month. Pilgrimages come primarily from Thailand, China, and India.
The photo above shows the beginning of the ascension of 303 steps to enter the temple. On the bottom right, you can see the dragon figure at the base…on the left photo, you can see the body and scales of the dragon as they ascend the entire set of stairs.
As we entered the grounds, I was shocked by how many people were actively worshipping. Unlike previous Wats which were large and had one central worship altar, Wat Doi Suthep had at least 50 worship rugs with statues or symbols designating the significance of each. This was, for lack of a better way to say it, a Working Man’s Wat…and I thorough enjoyed the spectacle of being allowed to witness these special moments.
There seemed to be a site to pray for anything: divine guidance, remembrance of ancestors, the health of your family, ascension to higher levels of personal growth, and more. AND, this is a Wat with a view…Well, mostly a view. The air quality in Chiang Mai is very poor during February and March, due to the burning of fields to plant new crops. Our guide said this practice is outlawed in Thailand and the burning is being done over the border in Burma (He still calls it Burma, rather than Myanmar). So our vista of the valley below was less clear than other times of the year.
Too soon it was our time to walk down the Serpent Steps and head back down the mountain. I have to say that I enjoyed this visit as much as the previous Wats put together…I won’t soon forget it.