Doi Suthep Temple
Ian Robert Knight
Travel Photographer, Canada
Not far from Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, lies one of the holiest temples in the entire kingdom. The temple of Doi Suthep sits near the top of the mountain of the same name, and can be seen glistening in the sun from miles away. The full and accurate name for the temple is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.
Like many temples in Thailand, this one is steeped in history. And depending on your level of belief in religious legends, much of it is a little hard to believe. Legend has it that the temple was founded in the late 1300’s by the local king, who was led there by a sacred white elephant. That elephant carried a fragment of the collarbone of Buddha, and when it reached the mountaintop, the animal died. This was taken as an omen by the king, and the temple was established.
Elaborate gold carvings adorn each building
Fast forward 600 years, and it remains one of the most important temples to devoted Thai Buddhists. Pilgrims visit the temple as often as tourists do, and pay respect to the statue of the white elephant, and place lotus flowers on the various shrines inside the temple.
Fast forward 600 years, and it remains one of the most important temples to devoted Thai Buddhists.
I have visited this temple every time I’ve been in Chiang Mai, and to me it’s well worth the effort to make it up the mountain. I’m not suggesting that I’ve walked up the mountain, but regardless, it’s still an effort to come by car. The journey up the snaking, winding road from Chiang Mai takes about 40 minutes, depending on traffic.
Interestingly, monks get to wear shoes in the temple!
Once you’re at the base of the temple, you have the choice of walking up the 309 steps from the street, or taking the funicular car up the mountainside. I’ve always walked up the stairs, because I think it’s a beautiful walk, and devoted Buddhists think of it as ‘making merit’ when the put in the effort. At the top of the stairs, it’s shoes off before you can enter the holy area, and where all the gold is.
Giant wooden carvings that must have taken years to make
Inside the temple, it’s very beautiful, and very gold. There is a large chedi in the middle of the compound, and Buddhists will circumambulate the large golden structure. When it’s sunny, the bright gold covering of the chedi is a bit much to take. Bring sunglasses. At one side of the temple, there is an observation deck where you can see the city of Chiang Mai sprawling out in the distance.
Photo Tips when visiting the temple
- There is a lot to see in a fairly compact space. Expect crowds, and don’t expect to get photos without people in them.
- Use a polarizing filter if you have one. The bright blue sky behind the bright gold chedi can be amazing.
- Don’t bother bringing a tripod. It’s difficult to use one in the crowded area, and it won’t provide you with much advantage in the bright light anyway.
- Bring a wide lens, so you can see the entire chedi.
- Bring a tele lense, so you can take close ups of the worshipers and the Buddha statues.
- Not a photo tip, but wear socks. Without shoes the floor gets super hot in the hot months.
Ian Robert Knight Photography
Ian is a professional photographer, specializing in travel editorial and street photography. Find out more about Ian's background and experiences in the bio page here.
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