The jewel of Chiang Mai, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, glistens in the sun near the summit of the mountain known as Doi Suthep. One of four royal wats in the north, at 1,300m (4,265 ft.), it occupies an extraordinary site with a cool refreshing climate, expansive views over the city and the mountain’s densely forested slopes, which form part of the Doi Suthep–Doi Pui National Park.
In the 14th century, during the installation of a relic of the Buddha in Wat Suan Dok (in the Old City), the holy object split in two, with one part equaling the original size. A new wat was needed to honor the miracle. King Ku Na placed the new relic on a sacred white elephant and let it wander freely through the hills. The elephant climbed to the top of Doi Suthep, trumpeted three times, made three counterclockwise circles, and knelt down, choosing the site for Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.
The original chedi was built to a height of 8m (26 ft.). Subsequent kings contributed to it, first by doubling the size and then by adding layers of gold and other ornamentation to the exterior; it now measures 16m (52 ft.) tall. The slender, gleaming chedi and the gilded-copper decorative umbrellas around it provide one of the most iconic images of North Thailand.
Other structures were raised to bring greater honor to the Buddha and various patrons. The most remarkable is the steep naga (sacred river snake) staircase, added in 1557, leading up to the wat—one of the most dramatic approaches to a temple in all of Thailand. To shorten the 5-hour climb from the base of the mountain, the winding road was constructed in 1935 by thousands of volunteers under the direction of a local monk.
Visitors with exposed legs are offered a sarong at the entrance. Most Thai visitors come to make an offering—usually flowers, candles, incense, and small squares of gold leaf that are applied to a favored Buddha or to the exterior of a chedi—and to be blessed. Believers kneel down and touch their foreheads to the ground three times in worship. Some shake prayer sticks to learn their fortune.
After visiting the Doi Suthep, many make their way to Phuping Palace which is 4km (2.5 miles) beyond the temple, 22km (14 miles) west of the Old City off Route 1004. It is the summer residence of Thailand’s royal family, but when the royal family isn’t present (usually January to March; ask hotel staff to check for you), visitors are allowed to enter and stroll through its beautiful gardens. The hours are Friday to Sunday 8:30–11:30am and 1–3:30pm, and admission is 50B. You really have to dress conservatively for this one; military guards at the gate act like the fashion police.