Trip Advisor is divided: Doi Suteph is either a ‘damp squib’ or an ‘absolute must see’. Although having visited it before in 2013, I couldn’t remember a thing about it, so had a feeling it may fall into the former category.
Before we arrived at what is officially called Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, just outside Chiang Mai, we stopped to learn how to give alms to Buddhist monks. This had meant an early start.
The novice monks parade barefoot in their distinctive saffron robes to gather alms: they cannot ask for them but can accept when offered. Our guide bought us a tray of offerings, 30 Baht (80p), which contained water, warm rice, something wrapped in a banana leaf, soya milk and a hand sized fish. We suspect that the traders selling the offerings make money out of this. We stood waiting at the road side until we saw a couple of novices approaching and held out our trays. They stopped in front of us, we began placing our alms into their collecting bowls which were already quite full so it was a bit of a balancing act and as a woman, I had to be careful not to touch the monk. We then knelt in front of them, with our hands in the ‘wai’ position. We had to take off our shoes, but fortunately the man selling the alms had provided a rush mat for us to kneel on. They then chanted a prayer in Sanskrit and went on their way. We noticed some of the more successful monks had to decant their collecting bowls into plastic carrier bags.
We continued by car up a long twisting steep road, surprised to see a number of obviously very fit people cycling or even running up. Having driven to the top, there were still 306 steps to reach the temple but fortunately, our guide suggested taking the short funicular lift up and walking down: I didn’t argue.
At the top, we wandered round, but as it was only 7am, the mists prevented good views of Chiang Mai below, although we could just detect the airport. However, the positive side of being so early, was that it was quiet. We arrived just as the chief abbot led a group of monks out to accept alms from shaven headed nuns dressed in white.
The main site is the chedi which is completely covered in gold leaf (the top is solid gold) which shone beautifully in the morning sun. Devotees, carrying a prayer card and single chrysanthemum were walking round the chedi three times in a clockwise direction, so their right hand was next to the structure. The chedi contains Buddha relics and the site was chosen by an elephant: the relics were placed in a howdah on the animal which was sent off to find a sacred place.
All around were lots of Buddha images, smaller temples and elephant statues. An information board about the wat was originally inscribed ‘built in 1929’ but this was scribbled through in biro and corrected to read AD 1386 – just a few years out!
We walked down the flight of steps with long Naga on both sides, which were relatively shallow and even and probably wouldn’t have been too bad walking up.
Whilst it was impressive, I can understand why I can’t remember the previous visit.