Wat Doi Suthep: Thailand’s Temple of the White Elephant

According to legend, a white elephant, carrying a relic of the Buddha, was released into the jungle and began to climb a large mountain in the center of Chiang Mai, Thailand – Doi Suthep. When it reached the top, the elephant trumpeted three times before dying on the mountain. King Nu Naone took this as a sign that a temple should be built on this spot and that is where the Theravada Buddhist temple Wat Phra That Doi Suthep resides today. At 3,500 feet above sea level, the temple was built in 1384 AD and is revered as being one of the most sacred temples in Northern Thailand as it contains the holy relic of Lord Buddha.

But all things worth experiencing, are not without effort. The temple resides at the top of a flight of over 300 steps. Flanking the steps along each side are gigantic Nagas laying in guard, a group of serpent deities in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. You may also find local children dressed in traditional hill tribe clothing requesting money in exchange for taking their photo.

Fun fact: The scaled of the Nagas are green when looking up the stairs and gold when looking down!

The temple is arranged around a central original copper plated chedi – which is the most holy area of the temple grounds. It is customary to walk around the chedi three times chanting a prayer, and leaving a wish bell to chime in the breeze. Surrounding the central chedi are large beautiful multi-paneled murals telling the story of Buddha.

There are numerous areas to “give merit”, offer donations and kneel in prayer to the various forms of Buddha. Here you will also find pagodas, statues, bells and shrines including a model of the Emerald Buddha and since the Wat also draws influence from Hinduism, so you will also find a statue of the Hindu God Ganesh. At certain times of the day, elder monks will offer blessings in one of the two prayer rooms. 

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Tip: Purchase Buddhist charms and trinkets from the monks and they will bless the item for you, upon request.

Doi Suthep is still a working temple despite being one of the most visited temples in Northern Thailand. If you choose to skip the stairs, the ride up to the temple is scenic and relaxing. From the temple, impressive views of Chiang Mai can be seen and it remains a popular destination for tourists. Street vendors line the entrance offering food (including bugs!), clothing, souvenirs, Buddhist objects and even animals in cages. Many believe it is good luck to purchase these animals for the simple purpose of setting them free.

Entry to the temple on the tram costs 30 Thai baht for foreigners. Shoes must be removed at it’s entrance and guests must dress conservatively, meaning long pants or skirts to the ankles and no sleeveless shirts.

21 thoughts on “Wat Doi Suthep: Thailand’s Temple of the White Elephant”

  1. Hi, it’s great that you have the same interest with me.
    I love the Wats a lot. Their architectures are so epic and the atmosphere is so spiritual. I really love the little girl in your pictures, she’s so adorable. The Thais are friendly and I appreciate the way they try to communicate with us.

  2. So incredibly beautiful! Peaceful and breath-taking! I’d love to go. Eat and snap my way thru such an amazing place is so on my bucket list!

  3. Northern Thailand has a lot of culture and history within its lands. I can appreciate that. I can’t even begin to imagine how beautiful and peaceful it is.

  4. When you said ‘including bugs,’ I thought you meant bugs get on the food. Then I saw the picture. ;) The history of why is was built so high is fun reading!

  5. Those pictures are STUNNING. I’ve always wanted to visit Asia and this post is making me want to go even more. Thailand is such a beautiful place.

  6. These are beautiful pictures and your description of the various events is informative and fun to learn. It’s impressive to realize how many thousands of years Wat Doi Suthep has been cared for.

  7. Those photos are simply amazing and really let you get a feel for that temple. It really appears to be an amazing place and one to mark down on your places and things to see. Would love to travel there some day.

  8. Great post. Very interesting. My friends visited that city for their honeymoon. I wonder if they experienced this. It sounds like quite the adventure. I was thinking about those 300 steps with my two kids! Brutal.

  9. What an amazing place! I’d love to visit the Temple of the White Elephant and take in the architecture. I’d even try the insects.


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