Doi Suthep is a constant part of life in Chiang Mai. A Thai saying goes, “If you haven’t tasted Khao Soi or seen the view from Doi Suthep, you haven’t been to Chiang Mai.” This regal mountain overlooks the city from the northwest, providing commanding views from its summit. Aside from its dominating presence on the horizon, Doi Suthep is the home of some of the most deeply loved symbols in the Kingdom.
In 1981 Doi Suthep, Doi Pui and Doi Buakha, along with the 161 square kilometres (62 square miles) of forest in which they are located, became Thailand’s 24th national park. A year later a 100 square kilometre (38 square mile) annex was added, bringing the park’s total area up to 261 square kilometres (100 square miles). Dense forests hang from the mountain’s shoulders like a cloak; deciduous at lower elevations and evergreen near the peaks of the mountains.
The highest peak in the park is Doi Pui which tops off at 1,685 meters (5,528 feet), making it the eighth largest mountain in Thailand. Flowing from these heights are some of the most highly enjoyable and accessible waterfalls in the Kingdom’s northern reaches. Mae Sa Falls, Huay Kaew Falls and Monthathan Falls are among the most popular sights of the park and are easily reached from the main road. The forest is also home to a variety of wildlife, including many small mammals and birds as well as the rare Crocodile Salamander, which is only found in four places in Thailand.
The park’s high elevation keeps the temperature pleasantly cool, even during the blistering heat of June. Doi Suthep National Park also incorporates the Mae Sa Valley, a veritable buffet of activities and sights. Farther north, in the park’s 100 square kilometre (38 square mile) annex you will find the delightful and often overlooked Mok Fa area which boasts a wonderful waterfall, a cave and a nature trail.
Despite all of this stunning natural beauty, the main reason many visitors come to Doi Suthep National Park is to visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a venerable and venerated temple that is one of the most holy Buddhist sites in Thailand. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a major pilgrimage destination, especially during the Buddhist holidays of Makha Bucha and Visakha Bucha (February 13 and May 11, respectively).
This awe-inspiring temple is crowned by an elaborate Chedi (Monument), 24 meters (79 feet) tall and gold plated from top to bottom. On a clear day the Chedi’s golden exterior catches the sun and blazes like a beacon over the city. The temple dates back to the 14th century and the tale of its founding is a quintessential Thai myth, full of magic and mystery. Those moved by the serenity and spirituality of the temple may wish to take a meditation course at the International Buddhism Center located on the temple grounds.
Adding to the importance and prestige of Doi Suthep is the palatial Bhubing Palace, a vacation home of the Royal Family. When not serving as the Royal Residence, the Bhubing Palace serves as a guest house for foreign dignitaries. Built in 1961, the Palace’s first guests were the King and Queen of Denmark. Visitors to the park can also pay a visit to the small hilltribe villages on the park grounds, which offer a glimpse into a way of life that has changed very little in hundreds of years.
There are a large number of shops and small restaurants scattered around throughout the park, especially near Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, and there are a few options for those who wish to stay overnight. Most of the accommodation consists of small huts and rudimentary bungalows, however, and most of the park’s highlights can be easily seen in a day.
While not as lofty and rugged as Doi Inthanon, Doi Suthep still offers plenty of natural beauty. The road to the top meanders through verdant forests, runs along clear streams and flirts with mighty waterfalls, passing by a number of attractions along the way. The landscape of Doi Suthep is marked by rolling hills covered in thick tropical forest, which gives way to evergreens as you climb higher and higher.
The highest peak in the park is Doi Pui, which reaches a height of 1,685 meters (5,528 feet), while Doi Suthep itself reaches an altitude of 1,676 meters (5,498 feet) and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep stands on the flank of the mountain at an elevation of 1,056 meters (3464 feet).
Doi Suthep National Park boasts a number of highly enjoyable and easily accessible waterfalls-cascades of foaming water plunging from a series of cliffs and forming glistening pools along the way. The most popular of these waterfalls is Huay Kaew falls, which can be found just off the road near the entrance of the park. This lovely waterfall is an excellent place for a picnic before or after climbing the mountain to see the sights above.
A little farther up the road, towards the temple, lies the Monthathan waterfall, which flows down over nine tiers and is another popular picnic spot, well worth the 300 baht admission. With a good deal of the park 1,000 meters or more above sea level, Doi Suthep National Park enjoys a climate that is distinctly cooler than the basin of Chiang Mai. During the hot season (April to June) average temperatures run around 20˚C to 23˚C (68˚F to 73˚F), while during the cool season (mid-December to late March) the mercury can drop as low as 6˚C (49˚F). Rainfall is pretty much a given during the rainy season (July to mid-November) and the view from the top is usually obscured. During the hot months (March to June) the shade of the trees and the coolness of the waterfalls are blissful oases from the sweltering city heat.
Doi Suthep is a flourishing forest ecosystem, consisting of mixed deciduous forests (trees that lose their leaves in the dry season) at lower elevations and tropical evergreen forests above 1000 meters. Mixed in among the trees are countless flowers that scent the air and delight the eye with their brilliant colours.
Inhabiting this bountiful biosphere are a number of animal species, mostly birds and small mammals. Macaques are the most common primates but other species of small monkey can be glimpsed cavorting among the treetops. Wild boar tramp game trails in the park’s deep interior and dozens of varieties of bats fill the skies at dawn and dusk. The park is also one of four places in Thailand that are called home by the rare Crocodile Salamander.
Like the nearby Doi Inthanon National Park, Doi Suthep is a wonderful place for bird watching and the park is home to over three hundred species. Dawn is the best time to lie in wait with your binoculars and camera and play Audubon Society.
Gleaming like a northern star from the heights of Doi Suthep is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. The mountain’s temple is one of the most historically and spiritually significant places in Thailand and, as such, large numbers of Thais and foreigners alike come to experience the special magic of this holy place.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is an impressive embodiment of the Lanna (northern Thai) culture and is a symbol deeply cherished by the people of Chiang Mai. The temple’s origins date back almost seven hundred years, to 1382 and the legend surrounding the founding of the temple is one of those mysteries of Asia that draw so many visitors to this enchanted land.
All legends and mysticism aside, the temple is a great example of the grandeur and power of the Lanna Kingdom and a visit to the spot is an absolute must for any visitor to Chiang Mai. Over three hundred steps lead from the parking area to the temple grounds, a staircase bordered by the longest naga (water serpent) balustrade in Thailand. Nagas are sacred water serpents which bring good luck as well as bridging the earth and sky. After three hundred-odd steps, you may well feel like you’ve climbed to the vault of heaven, but don’t despair – there are a few food stalls set up at the top to replenish your energy. If the climb sounds like no fun, then simply ride to the top in one of the newly rebuilt cable cars (admission: 50 baht).
Once you’ve reached the top there’s plenty to see at the temple. Of course, the golden Chedi dominates the area with its gilded, 24 meter (79 foot) tall bulk. Ceremonial parasols were added at the four corners of the Chedi in the 16th century and pilgrims make merit by sticking gold leaf to the parasol shafts. At the rear of the temple a long promenade provides a spectacular view; the city spreads out below, bisected by the ribbon of the Ping River. Make sure to take your camera to capture this unforgettable vista.
Scattered around the temple are various statues depicting everything from the legendary white elephant upon whose grave the temple was erected to the assorted gods and Buddhas of the Thai religion. You will find a particularly interesting rendering of the Buddha beneath the spreading limbs of a Bodhi tree, known as the Tree of Enlightenment, on your right hand side, just as you enter the temple grounds. Another highlight of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is the set of rakhang (temple bells) which are touched by devout Buddhists to bring good luck.
While at the temple, walk around and examine the numerous impressive murals which decorate many of the temple walls. As in most wats (temples) the murals depict events from the life and teachings of the Buddha. If you find yourself curious about the meanings and practices of Buddhism then pay a visit to the International Buddhism Center. Here you will find monks and lay practitioners who will be happy to answer any questions you might have. For those interested in truly exploring the teachings and practice of Buddhism there are meditation and study courses offered by the centre.
Today Doi Suthep is easily accessible to visitors, but it wasn’t always so. The road to the top wasn’t built until 1935 and the man responsible for its construction was a highly respected figure named Khruba Srivichai, also known as The Engineer Monk. Prior to his intervention it was a gruelling five hour climb to reach the temple. In order to make it easier for pilgrims to reach the temple and make merit, Khruba Srivichai decided to build a road to the top. His call for workers was answered by hordes of volunteers from all over the north. Finding himself with a wealth of labourers, he ordered that each village’s workers should only construct 10 feet of road. Fuelled by devotion, the workers completed the road in record time. A monument to Khruba Srivichai stands at the foot of the mountains. Before you head to the temple, stop and give thanks that you don’t have to walk.
Although the temple is the main destination for most people who visit Doi Suthep, it’s not the only reason to visit the park. A little ways beyond the temple you will find the Bhubing Palace, a favourite vacation home for the Thai Royal Family. The Palace is open to the public most of the year, except when the Royal Family is in residence (usually mid-December to early February). When the Palace is open, visitors are welcome to stroll the grounds and admire the exquisite gardens where the blooming flowers create explosions of colour.
The flowers aren’t the only colourful things on Doi Suthep; the park is home to a number of small hilltribe villages that continue to live very much in the same way as they have done for a thousand years. The largest of these villages is located a short distance beyond the Bhubing Palace. Although this village is somewhat commercialized it is still worth a look, especially if you are pressed for time and can’t make it to the more authentic (and remote) villages.
Many people find it a very rewarding experience to explore the mountain on their own. A 100 or 125 cc motorbike is more than sufficient for the ascent, which is a pleasantly meandering journey through lush rainforests and along clear streams.
To get to Doi Suthep from Chiang Mai take route 1004 northwest. The entrance to the National Park is located about 15 km (9 miles) from the city centre and the drive to the top of the mountain from the entrance takes about 20 minutes. If you don’t want to take a motorbike then song thaews (red taxis) are your best option. Song thaews regularly run from Chang Puak market and the journey from there should cost about 150 baht. A cheaper alternative is to make your way along Huay Kaew Road to the entrance of Chiang Mai University. Song thaews from here will ferry you to the temple for only 30 baht (one way) but the taxi won’t leave until there are six or more people.
The temple is open from 06:00 to 20:00 every day, but weekends and holidays are usually very crowded. Admission is 50 baht, which includes a two way ticket on the tram. Hearty souls who chose to walk up the staircase are rewarded for their fortitude by only paying 30 baht. Remember that Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a sacred place and you should dress respectfully when visiting it. That means no shorts or skirts and no tank tops. If you find yourself at the gate wearing cut offs, don’t worry – fisherman’s pants can be rented for a minimal fee.
Most of the other attractions at the park are free, but there is a 300 baht fee for the Monthathan waterfall. There are some bungalows and rudimentary guest houses in Doi Suthep National Park but there’s really no need to stay overnight; it’s not like Doi Suthep is a long way from the city. There are plenty of rustic restaurants scattered all over the park but the prices are about ten baht higher than in the city. Shoppers will find a few stalls offering souvenirs and knick knacks and the hilltribe villages offer traditional clothing and handicrafts.
Although not the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of the city, the Chiang Mai Zoo is surprisingly interesting. Covering 200 acres of land in the foothills of Doi Suthep and providing excellent views of the city in addition to its fascinating wildlife exhibits, Chiang Mai Zoo is certainly worth a visit, especially if you’ve had your fill of temples.
Nearly 400 different species of animal are kept at the Chiang Mai Zoo, including elephants, tigers, chimpanzees, hippopotami and rhinoceroses. The zoo also features some outstanding special attractions such as the walk through aviary, a fascinating freshwater aquarium and the zoo’s stars – Chuang Chuang and Lin Hui, two young pandas who were sent as goodwill ambassadors from China in 2003.
The emphasis here is on creating a natural feeling environment, an illusion of being out in the wild. Many of the enclosures, such as the giraffe and zebra exhibit, have ramps and walkovers that allow visitors to get up close and personal with the zoo’s furry residents.
Conservation and education are top priorities at Chiang Mai Zoo; the animals are well cared for and quite happy and healthy. The animal population of the zoo is as diverse as the human population of northern Thailand. Here you will find a wide variety of Southeast Asian species, such as the Giant Mae Khong Catfish, the Tiger and the rare Serow, which has existed almost unchanged for 7 million years.
In addition to these regional species, the zoo is home to creatures from all corners of the globe, including the Alpaca from South America, Giraffes and Zebras from Africa, Kangaroos and Dingoes from Australia and Scops Owls from Europe, among many others. A truly unusual sight is the Humboldt Penguin exhibit. Seeing birds traditionally associated with the frigid Polar Regions thriving in balmy Thailand is definitely one to file in the something-you-don’t-see-everyday column.
Covering as much land as it does, Chiang Mai Zoo can be quite a hike to get around so make sure to familiarize yourself with the exhibits on display to ensure that you get to see everything you want. Near the entrance is the Cage Area, where smaller animals are kept in traditional zoo cages amid a colourful profusion of tropical flowers. Beyond the entrance area you will find the Open Zoo, a 40 acre, walled enclosure where numerous species are allowed to mingle and roam free. A pedestrian walkover allows visitors a unique perspective from which to observe the behaviour of the animals. The Breeding Area and Recreational Areas are located towards the back of the zoo, near a pleasant lake that makes for perfect picnics.
The zoo’s main areas are connected by a long road that runs in a loop from the entrance to the lake and back. And when we say long, we mean long. Remember that the zoo covers over 200 acres of land. After walking half of it you might feel like roping an antelope and riding it to the next exhibit. Take heart, however, as vehicles are allowed in the zoo, so if you’re pressed for time or simply don’t feel like walking you can still cover all of the attractions. There are also open air tram busses that take occupants to various exhibits, with tours narrated by the drivers. The park staff is very knowledgeable but their English is not always the best.
While the Latin names of the animals are written in English, the common names are almost all in Thai. You won’t need a translator to tell you that the huge predator marked Panthera Leo is a Lion but you might have trouble figuring out which is a Trichosurus Vulpecula (Brushtail Possum) and which is a Myrmecophaga Tridactyla (Giant Anteater).
Although there are plenty of exhibits to see, there are a few that stand out above the rest. The highlight is, of course, the panda exhibit. Chuang Chuang and Lin Hui (or Thewan and Thewee as they are known to the Thais) are easily the zoo’s most charismatic and photogenic residents. Their multi-million baht enclosure is designed to accurately simulate the cool mountain climate of their natural home, making it a great place to come and seek refuge from the heat.
The pandas are at their most active in the morning, romping, wrestling and playing on the structures in their spacious home. If you go in the afternoon they’ll spend as much time watching you as you do watching them. Visiting the pandas is an extra 100 baht for adults and 50 baht for children but the fee is worth it and no visit to the Chiang Mai Zoo is complete with stopping in and observing these fascinating and gentle creatures.
Also popular, and with good reason, is Chiang Mai Zoo’s Nakornping Walk Through Aviary. This massive exhibit consists of a 2.5 acre enclosed space that is home to over 800 birds. After passing through the doors and gates you will arrive inside a huge artificial forest filled with trees, flowers and, of course, birds. At the forest floor it is almost impossible to see the metal netting high above and you really feel as if you are deep in the jungle, complete with river and small waterfall.
The aviary was renovated in 2004 and now has more paths, pavilions and open spaces for visitors to relax in. Along the pathways you will find the large ground dwelling birds, such as peacocks, emus and flamingos. As you proceed through the aviary you will find walkways that ascend up through the trees, eventually emerging above the canopy. This multi-level approach allows you to get a first hand look at the birds that occupy different areas of the forest cover.
Other popular attractions include Gibbon Island, a series of enclosure-less islands where Gibbons are free to live and breed, the Freshwater Aquarium, home to 60 species of tropical freshwater fish and the Cape Fur Seal Exhibit. A special treat that has recently become available is the Twilight Zoo, a chance to see many of the animals during the time when they are at their most active.
Wat Chedi Luang’s massive chedi (pagoda) was built sometime between 1385 and 1402, during the reign of King Saen Muang Ma, 7th ruler of the Mengrai dynasty and is a distinctive feature of the Chiang Mai skyline. At its peak, the chedi measured 60 metres across at the square base and 80 metres tall and was once the home of the Emerald Buddha, Thailand’s most sacred religious relic.
Damaged during an earthquake in 1545, the chedi’s height is reduced to nearly half of its original size yet it is still an impressive structure. In 1992, the Fine Arts Department finished restoration work around the chedi, bringing back the naga (water serpent) staircase on each of its faces and wonderful statues of elephants adorning the base. The actual work on the chedi itself, however, was never quite complete, leaving it in its present state.
On Wat Chedi Luang’s premise are several structures of great cultural significance, including the city pillar (Intakin), main wiharn housing the principal Buddha image and a giant gum tree guarding the temple’s entrance. According to ancient Lanna beliefs, the city pillar is erected at the epicentre of the city, to mark the centre of the universe, which in the past was the Lanna Kingdom. Dwarfing the city pillar shrine is one of the three gum trees believed to protect the city from all ills. Legend has it that if this tree ever falls, a great catastrophe will follow.
On important Buddhist holidays, such as Visakha Buja, Wat Chedi Luang is where worshippers convene for the evening candle procession. A special pulley system allows visitors to leave offerings and prayers atop the chedi during the day. The temple is located on Phra Pokklao Road and is easy to find, since the chedi is one of the tallest structures in the old city.
Located in attractive countryside about five kilometres south of Chiang Mai along the Ping River, Wiang Kum Kam is an ancient city dating back to the eighth-century Haripunchai Kingdom. Later on it served as the capital of the then Lanna Kingdom for a short while until Chiang Mai was chosen to replace it in 1296.
Expect to see many interesting items and structures such as stone tablets with Mon inscriptions, Buddhist sculptures and architecture, earthenware and pottery. Taking a horse-drawn carriage is a popular way to enjoy the ruins although some visitors prefer to take their time to appreciate this large site on foot or by rented bicycle.
The demise of Wiang Kum Kam as the capital city is slightly different from those of other ancient capitals. Rather than being left in ruin, the city was completely submerged under the Ping River, which suddenly changed its course and swept the whole city under. Had it not been accidentally rediscovered (in 1984), the story of Wiang Kum Kum would just be a legend.
After a number of archaeological expeditions were carried out, experts unearthed extensive city foundations and more than 40 ancient structures within an area of 850 metres long and 600 metres wide. The Fine Arts Department has done restoration works on some of the structures whereas many are left in their original ruined state and others completely destroyed by the floods, leaving only traces of their previous existence.
The centrepiece at Wiang Kum Kam is Wat Chedi Liam (or Temple with an Angular-based Chedi). Widely depicted in postcards, the temple features a Burmese-style pavilion (restored in 1908 by a Burmese trader) and a five-tiered chedi set on a square base – the signature style of the early Lanna period. Each corner of the chedi is guarded by an outward-facing lion, an architectural feature that is unique to the Haripunchai style (today’s Lamphun).
Other important structures include Wat Chang Kham, containing the spirit house of King Mengrai (founder of the Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai kingdoms) and the Cultural and Local Wisdom Learning Centre which exhibits Lanna objects and traditional Lanna-style houses. It’s a good idea to drop by Wiang Kum Kam Information Centre, where excavated earthenware pottery and artifacts are displayed in the exhibit rooms.
Having secured their names in the Guinness World Record, the elephants at the Mae Sa Elephant Camp are no ordinary beasts. Apart from going about their daily routine of bathing, eating, sleeping and just being domesticated elephants, these extremely intelligent animals have been trained to paint, play football, dance and perform a string of talent shows that will change the way you think about Thai elephants.
Mae Sa Elephant Camp has been around since 1976, as a conservation centre for domesticated elephants acquired from across the country. Once employed in the logging industry, these elephants found themselves ‘out of jobs’ once heavy machines were brought in to replace them and, as a result, ended up roaming the streets with their mahouts to beg for food. At Mae Sa Elephant Camp, these elephants again found their self-worth, whether as artists, entertainers, or just elephants. Here, you will witness their incredible talents as well as learn about their livelihood as domesticated elephants.
Surrounded by lush forest canopies, tucked away in the picturesque valley some 30km north of Chiang Mai, Mae Sa Elephant Camp is home to more than 70 domesticated elephants and their mahouts. Each day, the elephants undergo a routine of bathing in the river, feeding and performing a string of talent shows. You can also ride an elephant around the camp’s verdant grounds or learn about their nature from a permanent exhibit housed inside one of the elephant’s living quarters.
Apart from day visits, you can try out the basic mahout training course if you feel compelled to learn more deeply into the elephant’s nature. The course will teach you all about the animal’s biology, health requirements, body language, as well as basic training commands, painting, bathing, riding and general handling.
Mae Sa Elephant Camp had been training its elephants to paint long before the Guinness World Records arrived on the scene. In fact, the idea of training domesticated elephants to paint was a novel concept, unheard of anywhere. In 2004, the camp made headline news after Ripley’s Believe It or Not (Thailand) awarded its prize “The Largest Painting by a Group of Elephants” to Mae Sa Elephant Camp for its 2.4m wide by 12m long painting by a herd of eight elephants. Entitled “Cold Wind, Swirling Mist, Charming Lanna,” the painting depicts Chiang Mai’s picturesque rural scenery in eight panels of canvas.
This painting was sold for 1.5 million baht to a Thai-born US businessman, who then donated it to the Thai government for safe keeping as national treasure, setting a new Guinness World Record for “The Most Expensive Painting by a Group of Elephants” in 2005
The highest peak in Thailand, Doi Inthanon rises to a height of 2565 meters (8, 415 feet) above sea level. This altitude means that temperatures on Doi Inthanon are refreshingly brisk year round and regularly dip below freezing during the cool season (October to February). The national park which contains Doi Inthanon and bears its name covers 482 square km (186 square miles) and contains Sanpatong District, Chomthong District, Mae Chaem District, Mae Wang District, and the Toi Lor Sub district of Chiang Mai Province.
Doi Inthanon National Park is a true jewel of natural beauty, consisting of rugged mountainous terrain blanketed by lush tropical forests and dotted with mighty rivers and majestic waterfalls. The park’s protected status makes it a sanctuary for a wide range of animal species and it is perhaps the best place in Thailand for bird watching. Approximately 362 different species of bird make their home in Doi Inthanon National Park, many of which are not found anywhere else in Thailand.
The diversity of Doi Inthanon does not only extend to plant and animal species, however. The park has long been home to settlements of Northern Hilltribes as well. Recent efforts have been made to allow theses unique villages to maintain their traditional cultures while co-existing with modern developments such as tourism and the Bhumibol Dam, which harnesses the power of the Ping River to provide electricity to thousands of Thai people.
Doi Inthanon is a popular destination for visitors to the region, not only for its natural beauty, but for its historical significance as well. Chedis (monuments) dedicated to Their Royal Majesties, The King and Queen, can be found atop the peak of the mountain.
The park has been adapted somewhat to accommodate the tourist trade and there are some eating and drinking areas, as well as accommodation. The rugged terrain is now crisscrossed with pathways and roads to make it more accessible to visitors. The development has been tightly controlled, however, and every effort has been made to preserve the natural beauty of the environment.
Doi Inthanon National Park consists primarily of high rugged mountains including Doi Inthanon itself, as well as Doi Huamodluang. The area is a major watershed and is the source of several rivers such as the Mae Klang, Mae Pakong, Mae Pon, Mae Hoi, Mae Ya, Mae Chaem and Mae Khan Rivers. It is also part of the source of the Ping River, which runs directly through Chiang Mai.
When you combine mountain peaks with rivers, what do you get? Waterfalls. Doi Inthanon National Park is the location of some of the most spectacular waterfalls in Thailand. The most stunning of these waterfalls is probably Mae Yai, which cascades down from a height of 100 meters (330 feet). Mae Klang Waterfall is easily accessible to visitors, being located right near the park entrance. On the weekends expect to see plenty of Thai families enjoying a picnic near this scenic point.
Wachiratan Waterfall is located halfway up the road to the top of the peak and provides some great swimming holes at the bottom of its 40 meter (131 foot) drop. A dip in one of these pools is not for the faint of heart, however, as the water temperature is downright icy. Close to the summit you will find the slender white wisp of Siriphum Waterfall, which is usually less crowded than its cousins. The water level of Siriphum varies a great deal from season to season, however.
The elevation of Doi Inthanon means that it enjoys a perpetually cooler temperature than the surrounding plains. During the middle of the cool season temperatures easily drop below freezing and even during the sweltering heat of the hot season the air at the summit remains bracingly chilly.
The high elevation and abundance of water have blessed Doi Inthanon with a rich biodiversity that is unique in Thailand. Its lush forests include Moist Evergreen, Pine Forest and Mixed Deciduous. At the base of the mountains cleared agricultural land is interspersed with deciduous trees, which lose their leaves at the coming of the dry season. At higher elevations the deciduous forests give way to large swathes of tropical evergreen, which maintain their emerald hue all year round. Doi Inthanon is home to a large and colourful array of flowers, as well. Vanda Orchids, Phycastylis and Rhododendron can be found growing wild all over the park.
Doi Inthanon National Park is also home to a wide variety of animal species. Although many of the large animals are no longer found in the park it is still home to a number of different species. Asiatic Black Bears, Barking Deer and Chinese Flying Squirrels can be seen, living alongside a large variety of primates including Gibbons, Macaques, Leaf Monkeys and over 30 species of bats. Doi Inthanon is also the best locale in Thailand for bird watching, with over 300 different species making their homes among the trees.
Doi Inthanon National Park has much to offer visitors besides its natural beauty. For centuries the area has been home to various hill tribes who still reside there and maintain their ancient way of life. At the base of the peaks you will find Hmong villages, where the people continue to tend their fields as they have done for hundreds of years. The only change is the crop. Thanks to the Royal Project, these people have switched from cultivating opium poppies and now grow other commercial crops such as vegetables and flowers. Visitors are welcome to the Royal Project, which is located right near the rangers’ station.
Try a trip to the Hmong Village, Khun Ya Noi, for a visit to the market and to admire the people’s colourfully embroidered clothing. There are also several Karen villages, such as Ban Mae Ab Nai, where you can purchase fine examples of traditional Karen weaving and textiles and observe the quaint Karen way of life first hand. If you are up for a bit of a hike then check out Brichinda Cave, a beautiful limestone cave which is open to the sky. The cave is located in the middle of a deciduous forest, about an hour’s walk from the road.
For those keen on trekking Doi Inthanon is a paradise, with four striking nature trails to explore. Nature trails are a great way to experience the fantastic scenery of Doi Inthanon up close and personal. Doi Inthanon nature trails take a few hours to walk and maps and guides are available at the ranger station. Near the summit of Doi Inthanon you will find two Chedis dedicated to Their Royal Majesties, the King and Queen. The Chedis are located on facing hills, about 100 meters (330 feet) from one another. They were erected to commemorate the King and Queen’s 60th birthdays and each contain exquisitely crafted Buddha images as well as fine tiled murals. The views offered from the hills can be astounding on a clear day but there is often cloud cover or fog obscuring visibility.
There are several different options for those who wish to explore Doi Inthanon. To make it simple on yourself and make sure you don’t miss anything, see our Doi Inthanon Tours. Another option is to explore the park in a rental car or on a motorbike.
To get to Doi Inthanon from Chiang Mai take route 108 towards Chomthong. Follow this road for 57 km (35 miles) and turn right onto route 1009 (Chomthong-Doi Inthanon Road). Follow this road for 31km (19 miles) and you will arrive at the entrance of the park (trip time approximately 90 minutes). Once in the park you can explore it on foot or in a vehicle. While the climb is tiring, it is a great way to experience the entire park. The ranger station at the entrance to the park is well equipped and can provide maps, guides and information on the park.
If you want to stay overnight at Doi Inthanon there are several options available. The Royal Park Service maintains a small number of chalets and bungalows on the park grounds. The surroundings are spectacular but the amenities are limited. There are also campsites located near the ranger stations but advance booking is recommended, especially during high season, when much of the accommodation is full. The nearby villages of Chomthong, Hot and Mae Chaem also have a number of guest houses and resort-type facilities.
Doi Pui, at 1,685metres above sea level, is the highest peak in the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. It is famous for its beautiful waterfalls which are easily reached from the main road. But one of the hottest attractions for Doi Pui must be Hmong Tribal Village situated less than five kilometres from the famous Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. A visit to this village is an eye-opener into the tribal villagers’ private life. Witness their simple way of living, their homes, as well as learn about their culture through a collection of objects, such as musical instruments, traditional silver-embroidered costumes and bamboo crafts.
Because of the high elevation, Doi Pui is enshrouded in mist and has a relatively cool climate all year round (average temperatures of 20 – 23 degrees Celsius). The forest cover consists of mixed deciduous and evergreen forests, with bursts of colourful blossoms dotting the entire mountain slopes. Various species of birds and small mammals inhabit the forests, among them red jungle fowl, pheasants, eagles, wild boar and macaque.
Doi Suthep-Pui National Park features a number of waterfalls, many are accessible from the Mae Rim-Samoeng Highway north of the Old City. Montha Tan Waterfall, at 730 above sea level, has a total of nine cascades and flows into Huay Kaew Waterfall at the foot of Doi Suthep. Other notable waterfalls include Tat Mauk Waterfall and Mae Sa Waterfall.
Many travellers to Doi Suthep-Pui National Park stop their journey at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, although just a few kilometres ahead is where Doi Pui’s Hmong ethnic hill-tribe lives. The road up to the village is steep but well-paved. If you are interested in learning about the livelihood of Thailand’s ethnic hill-tribe, Doi Pui is one of the few places close to town to meet and chat with the Hmong ethnic hill-tribe as well as learn about their way of live from the living museum.
Like most ethnic hill-tribes of the north, Doi Pui’s Hmong people used to cultivate opium poppies for a living until the royal sustainable projects arrived and transformed the entire village to agricultural farms. Today, the Hmong villagers have income from selling agricultural products as well as tribal souvenirs to visitors.
Three kilometres downhill from the Hmong village is the site of the Phu Ping Palace, where HM King Bhumibhol (Rama IX) used as a temporary residence and also to receive royal guests while visiting Chiang Mai. The palace complex consists of a cluster of contemporary Thai-style buildings, constructed from bricks and mortar but features traditional Thai-style pointed roofs, all set amidst a well-manicured landscape, which encompasses a natural fern forest, large scenic water reservoir and rose garden.
Phu Ping Palace is open daily from 8:30 to 16:15 (ticket booth open 8:30-11:30, 13:00-15:30). Dress politely (no shorts, skirts, tank tops, or spaghetti straps).
To get to Doi Suthep-Pui National Park from Chiang Mai, take route 1004 northwest. The entrance to the National Park is located about 15 km (9 miles) from the city centre and the drive to Doi Pui from the entrance takes about 40-50 minutes.
Alternatively, take the red song-taew from the foot of Doi Suthep, which can drop you off at various points along the way. You can also charter a red song-taew and agree on where to stop as well as the price.
Boasting some of the most spectacular stalactite and stalagmite formations in the country, Chiang Dao Cave stretches many kilometres into the mountains. Legend has it that it connects with several other caves, before eventually emerges at the other end somewhere in Shan State across the border. The official figure, though, is 12 kilometres, and you can explore only a small part of it.
The cave is part of the 2,100-metre-high Doi Chiang Dao mountain range, the third highest peak in Thailand formed by pushed up sea floors some 230-250 million years ago. For the most part, the cave is well lit, but as you progress further in, even a powerful flashlight is useless. The best way to go about exploring the cave is to hire a guide, who is well-equipped with a kerosene lantern and know his way around.
Further up from Chiang Dao Cave, a visit to the Padung Village introduces you to the ‘Long Neck Karen’ ethnic hill-tribe. The women wear brass rings around their necks, wrists and ankles as part of their culture. It is a good idea to explore, with respect, the village a little to get a feel of their culture and way of life, before supporting their income by purchasing a few souvenirs (not a requirement though).
From the cave entrance, you will descend to a well-lit chamber (Tham Phra Nawn) which enshrines several Burmese-style Buddha images, guarded over by fearsome-looking lion figurines. This and the next chamber (Tham Sua Dao) are lit by electric lights. The other three accessible chambers, namely Tham Maa, Tham Kaew and Tham Naam, are pitch-black.
Apart from the stalactites and stalagmites, many are named after animals, the most magnificent is perhaps the frozen water walls (speleothems) formed by centuries of dripping water. High up on the cave walls are several sitting Buddha images set inside small niches. On the floor, sometimes carved into the wall, rest sleeping Buddha images adorned with layers of gold leaves.
You progress from one chamber to the next, following an oval loop and occasionally passing through narrow passages with very low ceilings and, sometimes, steep ascends, then exit the same way you enter. The five chambers can be explored within one hour, but do take as much time as you feel like.
The cave is located about 72km north of Chiang Mai. From the city, get on Highly 107 (Chiang Mai-Fang), and turn left at Km. 71-72 to get to the foot of Chiang Dao Mountain. Take another left turn, and 5km later you will reach the parking lot.
Bor Sang mid-sized craft village about nine kilometres east of the Old City specialises in the paper umbrella-making craft. Well known for outstanding handcraft quality as well as signature floral designs, Bor Sang Village has made its name throughout the country and abroad – so much so that the name Bor Sang has become synonymous with the paper-umbrella craft itself and the umbrella, a cultural symbol of Chiang Mai.
Here, you’ll find plenty of hand-painted umbrellas, tiny cocktail umbrellas, large parasols for gardens or patios and other handmade products – all made from sa paper (produced from the bark of the mulberry tree) and, a more recent development, cotton. The design has also evolved, from the original floral patterns to depictions of Chiang Mai’s rural scenery and even abstract patterns.
After entering the San Kampaeng district (where Bor Sang is located), you will see vibrantly coloured paper umbrellas in various street-side shops. Some also sell the umbrellas, but that’s not where all the action is.
Bor Sang Village is where you want to go. Besides crafts shops, selling the umbrellas and sa paper products, the main highlight is the umbrella factory, where you can watch the craftsmen and women putting together the umbrellas from scratch. In an assembly-line setup, you will be able to tour all the stations, from the making of the smallest parts to fully assembled parts, the drawing station, sundry station (a green lawn laden with vibrantly coloured umbrellas of all sizes) and the finished product ready to be displayed in craft shops.
During the annual Bor Sang Umbrella Festival (every third Friday of January), the entire village and San Kampaeng district come to live with festivities, among them parades, exhibitions and Miss Bor Sang pageant contest.
The origins of the Bor Sang umbrella craft are rather ambiguous, but all stories seem to point to a pilgrim monk who stopped by to practice mindful meditation in the village. Then the stories diverge, as to whether he or an elderly local introduced the craft to the villagers.
In the early days, villagers would make umbrellas during non-harvest seasons. Various umbrella parts would be fashioned out of natural products – bamboo strips for the ribs, soft wood for the cap and handle, natural latex for the varnish and sa paper for the ‘sail’. All the patterns were drawn using natural colours derived from tree barks and plants. Now acrylic paint is more common.