I knew I wanted to spend some time in Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai, the laid-back, moat-enclosed, expat-filled largest city in northern Thailand.
After hearing so many great things about the city — about how great it was as a base for digital nomads; about how great the food was; about how great the atmosphere would be — I decided to stay for 5 days after being off-grid for a week while I volunteered at Elephant Nature Park.
But, being off-grid for a week for someone who makes a living online meant that I had a LOT to catch up on.
Because of this, I regret to report that I didn't do a whole lot of sightseeing in Chiang Mai. Sure, I wandered around the Old Town, met some other bloggers for dinner, and found my way into a temple or two. But, by the time I was halfway through my stay, I still felt like I hadn't truly “seen” much of anything in Chiang Mai.
Ask any traveler for suggestions in Chiang Mai, and they will tell you that you have to visit Wat Prah That Doi Suthep — the golden temple atop the mountain that rises above the city.
I decided that, if I did nothing else “touristy” in Chiang Mai, I would visit this famous temple.
Unfortunately, people who have visited Wat Prah That Doi Suthep will tell you about the huge crowds that ascend to the temple daily. Songthaew after songthaew deposit camera-toting tourists near the temple's entrance at regular intervals throughout the day, making for a crowded, sometimes pushy experience, I was told.
I wanted to avoid those crowds. So I started doing some Googling.
After half an hour of reading reviews and tips, I decided that booking a sunrise tour of the temple would be my best bet for experiencing it sans masses of people. After all, tourists don't usually like to wake up early.
I ended up booking a tour with Untouched Thailand that promised to be slightly more cultural. And it did not disappoint.
Waking up before 6 a.m. was not pleasant, but my time at the elephant park had at least conditioned me to wake up while it was still dark. I was picked up at my hotel around 6:15 by the company's owner and main tour guide, Sipohn, and we then went to pick up one more person before heading out of the city.
Our first stop was the base of Chiang Mai Hill to watch the monks descending into the city as the sun was rising to collect their alms for the day. Sipohn, who actually spent nearly 30 years of his own life as a monk, explained the alms-giving tradition, and helped us make offerings to the young monks as they filed down the hill.
At first, I was a little wary of participating in a tradition that was not my own, but as I watched others — both locals and foreigners alike — offer food to the monks, I decided that they probably didn't mind who the food came from, so long as I was respectful about it.
After watching the monks for a while, we continued on up the mountain to Wat Prah That Doi Suthep.
Before 8 a.m., the temple was silent; still bathed in the light of the sunrise and blissfully empty.
I chose to climb the 309 steps that led to the temple, while my companion opted to take the tram. Once we shed our shoes and entered the main temple complex, Sipohn began telling us the story of Wat Prah That Doi Suthep.
The temple was built about 600-650 years ago. The story goes that the King at the time had a relic of the Buddha's. He tied this relic to the back of a white elephant, and let the elephant loose into the jungle. The elephant began climbing the mountain, stopping halfway up near a waterfall. Immediately the King ordered a temple to be built at that site. But then the elephant continued climbing. When he reached the top, he trumpeted three times, then laid down and died. On this site now stands Wat Prah That Doi Suthep.
Sipohn walked around the inner temple complex with us once, pointing out the different features (though, if I'm being honest, I couldn't take my eyes off the giant golden stupa in the center!). We got a blessing from a monk who loves practicing his English by asking people where they are from, and then were allowed to wander around the temple on our own for as long as we wanted.
If you want to visit this temple (and everyone is right — you SHOULD visit it), definitely go early. It wasn't until we left around 8:30 that tourists really began trickling in.
Our morning wasn't quite finished, however. On the way back down the mountain, Sipohn asked if we would like to stop at what he called the “hidden jungle temple.” Of course we said yes.
The temple's name is actually Wat Pha Lat, and it truly is a hidden jungle temple. Sipohn said this is his favorite temple in Chiang Mai — and I can understand why.
We were the ONLY people there other than a couple of monks. We took our time wandering through the jungly grounds, watching butterflies flit across streams and stopping to sit on a bench next to a small waterfall.
Wat Pha Lat is far more subdued and understated than Wat Prah That Doi Suthep, but that doesn't make it any less beautiful.
If you find yourself in Chiang Mai and would like to have a temple-filled morning, I would highly recommend this tour. Sipohn was a great guide — very knowledgable, but not at all pushy. He also introduced me to Wat Pha Lat, which I would have never found on my own (I mean, it doesn't even have a Wikipedia page!).
In the end, even though it meant getting up before the sun, I was very happy to have spent my morning with monks.
Have you been to either of these temples in Thailand? Which one would you rather visit?