A Morning With Monks in Chiang Mai

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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.

Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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.

Temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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.

Wat Prah That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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.

Wat Prah That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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.

Monks in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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.

Monks in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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.

Wat Prah That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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.

Wat Prah That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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.

Wat Prah That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Wat Prah That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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.

Wat Prah That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Wat Prah That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Wat Prah That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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.

Wat Prah That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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.

Wat Pha Lat in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Wat Pha Lat in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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.

Wat Pha Lat in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Wat Pha Lat in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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!).

Wat Pha Lat in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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?

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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37 Comments on “A Morning With Monks in Chiang Mai

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  1. I have heard a lot about this place and read so much about it in blogs. Certainly somewhere I would like to check out

      Hopefully you get to go someday, Rebecca!

    oh, how great that you went early in the morning at Wat doi suthep. I actually hated it for how crowded it was. Usually I do my research on the Internet before seeing certain places, but this time I skipped the research, and I found myself surrounded by hundreds of people. I had no idea it can be so crowded. I couldn’t even see the temple properly, only the rooftops 😀 Also one other thing that surprised me in a bad way: there were many local little girls with a lot of makeup on their faces, dancing for money. They wouldn’t let you take their photo, they would turn and hide their faces unless you gave them money for the shot. They were not really in the mood to dance, but they were pushed by older girls who kept telling them to stay there and do their moves. Child exploitation.
    Honestly it was the worst temple experience from my Cambodia-Thailand trip. The experience is unforgettable, though negative 🙂 This is a photo of the little girls (I don’t know if it’s OK to post a link in the comment section?) http://photocory.com/2014/02/03/chiang-mai-thailand/children-with-makeup-dancing-thailand-chiang-mai/

      also, as a p.s. I see almost everyone who commented here has an avatar photo and I don’t? 🙁 Would you happen to know why?

        You need to have a photo connected to your email address via gravatar.com, I believe.

      That IS really sad about the little girls dancing. 🙁 Also a bummer that it was so crowded. I promise that it was very different early in the morning!

    I can certainly see why Wat Prah That Doi Suthep is so popular. It’s stunning! I think I’d be inclined to visit both also. While Wat Prah That Doi Suthep is visually stunning in every way, I really like the setting that Wat Pha Lat is in and the fact that it is a lot more quiet.

      Both of them are definitely worth a visit! I had never even heard of Wat Pha Lat, but I’m really glad I got to visit it, too!

    Gorgeous photos! I wanted to stay in Chiang Mai, too, but with the recent changes in the visa policies, I don’t think I’d make it my base anymore. Wish I thought of booking a sunrise tour; I agree, the number of tourists there during the day was staggering.

      The change in the visa policies really is a bummer!

    What a wonderful experience!! I hate crowds too and know how special it can be when you’re the only one! The temples in Thailand look amazing.

      The temples in Thailand really are incredible! Actually, make that throughout all of Southeast Asia!

    I’d love to visit Chiang Mai someday.
    The last time I was in Thailand, my friends and I had to choose between Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai, and we decided on Chiang Rai. We really enjoyed it (the tourist attractions are mostly in the outskirts) but still, I’m curious about Chiang Mai. I’ve heard so many good stories about it. Some of your pictures quite remind me of Chiang Rai though.

      I haven’t been to Chiang Rai so I really can’t compare the two, but I quite liked Chiang Mai. I stayed in the old town (inside the moat), and it was pretty chilled out.

    Definitely going to look into this tour..no crowds sounds ideal. And well done for making the climb 🙂

      No crowds is definitely the way to go at Doi Suthep if possible! I mean, it would still be awesome, but having it to ourselves made it even better.

    How great that you were able to find a guide that offered more of an authentic cultural experience. I also abhor getting up early but in this case it seems people would really benefit from doing so.

    I love the shot of the steps leading to the temple-is there any significance associated with the number 309?

      I honestly have no clue if there is a significance to the 309 steps or not. I’m sure there is – I just don’t know it!

    It sounds like a brilliant tour and I do like the sound of spending time with monks as we’ll be going to Chiang Mai in the summer. I’m not sure about the early rise though as I do that already and I would be on a holiday break from routine LOL!
    Lovely pictures. 🙂

      Haha, well I can assure you that one early rise to miss all the crowds was very worth it in this case! (Plus, I just went back to sleep for a couple hours when I got back just a bit after 9am 😉 )

        Now that’s what I like to hear. A long lie-in LOL!

    This has a similar feel to 10 thousand monks monastery in Hong Kong – which I would highly recommend you do if you’re ever in the area! The jungle temple looks amazing too. The saying is obviously true – The early bird gets the worm!

      I did not make it to the 10 thousands buddha monastery in Hong Kong, but I’ve heard that it’s amazing!

    I’ve just 3d printed the golden buddha sculpture from your photo, I wish I could have 3dscanned it live:) It is really hard to 3d model from a photo, I feel a little bit jealous;) breathtaking shots btw, thanks for sharing them!

    That looks amazing, thank you for the tip about this tour. It sounds to be by far the best way to go. I will remember for my trip. 🙂

      Even if you don’t book a tour, I highly suggest visiting both of these temples!

    Sounds like a great tour, I’ll bookmark their page as I’ll be there in a few months 🙂

      Definitely worth checking out! I don’t really like that they also offer elephant trekking tours, but they have some fantastic reviews and I really enjoyed my experience. This tour wasn’t cheap (I think we paid 950 baht each), but I felt like it was worth it.

    Wow, I’ve never seen those steps completely empty like that…mind you, I don’t think I’ve arrived there quite that early before! Looks like a wonderful and beautifully peaceful experience 🙂

      I’m SO glad I decided to get up early and go to Doi Suthep. It was absolutely worth it!

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