The bright sun sleepily started to rise upwards. The shining ball was peeping above the vast bed of clouds. Slowly the warm glow began to illuminate the earth. Beneath us, Chiang Mai was still concealed under a blanket of darkness. Yet on the terrace of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, we were treated to a spectacular sunrise. The dull sound of Buddhist chants could be heard from the temple buildings adding to this ethereal experience. The sunrise on Doi Suthep was one of the most magical moments during our stay in Chiang Mai.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a temple which stands high above Chiang Mai on Mount Suthep. The temple is commonly shortened to Doi Suthep after the mountain on which is stands. Chasing the sunrise on Doi Suthep means quite an early start, a chilly morning, a nerve-wracking scooter ride and wet feet. Yet these minor annoyances are soon forgotten as the sun turns the Buddhist temple into pure gold.
Getting to Wat Doi Suthep
Firstly, find out the night before what time the sunrise will be. You will want to be at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep a little before the sunrise is due in order to experience the tranquillity of Doi Suthep and to give yourself time to walk up the lengthy Naga-lined steps. The temple is about 15 km (9 miles) from Chiang Mai old town. On a standard scooter, the distance will take around half an hour due to steep mountain roads. You will also need to make sure you arrange scooter hire the day before. Alternatively, you could order a Grab or a taxi.
Finally, make sure you get an early night the night before in order to not sleep through your alarm!
The Naga steps at Wat Doi Suthep
After your alarm has rudely forced you out of bed make sure you wrap up and wear a jacket or coat. It can be quite chilly on the scooter and upon the mountain before the sunrises. Head out of Chiang Mai old town and towards the mountains to the West of the city. Soon you will start heading up Doi Suthep on winding mountain trails.
As we climb, we start to see the first signs of daybreak. It has become a race to reach Doi Suthep before the sun appears!
We park out little scooter and leave our helmets at the bottom of the most spectacular Naga-lined steps in Thailand. The Naga are a mythological serpent race. The Nāga are said to be a powerful and proud semidivine race that can assume different physical forms such as human, partial human-serpent or serpent. They are often found in Hindu iconography, but they can be found in Buddhist Thailand too. The impressive steps are adorned with the longest Naga balustrade in the whole of Thailand.
I found the balustrade to be breath-taking. The detail and colour of the naga were incredible. Yet we had no time to linger, we had to press on and upwards towards the sun.
In order to reach Wat Phra That you must climb 300 steps. We almost raced them as we did not want to miss the sunny spectacle we had come here to see. If you do not fancy climbing 300 steps there is a shuttle bus, but this does not run until later in the day.
Take off your shoes
As you enter Doi Suthep there is a sign with the foreigner’s entrance fee on it, but this early in the morning no one was there to take our money. There were further signs instructing us to remove our shoes. It is said that Buddhists believe that the ground carries the karma of all who walk over it. Shoe soles pick up the karma and this is why Buddhists, as well as Hindus, take off their shoes before entering a temple. We both did as required and stepped onto the cold, slightly wet floor. Our visit to Chiang Mai was at the end of the rainy season which was evident from the cool liquid that had settled on the tiles. Careful not to slip, we wondered around looking for the best place to watch the sunrise.
Doi Suthep without the crowds
We had arrived in time, we had not missed the sunrise. In fact, we had a little time to spare. We used this time to wonder around one of Northern Thailand’s most sacred temples. The most wonderful part of arriving so early was that we could enjoy Doi Suthep without the crowds.
Wat Doi Suthep receives around 120,000 visitors per month, with numbers increasing dramatically on holidays such as Songkhan and Visakha Bucha Day. On Visakha Bucha Day locals climb the mountain and sleep on the terrace to commemorate the birth of the Buddha. On the day that we visited we were the first tourists there. The only other souls were monks. Their soft humming could be heard from inside the temple buildings. The Thai monks were meditating. I felt unbelievably calm listening to their hypnotic chants.
We wondered around the main court yard and looked at the architecture. The most impressive feauture of Doi Suthep is the giant 24m chedi. Chedi is the Thai word for Stupa which translates roughly into “heap” due to its mound-like structure. Chedis or Stupas contain religious relics and are used as a place of meditation. I lit two candles in memory of my grandparents. Alex lit one for his Nan. We both took a moment to think of our lost loved ones. My grandparents would have loved Thailand.
A couple of other tourists joined us in the courtyard but most went straight to the viewing platform. A mother and her small daughter said a prayer by a different candle. The lady was teaching the little girl how to pray with incense sticks. We continued round the courtyard, admiring the golden temple.
There were many gorgeous buildings at Wat Doi Suthep. It was so nice to wonder around barefoot to the sound of the monks humming all by ourselves. I could only imagine what the crowds would be like in a few hours.
After taking lots of photos we wondered back over to the balcony to watch the main event, the reason for our visit to Doi Suthep: the sunrise.
The Sunrise on Wat Doi Suthep
Slowly the sun started to wake. The Asian sun rose upwards very gradually. Its warm rays spread across the vast sky and illuminated the bed of clouds from which it appeared to have awoken from. The sky turned from shades of pink to a peach orange and the clouds were pale violet. The sight before us was a feast for our eyes.
Very few other tourists had made the journey. Perhaps as it was the Thai rainy season many fellow backpackers did not want to risk an early start for a cloudy view. Yet the clouds only enriched our experience. The bed of clouds hid the city and all earthly worries. Reality seemed very far below us as we were transported to heaven for a few moments as we watched the ball of fire announce day break.
Little lanterns flattered merrily in the wind. It was if they were excited the day had begun and they were waving in joy.
We watched this ethereal experience until the sun had illuminated the temple and was fully awake. The sunrise at Wat Doi Suthep was truly spectacular. The sunrise was worth waking up early, skipping breakfast, slightly wet feet and terrifying mountain roads. All of that was soon forgotten when we witnessed one of the most magical sunrises in the world.
After we pulled ourselves away from the terrace, we walked around the courtyard again. The monks had stopped meditated and continued with their daily chores. Dog were running around or waking up from their night slumber. More tourists had arrived.
As our stomachs rumbled, we felt it was time to leave and head back to the city for breakfast at Good Soul’s. We headed back down the incredible steps and took a few photos in better light. We then mounted our scooter and headed back down the mountain for food.
There are many fantastic temples in Chiang Mai such as Wat Phra Singh to see but experiencing the sunrise at Wat Doi Suthep was one of the highlights of our stay in Chiang Mai. There are many other wonderful, meditative experiences to discover in Thailand such as a stay at the Sanctuary on Koh Phangan. I found experiencing the tranquillity of the temple alongside watching the sunrise to be one of the most calming yet beautiful moments during our travels in Thailand.
Is the Sunrise at Wat Doi Suthep Thailand’s best sunrise?
As we sat eating our pancakes and scrambled tofu at Goodsouls, we commented on what an incredible experience that had been. Had we ever seen a better sunrise? We have certainly seen many romantic sunsets and we later saw a fantastic sunset in Chiang Rai, but I believe the sunrise on Doi Suthep must be the most magical in the whole of Thailand.
What do you think?
Would you be willing to get up that early to watch the Chiang Mai sunrise? If you are, consider adding it to your 10 day Thailand itinerary.
Have you ever seen a particularly memorable sunrise? Tell us about your sunrise experiences in the comments below!