Visitors to the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, the second largest city in all of Thailand, should definitely make it a point to visit Doi Suthep National Park and its various attractions. You can easily spend an entire day roaming through the park itself, and you may wish to take another day or two to visit the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple, as well as other sites in and around the park.
Although most visitors are drawn to the beautiful Buddhist temple near the summit of Doi Suthep and skip the park itself, Doi Suthep National Park is a real gem that shouldn't be missed. Founded in 1981, the park includes over 265 square kilometers of wildlife reserve. Home to more than 300 bird species, 2,000 species of ferns and flowering plants, along with dozens of bat species, monkeys, wild boards, and small mammals, the park has many well-maintained hiking and biking trails that wind through the dense mountain forest. With a bit of luck, you might even spot the rare Crocodile Salamander, found in only four locations in Thailand.
Within the park, you'll want to visit the popular waterfalls – the Mae Sa Falls, Huay Kaew Falls, and Monthathan Falls. All of these waterfalls crash into beautiful mountain pools, in which you can take a dip during the hot season, or just enjoy a picnic beside in the cool season.
If you're an outdoorsy type, you can hire sleeping bags, tents, and camping equipment, and camp out in the park's campground, not far from the Information Centre. If you prefer something a little less rustic, try staying in one of the bungalows and exploring the park over the course of a couple of days. Mountain bikes can also be hired for those who prefer a little adventure to a tame walk.
The Buddhist temple near the peak of Doi Suthep is the pride and joy of Chiang Mai. Established during the Lanna Kingdom in 1383, the temple is one of northern Thailand's most sacred sites. You can climb a staircase of 306 steps leading up to the Wat, or choose the easy route and take the tram.
The central monument in Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is the 24 metre high chedi, or stupa. Chedis are Buddhist monuments that hold the relics of Buddhist saints, and for devout Buddhists, the chedis are objects of pilgrimage and worship. The chedi at the top of Doi Suthep is copper plated, so it catches the sun and blazes like a lighthouse over Chiang Mai.
Inside the plaza is the International Buddhism Centre. Visitors might enjoy dropping in for an informal chat about Buddhism, held daily between 1pm and 3pm, or the chanting held daily at 6pm. More committed visitors might like to try a three day meditation retreat, although the Centre prefers that students first take the 21 day Vipassana foundation course.
Beyond Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is Phra Tamnak Phu Phing, the winter palace of the royal Thai family. Open daily from 8:30am – 11:30am and again from 1pm – 3pm (unless the royal family happens to be visiting, in which case it is closed), the palace's main attraction is its royal gardens. Be careful: like many places in Thailand, the royal palace requires visitors to adhere to a strict dress code.
Ban Doi Pui is a Hmong village often frequented by foreigners. The Hmong people are one of the many hill tribes of northern Thailand. Ban Doi Pui, so close to the main road and therefore so often visited by non-Thais, is fairly commercialised but still worth a visit. Ban Doi Pui consists mostly of a market where Hmong crafts, Nepalese stalls, and other souvenirs can be purchased. Also in Ban Doi Pui is a small museum that gives more information about the hill tribe peoples and the persistent problem of opium production.
Some of the trails within Doi Suthep National Park lead past Hmong villages rarely visited by foreigners. These villages are a good place for visitors who want to get a real glimpse of life inside a Thai hill tribe village.
Get to Doi Suthep and its magnificent sites on a songthaew, or converted pick-up with benches. These cost about £1.84 per person round trip from the Chiang Mai zoo or from the front of Chiang Mai University. You'll be glad you made the effort to visit this incredible slice of northern Thailand.