Wat Doi Suthep (altitude 1053 m (3456 ft) lies amid delightful scenery below the summit of Doi Pui (1685 m (5530 ft)). Access from Chiang Mai is by road - car or bus - along the winding 1004. A rewarding detour on foot from the car park (bus terminal) leads to the attractively situated Nam Tok Huai waterfall. At the point where the road begins to rise sharply to the temple, a monument commemorates Phra Si Wichai, the monk on whose initiative in 1934 the first road was built.
He raised the money among the people of Chiang Mai, and they helped construct the road.
The final lap is completed either on foot or by the little rack railway. A huge staircase of 306 steps, adorned with copper plaques engraved with the names of donors, and flanked by balustrades in the shape of two seven-headed nagas writhing upwards, climbs to the temple's spacious terrace. From here the views over the city and the surrounding countryside are magnificent.
The wat is named after a devout monk called Vasuthep, believed to have been a hermit living on the site. According to legend, when the sacred relic in Wat Suan Dok miraculously split in two, King Kuna resolved to build a shrine to house the second fragment. The monk Sumana, who had discovered the relic in the first place, advised him to place the tiny object in an altar secured to the back of a white elephant, letting the animal roam free. Making its way up the mountain, the elephant lay down at the very place where Vasuthep lived and when the relic was taken from the altar, the animal died. So Kuna erected his temple on that precise spot and built a little chedi over the place where the elephant was buried (near the forestry office bungalow).
To the right of the platform at the foot of the great, naga-embellished staircase, stands a statue of the Earth goddess Thorani (symbol of the Earth's creative power) wringing water from her hair. Brahmanical tradition tells how Mara ("the evil one") and his demons led the meditating Buddha into temptation, whereupon Thorani appeared and, wringing water from her hair, washed the demon army away.
The entrance to the temple precinct proper is guarded by statues of two demons with, at the side, little open spirit houses. Generally only two of the six gates leading to the gallery and the chedis are open. The gallery itself is adorned with statues of Buddha in the Chiang Mai and Sukhothai styles; note also the recent paintings decorating the walls, depicting scenes from Buddha's life. Incorporated into the gallery are two wiharns, one opposite the other, both façades being embellished with superb carvings.
Wat Doi Suthep's central shrine contains a much revered seated Buddha.
Every eye is irresistibly drawn however to the glittering gold chedi, 20 m (66 ft) high and crowned with a five-tier roundel. The entire chedi is sheathed in ornate gilded copper. At each of the four corners of the railing around it stands a small, elaborately sculpted altar and graceful filigree canopy in copper gilt.
On the north side of the precinct, outside the perimeter gallery, there is a delightful, richly decorated little chapel of recent date. In the courtyard hangs a large bronze bell surrounded by three smaller ones. Note also the little altar which carried the relic on the elephant's back, and the bust of the hermit Vasuthep.