Chiang Mai, Thailand - Hiking The Monks Trail to Wat Doi SuthepPosted by Adventure 16 | 02.05.2018
This challenging and scenic trail winds through monsoon forest to one of Thailand's most important and impressive temples.
Water break at Wat Pha Lat (the “monastery at the sloping rock”) on the Monks Trail to Doi Suthep. Mo Lawthong
In late 2017 my girlfriend Mo and I were hit over the head with a few “life” events. We were scooted out of the Leucadia studio I’d been living in for 15 years to make way for an Airbnb, and Mo lost her job when the company was taken private and the fat trimming meant the part timers had to go.
Needless to say these were initially very disruptive and concerning events but after chewing on our situation for a while we were able to perceive this all as a stroke of brilliant luck which we could shape into a very exciting opportunity. No longer having any tight ties to “home” meant we could go adventuring and with my ability to work remotely we could potentially do so for an extended period of time. Sure we’d miss Southern California, but oh the possibilities!
We quickly began “getting small”; donating, selling, giving away the bulk of our possessions, and sticking the remaining pile in storage. We unravelled the myriad of state side administrative entanglements we’d developed over the years. Our visa requests were sent off to the consulate, an apartment booked online and just after the holidays we said goodbye to friends and family and hopped a plane to Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Our apartment was on the outskirts of the city away from Chiang Mai’s tourist trail and the city’s established hipster scene, right at the southeast base of a range of mountains known as the Shan Highlands. From our balcony I could see up to the range’s immediate high point, a place locally popular for the large temple overlooking Chiang Mai city named “Wat Doi Suthep”.
A little web research revealed that we could take the “Monks Trail” to the top and once we got settled into our new lives we started watching the weather for a good day to schedule the hike. Despite it being “dry season” we were forced to wait a few days as the forecast called for overcast and rain, suboptimal conditions for a jungle hike to a viewpoint. Luckily a few days later the weather turned in our favor and we were on our way.
We set off with a backpack full of snacks and water first doing some urban hiking through Chiang Mai University before reaching the hikes starting point. At the trailhead there is a small parking lot for motorbike’s if that’s your preference or a songthaew can drop you off there as well.
The monks have tied orange sashes on the trees to mark the route. Mo Lawthong
The route itself is fairly easy to follow, well marked for good portions with orange sashes tied around the trees that partly shade the path. The walking surface is mixed rocks and firm dirt. The path climbs moderately in general but does have a few steeper sections thrown in. Eventually the trail reaches and continues along a small creek where after about ¾ of a mile it opens up to a slick rock section. This signals your arrival at Wat Pha Lat the “monastery at the sloping rock”.
The trail approaching Wat Pha Lat. Tim Axall
Wat Pha Lat is the lesser visited temple in the area with most passing it over to head up to Wat Doi Suthep. Its setting amongst the jungle plants with the cascading creek makes it an idyllic spot for a rest and we found a creekside spot on the rocks that allowed us to enjoy the view down to Chiang Mai city as we snacked. Before resuming the hike we wandered around the temple grounds taking in the sights and snapping a few photos.
Overlook at Wat Pha Lat. Tim Axall
Buddha statues at Wat Pha Lat. Tim Axall
After leaving Wat Pha Lat the trail steepens considerably and begins climbing in earnest as you progress up the most difficult section. The composition of the path changes to clay steps that have developed over time, in many places perfectly placed between large, gnarled tree roots that you have to carefully ascend occasionally grabbing at a piece of bamboo or nearby tree branch as a makeshift handrail.
Water cache left for Mo as she climbs in the heat. Tim Axall #WheresyourA16bottlebeen
One arduous mile later you emerge from the jungle onto a road. From here you have to carefully walk ¼ mile on the busy, shoulderless road up to the temple parking area. Your experience here will be markedly different than the temple you just left as you’ll likely be overwhelmed by the throngs of tourists, street side vendors, monks, motorbikes, songthaews and giant tour buses all packed in at the base of the temple.
Next you’ll climb exactly 306 steps up a dragon decorated staircase to Wat Doi Suthep. The overlook offers an excellent vantage point to study Chiang Mai’s layout and there are many interesting features in and surrounding the temple to simply stroll around and enjoy.
Reclining Buddha at Wat Doi Suthep. Tim Axall
Once you’ve had enough sightseeing you have the option of retracing your steps back to the trailhead, or taking a songthaew down. We of course decided to hike back down the whole time discussing all the great street food we were going to get at the night market that evening!
Start Early! I had some morning work obligations that delayed our start until 9am meaning we spent the bulk of our time in the 93F midday/heat!
Be Physically Prepared! At just 2.05 miles how hard could it be? Well, the trail gains 2,045’ in those 2 miles with most of that in the second half. The overall average gradient is 19% and when you factor in the heat and humidity, it can be a bit of a challenge.
Watch the Weather! While heat and humidity can make this hike tough, rain would render the trail treacherous and perhaps impassable due to the slickening of the clay steps in some of the steeper sections.
Be Aware of Wildlife! The Shan Highlands are home to the Malayan Pit Viper which kills more people in Thailand than any other snake. It is a lazy snake that tends to remain put as humans approach so watch where you step! A more likely encounter will be with temple dogs which can be aggressive, especially in packs. Keep your distance if you sense aggression and either back away slowly or walk toward a monk as they will be familiar with the dogs and able to assist.
Be Respectful! Please remember that this hike takes you onto two temple grounds and you should familiarize yourself with appropriate dress and etiquette before entering (true here or for any other temple in SE Asia). At a minimum clothing for both sexes should cover the knees and shoulders.
Tim Axall is an A16 Ambassador whose interests lie in all things outdoors; especially backpacking, hiking, skiing and adventure travel. Originally from Southern California he considers the Sierra Nevada’s his local mountains. He is currently based in Chiang Mai, Thailand as he travels Southeast Asia with his wonderful girlfriend and adventure partner “Mo” who takes many of the (better!) photographs in these articles. Thank you for reading!