Hiking Doi Suthep

Buddhist Temple above Chiang Mai, ThailandDoi Suthep is a national park and Buddhist temple 15 kilometers outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand, and yesterday I rented a motorcycle and drove there. The ride is gorgeous, a flurry of sun-drenched forests with vista views, and the landscape near the temple is equally pristine.

Perched on the top of a mountain with the same name, the temple is one of the most sacred in Thailand.  According to legend, the site was chosen in the 14th century when a white elephant owned by the king was saddled with the shoulder blade of the Buddha and released into the jungle.  The elephant climbed Doi Suthep, trumpeted three times and then collapsed and died.  The king ordered construction of the temple to begin immediately.

Today, for a dollar you can ascend a few hundred stairs and scope out the dozens of gold Buddhas and other religious artifacts that are on the grounds. When I arrived  at around 10 a.m, throngs of people were milling through the site, snapping pictures in a frenzy and paying a quarter to be photographed with 4-year-0ld indigenous girls caked in tribal make up (I admit, I was one of them).

man walking in woodsIt was an ugly scene; it felt more like Las Vegas then Thailand and I immediately felt bitter and estranged myself from the crowd by retiring to a bench to read a book by Bill Bryson.  After my minor existential crisis faded, I hopped on the bike and headed down.

According to what I had read, Doi Suthep was packed with all sorts of hiking, mountain biking and camping.  I had seen a sign for a waterfall on my way up and was planning to check it out on my return trip, but a few kilometers down the mountain an unmarked trail on the side of the road caught my attention, so I pulled over.

It was a strange path, one part gravel, one part cement and one part weeds, but I figured as long as it didn’t lead me back into the maw of cameras and souvenirs, it would be worth checking it out.

The path climbed a hill and after 20 minutes I approached a house, where I assumed it ended. There, a phalanx of barking dogs, most of whom looked like mange-ridden Yorkshire Terriers, rushed at me before they were corralled by a friendly maintenance man.

man with tattoos I expected him to tell me to head back, but instead, he said that if I continued on the trail there was a village ahead.  I did, and 15 minutes later, I walked into a quirky, little hamlet with two streets and about fifty homes.  Everyone seemed to be doing something fundamentally self-sufficient; there were people cooking, cleaning, hammering, painting and fixing cars.  There was a woman on the corner with a little restaurant and when she saw me coming down the street she barked “Phad Thai, gasoline.”

I needed neither, but it was nice to stumble onto such boisterous entrepreneurialism in the middle of the forest.  I did a lap, waved at a guy with big tattoos who was smoking a cigarette with one hand and painting with the other, and then headed back down the mountain.

All and all, it was a nice afternoon, and as I bombed back down the mountain toward Chiang Mai, I saw dozens of other unmarked trails ripe for future wandering.

Pictures by Kristin Mancina

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