Wat Phra Thai Doi Suthep lies sky-high in the thickly forested hills north of Chiang Mai at the top of a 330-step stairway. I made that strenuous climb last year, ultimately rewarded by an incredible sense of tranquility at this glorious Buddhist temple.
Having flown into Chiang Mai by way of Bangkok from the Philippines and in my second month of traveling in SE Asia, I'd already spent two weeks amusing myself downtown, near the Day Market, before moving to the more suburban Poi De Ping guesthouse. Once settled there, I was ready for a short excursion. Many travelers had told me that I couldn't say I'd been to Chiang Mai if I didn't visit the temple at Doi Suthep, so that I aimed to do. Although I could have joined a tour group, I chose to go-it alone guided by Nancy Chandler's colorfully illustrated map of Chiang Mai, which, incidentally, gets my best-investment vote for a solo tourist. My journey began with a tuk tuk (motorized rickshaw) ride from the Arcade Bus Station located three blocks from my guesthouse. The bus station takes up a full block just NE of the famed walled city, and a permanent group of drivers wait there for passengers. However, tuk tuks can also be hailed from just about anywhere in Chiang Mai, but the mountain of Doi Suthep is too steep for tuk tuks, so they are not allowed to take passengers right to the top.
Instead, tuk tuks stop at a truck stand where numerous red pickups, equipped with bench-seating, each one waiting to collect 10 passengers before heading up the mountain. After a half-hour wait, the one I picked took me and a load of Chinese tourists to the gates of the temple. The truck ride alone became quite an adventure, swaying dangerously at times and then crawling along, as if struggling to make the trek, while we passengers – myself, a family of four, and several college students – calmed any worries of crashing by concentrating on communicating through language barriers for the next 30 minutes.
When we finally arrived, even though I was eager to move on and see the mystical temple, I couldn't help being distracted by the gaudy market just across the street throbbing with its own activity. I vowed to visit it later as I made my way inside the gates amidst throngs of visitors heading up and down a seemingly endless staircase lined with amazing dragon sculptures.
Take a 63-year-old woman, not in the best shape; factor in the heat and humidity of a typical September day in North Thailand, and you have a recipe for heat exhaustion. Every three or so flights, I had to stop for a breather, but 45-minutes later, I did reach the last of those 330 steps. Having achieved the peak, I rewarded myself with an ice-cream-cone, sat and rested in the shade for a while before entering the sacred areas. I watched as children acted as they would in Disneyland and thought how delightful that this place functioned as both holy place and entertainment for the masses. No doubt, catering to worshipers and tourists alike helped toward temple upkeep through the sale of food and memorabilia such as lotus blossoms. To my foreigner's eye, most people were respectful of the sanctity of the place.
Before I even entered the actual temple area, I felt myself relax even though I'm someone usually bothered by crowds. I shed my shoes and simply walked around absorbing tranquility. Soon I felt as though I could stay in this place forever. The temple itself is surrounded on four sides by huge mounted iron bells, and I rang three of them, one for each of my lost loved ones. While I am not a Buddhist myself or indeed the follower of any religion, I felt and valued the sacredness of my surroundings. I was mesmerized by this representation of Nirvana – a place or state of bliss – from the exquisite marble-tiled plaza overlooking a stunning view of the city, to the various ornate and lotus-covered stations of Buddha, to the temple's shimmering golden dome. Stopping to rest on a bench built around a fuchsia bush heavy with purple blossoms, I had to shake myself out of sweet reverie and return to exploring the grounds.
Surprise! I discovered an elevator going both down from and up to the temple. I'm glad I didn't know it existed until time to go down. I'm sure I would have wimped out, and I'm rather proud of having made it to the top unassisted – if I do say so myself. I bought a brass bell on the steps outside the temple and, lastly, visited the market stalls across the street where an astounding array of goods were on display. I lingered near the baskets of dried insects trying to work up my nerve to taste something. Not this time; neverthless, I went away feeling I had already had a transformative experience, and all the more so for having done it on my own without needing to share my time with anyone else.