Sometimes Chris and I travel to new places in Thailand and forget about the things we can do right in our backyard in Chiang Mai. This past weekend I finally crossed something I’d meant to do ages ago: hiking the monk’s trail up Doi Suthep and I’m already looking forward to doing it again.
Chris didn’t go with me on this adventure. Instead, I went with my friend, Martha, who is one of the handful of people who randomly ran into us and recognized us thanks to the blog and who also lives in Chiang Mai. She had just returned from one of her many volunteering projects with All Hands and had plans to hike the monk trail to Wat Pha Lat (วัดผาลาด or Wat Palat) with an organized hiking group. Since neither of us had hiked the trail before and we had some catching up to do, it sounded like a good way to spend a Saturday morning.
Preparation for Hiking the Monk’s Trail Up Doi Suthep
The monk’s trail is not terribly demanding, but I’m glad I went prepared. A small hiking backpack is a must to carry the bare essentials, which include a 1.5L bottle of water and bug spray. I highly recommend packing a poncho, whether a real one or a thin disposable one, if you are hiking during the rainy season (May to October).
Since the end point of the trail is the temple and because monks also walk the trail, it’s disrespectful to hike in shorts and a sleeveless shirt. The best outfit to wear is knee-length shorts or stretchy workout pants and a t-shirt that covers your shoulders. Wear tennis shoes, sneakers, or (better yet) hiking boots with ankle support. Do not wear sandals.
- If you forget your water or need more before the hike, there’s a little coffee shop that sells bottled water at the end of Suthep Road (at the drop off point).
- If I were to do this again, I’d start early (7am or 8am) to beat the looming heat.
- If possible, avoid hiking the monk’s trail up Doi Suthep on weekends. You might run into an entire school of students like we did.
- Eat breakfast!
- Sunblock may not be necessary because the trail is almost entirely in the shade. In fact, we sweated our sunblock right off.
We began our trek at 9am and the weather was as good as one could ask for in the middle of June: sunny, warm but not too hot (low 80s⁰F or high 20s⁰C), but very humid. We had ridden in a songthaew (the local red truck taxi) to the very end of Suthep Road, just past the entrance of CMU. A good landmark is the dcondo on your left hand side, which offers a place for hikers to park their bicycles and motorbikes. Across the street from the entrance of this condo is a shaded area to park cars.
Directions to the monk’s trail:
1. Begin at the intersection at the end of Suthep Road (marked by the flag on the map).
2. Turn right at this intersection and follow the brown and white sign that reads ‘Nature Trail Phalad.’ Walk about 250 meters north until you reach a fork in the road.
3. At the fork in the road, hang left (west). Walk another 800 meters up a paved, inclined path. The path will end where the monk’s trail begins.
4. Enter the monk’s trail through two green structures. The trail is clearly marked by strips of monk robe wrapped around the trees.
Strips of Orange Monk Robes Lead the Way
The monk’s trail to Wat Pha Lat is not a beginner’s hike, although in my (non-expert) opinion it wasn’t quite an intermediate level hike, either. It did have a medium hill grade along certain stretches and the total elevation gain was around 1,165 feet so it got my heart rate up. If you’re looking for something easier, I’d suggest hiking the Giew Mae Pan Nature Trail on Doi Inthanon.
In some areas I focused intently on my footing, step after step, on the uneven makeshift staircase up the mountain. Most of the time I spent dodging rocks and tree roots while trying not to slip on leaves and into shallow puddles left by the previous day’s rain.
Martha actually got me looking up from my shoes from time to time and paying attention to Nature’s finer details: the gigantic rolly pollies and snails, the caterpillars, and other colorful, texturally interesting plant life.
In all honesty, part of the surrealism of the monk’s trail was lost because the robe markers blended into the trees in many places. There were no monks making the trek to Wat Pha Lat during our particular journey and there were none to be found when we finally arrived at the temple.
Instead, we made the journey with several hundred (maybe close to one thousand) students from a local high school. They had arrived at the trail not long before us but they stretched far behind us, allowing little opportunity to experience the trail all to ourselves in either direction.
It took between 45 and 50 minutes to hike the monk’s trail to Wat Pha Lat, which is roughly halfway up Doi Suthep. Although the temple itself was not spectacularly large or ornate, it was quite pretty and surrounded by ancient looking Buddha shrines, some gardens, and other structures.
I thought the most unusual area near the temple was the massive boulders. Here a small stream ran between the huge rocks and fell down the mountainside. Standing on them I had a pretty view of Chiang Mai City in the distance, which was peeking through the trees.
The main entrance of Wat Pha Lat is set back slightly from the main road that snakes up the mountain. After exploring the temple, hikers don’t necessarily have to walk all the way back down the same way they came. Instead, hail one of the many songthaews that are making their way back into town for 40 or 60 baht.
And the trail continues…
We didn’t spend much time at the Wat Pha Lat because our goal was to hike to the more well known temple, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, at the top of the mountain. Now this trail was a challenge. This second half of the hike took us 75 or 80 minutes. The trail was narrower, obviously less traveled, and much more vertical. Imagine exercising on a muddy stair stepper for over an hour and you’ll get a sense for what the hike was like! This part of the trail no longer had the orange monk robes tied to the trees as markers.
By the end of the trail we were rewarded with the beautiful, unobstructed views of Chiang Mai City from the temple’s marble balcony. Although Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is touristy, it’s one of the few places I believe that is justifiably so. The views alone are worth a trip there, whether by riding or hiking up the mountain.
I am still looking forward to hiking the monk’s trail again. Although next time I hope to enjoy a more peaceful experience that others before me have raved about.
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