Legacy of a White Elephant’s Footsteps

The legendary story of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and its connection with a fabled white elephant. It's a story every Chiang Mai school child knows - do you?

By | Sun 1 Jul 2018

If you have been paying any attention recently, you will see that our city has been dressed up in green ribbons. Chiang Mai is fighting, and the people are taking action on behalf of their sacred and beloved mountain, Doi Suthep. Chiang Mai’s activists have called upon judicial members to move out of the controversial housing estate nearing completion at its foothills, and the courts are stubbornly resisting the people’s demands, using law as a shield against cultural and environmental outrage. It’s hard not to notice that Doi Suthep has been at the centre of the news recently. So, let’s get to know Doi Suthep and figure out what all the fuss is about.

Winding up the mountain roads, a light breeze gradually cools the higher you go. The rainy season brought a luscious green colour to the surrounding forests with a fresh earthy fragrance marking the time of year when we all breathe easier. The 309-step climb besides the duo of scaled bannister-bejewelled mystical creatures, the nagas, marks the 1,676 metres in elevation as you reach a terrace filled with exotic trees, colourful shrines, sacred relics and stunning examples of architecture. It’s impossible to regret the sweaty climb once the top is reached as the views open up the breath-taking vista overlooking our fair city.

The Myth, the Legend…

According to legend, the temple on top of the mountain, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, dates back to 1386. The story begins when a part of Buddha’s shoulder bone was discovered in Sukhothai by a monk named Maha Suman Thera. King Ramkamheng was unconvinced of its authenticity, so it was transported across the country, (probably by tuk tuk) to the King Kue Na of Lanna Kingdom. Suddenly, only moments before it was to be enshrined in Wat Suan Dok, the relic miraculously replicated itself. Naturally, the clone of the bone was strapped onto the back of a white elephant and left to roam freely in hopes of finding its new home. The legend states that this white elephant chose to climb through the jungle up the mountain (then called Doi Oy Chang, or elephant sugarcane mountain), resting by a waterfall halfway, now known as Wat Palad temple. The elephant eventually reached the top of the mountain, trumpeted three times, knelt down and died. This obviously was a clear sign for the Lanna King who promptly built a temple to house the relic, expanding into viharns, chedis and other buildings in the complex over the generations. From the city below, the gilded chedi which crowns this slumbering green giant can be seen soaring into the clouds, overlooking its worshipers below. But what is the main significance and local importance of this sacred site today? Basically, what’s the big deal about some judges building houses at its foothills?

Chiang Mai’s Crown Jewel

According to Rachabordin Boonchaiyo, owner of Punpun restaurant in Wat Suan Dok, resting place of the original relic, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was built with the sole purpose of Buddhist worship, as it originally was built on a visible peak, as a place of pure serenity for peaceful prayers and meditation to be admired from across the valley below. Gongfah Wannawong, an employee at the temple office, reiterates that, “the main purpose of the temple is for religion; many Thai people come here to pray and pay their respects.” Once you reach the top, you encounter a stunning chedi at the centre, surrounded by offerings from the devoted. Rachbordin compares this journey to the top with a pilgrimage to receive enlightenment. It is possible to spend hours here admiring the details and hidden treasures in and outside the temple walls.

The beginning of the mountain’s modern day development began when Kruba Srivichai, a monk from the 19th century with an extensive following, inspired the community to come together to build the 11 kilometre road leading to the temple. As many as 4,000 people came, often after their work each day, to build the road which was completed in an astonishingly short time of five months and 20 days, in time for its grand opening on 30th April 1935. Rachabordin explained that this road suddenly made the temple accessible to many more people, as in the past only the devoted and able would endure the five hour trek to the top.

The abundance of wildlife and nature in the forests surrounding Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a unique feature of the mountain. The National Park covers 160,000 rai of land (261 square kilometres) and over 320 species of plants and 200 species of animals have been discovered to date, more than any other protected area in Thailand. Furthermore, 350 out of Thailand’s 1,057 different bird species live in these trees. Rachabordin suggested that in the 14th century, when the temple was built, the amount of wildlife was even more dense and vast, and there were reports of sightings of wild elephants, tigers and bears as recent as the 1960s. How times have changed…

What About Now?

So, who is this mountain today? Doi Suthep is the number one tourist attraction in Chiang Mai, according to the backpacker’s bible, Lonely Planet. Not only this, but the temple is the centre of many important events and celebrations. Originally used for only religious celebrations, now the mountain is used by all walks of life, literally — so many walkers. One example of this is Chiang Mai University’s freshman celebrations which sees over 30,000 students walking up the mountain in a rites of passage ceremony to mark the beginnings of each new academic year. They trek up together to the summit, at dawn, to make merit at the temple, an homage intended to bring them good luck during their time studying at the university. This one shared experience is a memory hundreds of thousands of alumni living in Chiang Mai and beyond greatly cherish. Sarita Suwanasa comments on her own experience of the event three years ago, “For a CMU freshman, this is a traditional event which is very significant. It was a hard challenge, but the journey was so memorable because my friends always took care of each other. Especially on the final curve or what we mostly call “Spirit Curve” which was the most difficult and steepest part.”

Doi Suthep is also home to many societies that arrange to scale the mountain regularly, such as the Chiang Mai Sunday Cycling Club and the Chiang Mai Hiking Group, being an integral part of many local communities and subcultures. There are three stunning waterfalls along the way, dense forests, viewpoints to rest at, and on arrival, gift shops and stalls to cool you down in the heat or fill you up after running out of fuel. Local villagers such as those from the Doi Pui Hmong village have benefited from the economic advantages of the tourism and come a long way from the poverty-ridden times a mere generation or so ago. Before these expansions, the villages would be completely cut off from the kingdom below, but now they can make a fair sum selling elephant pants to sweaty British Gap Yah travellers, eager to get the perfect go-pro selfie with the incredibly instagramable views.

Growth Spurt

Many more developments have been added to the area surrounding Doi Suthep since the road was built. Such as Bhubing Palace, the royal residence of many past winter months, built in 1961. Bhubing Palace is famous for its Suan Suwaree rose garden, where 274 kinds of roses from around the world can be found and explored when the royal family isn’t in residence. The fact that Doi Suthep is an important home to the royal family has long been a point of pride for the people of Chiang Mai.

Rachabordin says that the popularity of the temple has caused environmental damage and pollution due to the over 120,000 people who flock there every month, adding that many now see the mountain as a money-making machine. Sadly, not everyone can be trusted to respect this community treasure, hence the problem with littering and pollution, and now the judges’ houses. Have people in general stopped caring for Doi Suthep’s health? Rachabordin suggests not.

Saving Suthep

The Scar of Doi Suthep, in recent news, exposes the current desperate need to protect the mountain. The dispute involves an area spanning 41 rai containing 45 houses built by the court to house senior staff and their families. The fierce and unexpected opposition against this development demonstrates that the people of Chiang Mai feel the mountain cannot ‘take’ anymore and needs our protection. The mountain is already used for so much activity, and this project could really tilt her over the edge, emotionally speaking, if not environmentally. One of the protest leaders against the village Teerasak Lubsuwan, explained more. “Historically, Doi Suthep is not just a mountain, it is the centre of soul and spirit of Chiang Mai people. Every day when the people of Chiang Mai wake up, head to their work place or come home, they will see the stunning Doi Suthep Mountain filled with a healthy forest topped with the sacred temple. Therefore, if there is any harm caused to this beloved site, the people will take serious action to help prevent it and protect their mountain. This recent development has ultimately invaded the forest and clearly hurts the people’s hearts, going against a royal statement of King Rama IX as well as current government policy about preventing further buildings or development in Thailand’s forests.”

The overwhelming media and social media coverage, as well as the thousands who have come out in protest send a clear message that the people of Chiang Mai believe that she deserves more respect and care.

Doi Suthep is not just a mountain, but home to temples, to royalty, to nature and a place where people can enjoy the extensive beauty and plenty of the national park. We can only hope that she remains the same in the future…