As in so many chapters of Thai history, an elephant is closely involved in the legend surrounding the foundation of the late-14th-century Wat Phra That, northern Thailand's most revered temple and one of only a few enjoying royal patronage. The elephant was dispatched from Chiang Mai carrying religious relics from Wat Suan Dok. Instead of ambling off into the open countryside, it stubbornly climbed up Doi Suthep. When the elephant came to rest at the 3,542-foot summit, the decision was made to establish a temple to contain the relics at that site. Over the centuries the temple compound grew into the glittering assembly of chedis, bots, viharns, and frescoed cloisters you see today. The vast terrace, usually smothered with flowers, commands a breathtaking view of Chiang Mai. Constructing the temple was quite a feat—until 1935 there was no paved road to the temple. Workers and pilgrims alike had to slog through thick jungle. The road was the result of a large-scale community project:
individual villages throughout the Chiang Mai region contributed the labor, each laying 1,300-foot sections.
Getting here and around: In Chiang Mai, you can find songthaews at Chang Phuak Gate, the Central Department Store (Huay Kaew Road), and outside Wat Phra Singh to take you on the 30-minute drive to this temple. When you arrive, you are faced with an arduous but exhilarating climb up a broad, 304-step staircase. Flanking it are 16th-century tiled balustrades that take the customary form of nagas, the mythical snakes believed to control irrigation waters. A funicular railway provides a much easier way to the top, but the true pilgrim's path is up the majestic steps.