Although almost 40 times smaller than Bangkok, there’s a lifetime’s worth of must-visit attractions in Chiang Mai city from its lively markets, historic old town and trendy Nimman neighbourhood to its Thai cookery schools, contemporary art galleries and heritage museums. But what if your bank balance has taken a beating from all that shopping and you’re in search of some fun free things to do in Chiang Mai? Perhaps you’re enthusiastic about wildlife or just want to be close to nature? Eaten too much amazing street food in Chiang Mai and have an urge to burn off the calories by going hiking or mountain biking? Already seen dozens of temples in the ‘Old City’ but can’t leave without gracing Chiang Mai’s most sacred place of worship as well as its best-kept secret temple? Experienced the modern-day highlights of Chiang Mai and now keen to learn about Northern Thailand’s hilltribe societies and their traditional way of life? Whatever your interests, budget or length of stay in Chiang Mai, you’ll find an absolute wealth of not-to-be-missed natural and man-made treasures right on the city’s doorstep at Doi Suthep-Pui National Park!
I wanna go! Tell me more about Doi Suthep-Pui National Park…
Established in 1981 as the 24th National Park in Thailand, Chiang Mai’s Doi Suthep-Pui National Park is actually fragmented into several separate areas but together covers 261.06 square kilometres with the majority of the reserve strictly protected. As a part of the Thanon Thong Chai mountain range, the National Park is dominated by the twin peaks of Doi Suthep (1601m above sea level) and the highest summit of Doi Pui (1685m above sea level). Criss-crossed with rivers and streams, the lower slopes between 330m and 950m are occupied with mixed deciduous trees (many of which shed their leaves during the dry and hot season) transitioning at higher altitudes into dense tropical evergreen and coniferous forest. As well as supporting a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna, Doi Suthep-Pui National Park sustains a scattering of hilltribe settlements who still mostly live off the land by cultivating rice paddies, coffee plantations and strawberry fields.
So what exactly is there to see & do in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park?
An outing to Doi Suthep-Pui National Park is the most popular day trip in Chiang Mai and, a welcome escape from the city, offers a playground for outdoor activities and a variety of sights within its boundaries. As an excellent introduction to the National Park, check out the informative multimedia exhibitions at the Doi Suthep Nature Study Centre to discover more about the reserve’s fascinating animal and plant life, ecology, geology and history.
For culture vultures in particular and attracting well over a million visitors a year, the number one of must-see attractions in Chiang Mai is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep; the very emblem of the city and, in fact, one of the most revered and holiest Buddhist temples in all of Thailand! In sharp contrast to the glitzy, outsized and heavily-trafficked Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is the blissfully serene, spiritually uplifting and scarcely visited hidden gem of a monastery, Wat Sakithaka (Wat Pha Lat), set in the midst of the National Park forest. More out of town so too receiving very few tourists but just as captivating is Wat Phra That Doi Kham (‘Golden Mountain’ temple) with its eye-catching 17m tall sitting Buddha statue, steep 300 step Naga [mythical serpent] guarded stairway and, from the viewing terrace, boasting impressive wide panoramic vistas over the urban environment below especially at sunset.
Just beyond Doi Suthep temple in Chiang Mai and perched on the hill-top of Doi Buak Ha (the third major mountain peak within the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park) is Bhubing Palace, the official winter residence of the Thai royal family since 1962. Though you’ll only be able to appreciate the classic Lanna [Northern Thai] style of architecture from the outside, the palace grounds are a truly wonderful setting in which to relax to the gentle sounds of fountains and bird song or, if feeling slightly more energetic, stroll around admiring the gorgeous Alpine-like gardens brimming with red roses and other brilliantly coloured flowers.
A similar distance onward and marking the forested summit of Doi Suthep mountain lies the excavated archaeological ruins of the mysterious San Ku, an ancient chedi (Buddhist stupa) dated at more than seven centuries old!
With the region renowned for its ethnic minorities, Doi Suthep-Pui National Park shelters a few of the most notable Hmong hill tribe villages in Chiang Mai where you can still observe native Thai folk in customary costume, inhabiting traditional housing and even now practising a time-honoured lifestyle. The most accessible –though now almost completely commercialised selling souvenirs and handicrafts- is Ban Doi Pui while, requiring more effort to get to so promising a far more authentic experience, is Ban Khun Chang Khian; known for producing its own delicious Arabica coffee and, cloaking the hillsides in beautiful bright pink flowers, one of the best spots in Chiang Mai to behold the seasonal blossoming of Himalayan wild cherry, Prunus cerasoides (commonly called Thai sakura and related to the ornamental varieties famous in Japan). With a population of approximately 1700 residents, Ban Mae Sa Mai is not only the largest Hmong community in the whole of Northern Thailand but is also the venue of a ‘Royal Project’ where villagers now grow fruit and vegetable cash crops instead of farming the notorious opium poppies of their past!
With Chiang Mai much deserving of its nickname the ‘Rose of the North’ on account of its natural beauty and biological significance, nature lovers will surely rejoice to know that the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park is home to a multitude of zoological and botanical life forms. With greater than 2000 species of ferns and flowering plants (of which about 250 are orchids) described from the National Park, time your visit to the upper evergreen habitat for mid-October to late November and you might be lucky enough to marvel at the striking but stinky bloom of the rare parasitic plant, Sapria himalayana. Regularly spotted on vegetation and among the undergrowth, countless creepy-crawlies from the tiniest ants to hand-sized tarantula spiders thrive in the forests of Doi Suthep-Pui National Park with the reserve a specific hotspot for an astonishing 500 unique kinds of butterfly. Typically most active at first light, keep your eyes peeled for any of the 50 species of snakes, lizards, turtles and other reptiles. Preferring to stay near water and particularly evident after a spell of rain, 28 different sorts of amphibian exist within the National Park and joining the abundance of frogs and toads is the prehistoric-looking Chiang Mai crocodile newt (Tylototriton uyenoi) which, outside of the province, is found nowhere else on earth! With a total of 361 species recorded, Doi Suthep-Pui National Park makes a superb –but often overlooked- destination for where to go bird watching in Chiang Mai. Most rewarding around dawn and throughout the higher evergreen forest of Doi Pui mountain, get ready to tick off common birds like the blue-throated barbet, Blyth’s shrike-babbler, grey-capped pygmy woodpecker and slaty-backed flycatcher and, if you’re really fortunate, catch a glimpse of rare species such as the banded kingfisher, Mrs. Hume’s pheasant and white-rumped falcon. Although there still survives 50 species of mammal within Doi Suthep-Pui, sadly human encroachment and overhunting means –except in the most undisturbed interior of the National Park- you’ll be exceptionally hard pressed to see any larger exotic creatures like the Indian muntjac (barking deer), Malayan porcupine or macaque monkeys and long extinct are the elephants, tigers, bears and gibbons that once roamed the forests. During the daytime, assorted types of squirrel frequently make an appearance while bats roost among the trees and in some of the caves emerging to feed around dusk and hawking for insects over the surface of pools and creeks.
As a major source of several waterways which empty into Chiang Mai’s mighty Mae Ping River, Doi Suthep-Pui National Park has more than its fair share of waterfalls. A definite favourite of local Thais, why not enjoy a picnic at Huay Kaew waterfall or the nearby Wang Bua Ban Pond. Easily reachable from the main road on the way to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple, stop off at the dramatic nine-tiered Monthathan waterfall for a refreshing dip in the shallow plunge pool at the base followed by a guided tour to the very top before continuing on foot to the tumbling Sai Yoi waterfall. Although increasingly farther from the city, you certainly won’t be disappointed to also include in your itinerary the towering and thundering Dtaat Mook waterfall (approaching from the western shore of the extremely picturesque Huay Tung Tao lake in Mae Rim district) in addition to arguably the most photogenic cascades in the National Park, Mae Sa waterfall and, most off-the-beaten-track of all, the neck-craning 60m high Mork Fa waterfall.
Containing a network of purpose-built, well-maintained paths and dirt tracks, the National Park is a paradise for ramblers and mountain bike riders. The most well known –and least technically difficult- hiking in the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park is that of the Pilgrim’s Trail; starting out from just ahead of entrance 2 of Chiang Mai Zoo and identified en route by golden yellow ribbon-wrapped trees, a leisurely ascent through the forest via Wat Palad temple takes a couple of hours before coming out at a sharp hair-pin bend in the road just below the main entrance to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.
Passionate about astronomy? With night skies free of light pollution from the city, Chiang Mai University Faculty of Science’s Sirindhorn Observatory can be visited by prior arrangement or by attending one of their periodic planet, moon and stargazing events (weather conditions permitting!).
When is the best time to visit & how much does everything cost?
Open Monday to Saturday 8:30AM to 4:30PM, entry to the Doi Suthep Nature Study Centre is free of charge and, being an indoor venue, can be visited in all weathers!
The Doi Suthep-Pui National Park itself is accessible every single day of the year but busiest, not surprisingly, on weekends, Thai national holidays as well as during the dry and cool winter season of November to February. Recreational areas within the park are normally available between 8AM and 6PM while the various National Park offices (such as the visitor centres, ranger stations and headquarters building) are open from 8:30AM to 4:30PM. Though there’s an official Doi Suthep-Pui National Park entrance fee of 200 baht per adult (half that for children), it’s only imposed at Monthathan, Mae Sa and Mork Fa waterfalls, and is good for the rest of the park the same day.
Some of the larger waterfalls do flow all year round but to witness them at their most spectacular, go during the climax of the rainy season in August or September when, as it happens, the National Park is also at its greenest and most alive.
With an annual average temperature of 20°C to 23°C, the upper terrain of Doi Suthep-Pui National Park offer a blessedly cool and pleasant retreat from the city even during the hottest month of April. Inside the forest is noticeably more humid though and, at the higher elevations, you’ll need to dress warmly during the coolest months of December and January when the mercury can drop to as low as a chilly 6°C or less at night.
This time of year when the air is at its most crisp and clear does, however, make for the best opportunity to see the stunning blooms of Chiang Mai’s sakura cherry blossom. While the exact timing of flowering fluctuates from year to year and the phenomenon lasts no more than a week or two, that at the Highland Agriculture Research Centre of Khun Chang Kian Hmong village occurs from late December to early February but usually around the third and fourth week in January. Be sure to arrive super early and preferably on a week day, though, to try to beat the worst of the crowds!
With working temples generally open between sunrise and sunset, the entrance fee for each of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and Wat Phra That Doi Kham costs 30 baht for non-Thai citizens while Wat Pha Lat is entirely free to visit though charitable donations are always valued. For the ultimate in cultural immersion, head to any of the temples during the annual Songkran festival to watch traditional merit-making ceremonies in celebration of the Thai New Year.
Although the magnificent Rajanives Palace of Bhubing is off-limits to everyone other than members of the Thai monarchy and foreign state VIPs, the grounds are open to the public from 8:30AM to 4:30PM daily except when the royal family is in residence (normally between January and March each year); purchasable only until 3:30PM, tickets for foreigners are charged at 50 baht per person.
With free lunar and stellar viewings mainly restricted to the dry and cool season, the service hours of Chiang Mai University’s Sirindhorn Observatory are 18:30 to 21:00 every day with an appointment organised beforehand by calling 082 386 8155 or by emailing [email protected].
Is it possible to stay overnight in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park?
Positioned amid attractive and peaceful wooded surroundings, the National Park does indeed offer lodging options divided into four zones:
- Clean and comfortable if a little basic, the National Park Accommodation site features eight separate bungalows with a mix of both private and dormitory style shared rooms sleeping from 2 to 16 people.
- The largest of its kind within the National Park, Doi Pui camp site is situated an easy 40 minute walk below its namesake mountain summit.
- At Monthathan waterfall are camping grounds along with a pair of two bedroom chalets (each sleeping up to six people) in which to lay your head for the night.
- At Mork Fa waterfall, you can choose either to camp or, more popular with school groups, stay in one of the four youth hostel-like units each sleeping up to 15 persons.
Whatever your preferred pick of lodging, prices are incredibly reasonable with bungalows at the National Park Accommodation site costing from 400 to 3000 baht per room type per night with a chalet at Monthathan or an entire unit at Mork Fa only 1500 baht a night. Even better, stay Monday to Thursday and benefit from rates generously discounted by 30%! For those wishing instead to snooze under an endless blanket of stars, to pitch your own tent at any of the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park camp sites is just 30 baht per night. Or pack light and, from the on-site visitor centre, hire a two to three person dome tent for 225 baht a night; with no bedding supplied, simply rent a mattress for 20 baht, a sleeping bag for 30 baht and a pillow for 10 baht! Although you can’t book more than 60 days in advance and camp grounds are officially closed between May and September, Doi Suthep-Pui National Park lodgings for up to three nights as well as any accessories needed can be conveniently reserved online through the Thailand Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) web page.
Whereabouts is the National Park & how to get to Doi Suthep-Pui?
Tucked right up against the western edge of the city as well as part of the neighbouring districts of Mae Rim and Hang Dong, the lush mountainous forests of Doi Suthep-Pui National Park are visible from just about everywhere in the city and, except during the very worst of the brief crop burning season between late February and early April, is the best landmark against which to orientate yourself when navigating Chiang Mai!
From the northwest corner (Jaeng Hua Lin) of the ‘Old City’ to the marked crest of Doi Pui is approximately 25km. Consider breaking the journey at the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park Headquarters on Huay Kaew Road to collect a complimentary map of the main section of the reserve and, on the opposite side of the road, pay your respects at the Kruba Srivichai Monument erected in honour of the monk who led a group of local volunteers to construct the winding 12km uphill road to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep; finished in less than six months and opened in April 1935, the paved highway presents several fine scenic viewpoints looking out across the city of Chiang Mai before ending abruptly at Bhubing Palace.
For public transportation to the principal places of interest in the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, sightseers can use either of Grab or Uber on-demand ridesharing services; providing friendly drivers and comfy, air-conditioned cars seating up to four passengers, a one-way fare from anywhere within the city to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep by UberX is fixed in price at 350 baht while GrabCar (Economy) rates vary depending on your pick-up location but, as an example, from the northwest corner of the ‘Old City’ to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep currently costs a little over 160 baht. Gathered near the northern entrance of Chiang Mai University on Huay Kaew Road, outside of Wat Phra Singh temple on Singharat Road and from the corner of Manee Nopparat and Changpuak Roads, red songthaew can be boarded and, leaving when full, charge 40 or 50 baht per adult for the 20 minute journey up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, 60 to 80 baht to Bhubing Palace and 75 to 110 baht to Ban Doi Pui hilltribe village; otherwise, you can privately charter a red songthaew (carrying up to 10 passengers) for the return trip but expect to pay between 800 and 1000 baht to have exclusive hire of the vehicle to and from Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and up to 2200 baht for travel to and from Ban Doi Pui Hmong village. Or else, have the independence of going at your own pace and schedule by getting around the National Park on two wheels; easily arranged and representing great value for money, a 125cc motorbike costs from 99 to 350 baht to rent for 24 hours and a mid-range mountain bike from just 80 baht per day.
If you like the sound of Doi Suthep-Pui National Park then why not also explore Doi Inthanon National Park – home, in fact, to the highest mountain in Thailand!