Doi Suthep, impressive forest west of Chiang Mai

evergreen forest at high elevations

Dense forest in the area between the palace and Doi Suthep's summit.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is the iconic, ancient temple of pilgrimage on the eastern slope of Doi Suthep, the sacred mountain that rises west of Chiang Mai. It is one of Northern Thailand’s major tourist destinations, annually attracting at least a million visitors, both Thai and foreigners.

From the temple, many of them — mainly Thai — continue to the Phu Phing Palace, four kilometres beyond, where, during the weekend, its flower gardens are open to the public. Highway 1004 abruptly ends at the palace, yet from there, pick-up loads of visitors descend to the nearby Hmong village of Ban Doi Pui with its many shops selling crafts and souvenirs.

Relatively few visitors, however, explore the fascinating, species-rich variety of micro-habitats that abound on the mountain. Actually, access to these forests is quite easy. A number of good trails and narrow dirt and asphalt roads cross the eastern slope. It is even possible to hike all the way to the summit, while avoiding Highway 1004 except for a short stretch. Although this is a rather long and challenging enterprise — taking at least a whole day — it is the best way to enjoy the fascinating succession of different habitats from the base of the mountain to the top. However, a more relaxed way is to explore the lower slope up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep on one day, and venture into the forests at higher elevations on subsequent days.

During such treks, one need not fear attacks by fierce, wild animals, since most large mammals, such as bears and wild boars, have been hunted out since the end of World War II. Barking deer are the largests mammals that still roam the mountain, though rarely spotted except in the remotest parts.

Yet the Doi Suthep – Doi Pui National Park, at 261 square kilometres covering most of the mountain, has a surprisingly rich fauna. For example, the relatively small park contains more bird and butterfly species than many much larger national parks in Thailand. Doi Suthep’s deciduous forest is even the tree-richest (90 species per hectare) deciduous forest in the world. Altogether, over 2000 species of flowering plants and ferns occur in the national park — which is more than the number of species in the entire British Islands. The mountain is thus a paradise for botanists. Although its forests have been thoroughly researched since the early twentieth century, and hundreds of plant and animal species were first described from specimens from the mountain, new species are still being discovered even down to the present day.

 

Buddha statues are seated in the recess of a rock shelter

Wat Pha Lat with Buddha statues seated in the recess of a rock shelter.

You may even come across such extraordinary sights as the fantastic flowers of a rare parasitic plant of the family of Rafflesiaceae. Normally it is completely hidden within lianes, but now and then it produces large bright red flowers with cream dots that blossom from their roots under the forest floor.

It was discovered on Doi Suthep by German botanist Carl Gustav Hosséus during his botanical exploration of Northern Thailand (1904-1906). He named it Richthofenia siamensis in honour of the China scholar Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen. (On another expedition, Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain, was baptized Richthofen Peak by Hosséus, but this name never became generally accepted.) Now the plant’s official scientific name is Sopria himalayana.

A trail to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep starts at the foot of the mountain (at an elevation of around 300 metres), less than one kilometre from the western end of Suthep Road. There, proceed through the rather open, dry diperocarp forest. In January and February, most trees have shed their leaves and the undergrowth may even have been scorched by forest fires. Many trees have a thick, corky bark, and are remarkably tolerant to such fires. Mosses are virtually absent. Yet, this kind of forest is also teeming with life. It is dominated by a number of tree species from the family of Dipterocarpaceae, which produce winged seeds (related article: Dipterocarps). A little higher, where the trail becomes clearer, you will see many large wooden climbers and lianes. Gradually, the forest becomes denser and greener, while the number of large trees increases. There are many vines, such as the shower of orchids (Congea tomentosa), which in February produces mauve blossoms that may completely cover a tree (related article: Bloesempracht in februari).

 

mountain stream

Huai Pha Lat (brooklet) just above Wat Pha Lat on the eastern slope of Doi Suthep.

Lianas

Lianes are abundant in both deciduous and evergreen forests.

In about 45 minutes, you will reach Wat  Pha Lat and its scenic forest surroundings. At the temple, the stream (Huai Pha Lat) flows down over granite rocks. A row of Buddha statues are seated in the recess of a rock shelter on the right bank of the stream. Past this forest monastry, following the watercourse upstream, you have to climb a steep slope to emerge on the highway.

After crossing this, do not follow the stream, but turn right and look for the head of a trail, obscured by the bamboo thickets some forty metres below the bridge. A steep climb will bring you into lush, largely evergreen forest. Many of the tall trees are yang pai (Dipterocarpus costatus). This part of the park is teeming with bird life, such as various species of bulbuls. Ascending for about an hour, a final steep climb will bring you to the sharp, steep, hair-pin bend of the main road. You are just opposite the monument dedicated to the volunteers who, under the guidance of the charismatic Northern Thai monk Khruba Si Wichai, constructed the road in the 1930s. It is at an elevation of about 1050 metres, a little below Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

Follow the main road to the shops in front of the temple entrance. Get some water and snacks there, as for the next few hours there is no opportunity to do so. 500 metres uphill from the temple is the turn-off to the park’s headquarters, and 200 metres further up, to the left of the main road, is a small ‘herbal garden’ (Suan Samun Phrai). Look for an octagonal sala (pavilion) at the rear of this garden; some thirty metres behind it, a trail descends into magnificent forest. Soon, you have to cross a trickling stream fringed by screw palms, and will find yourself surrounded by tall Papyrus (a kind of tall, straight-stemmed grass with slender, spayed leaves at the crown) and huge ginger plants.

Tha magnificent flower of the rafflesia Sapria himalayana, a parasite of lianas.

The magnificent flower of the rafflesia Sapria himalayana, a parasite of lianes.

The trail soon ascends to a number of large boulders and a rock cliff with a few niches. This place is known as the Hermit Monk’s Cave (Tham Phra Ruesi). You might even encounter a present day Buddhist monk who may be temporarily staying there. From here, a series of steep steps lead up to the main road.

After crossing it, you can continue your walk on a narrow dirt road (Thanon Sa-nga Sanphasi) leading amidst lush evergreen forest to the Huai Khok Ma stream. In the morning, many different birds sing among the trees; later during the day the monotonous cry of the barbets may dominate, or the loud chirping of the numerous cicadas.

You will probably be the only person enjoying these forest sounds — I rarely came across other nature lovers on these paths and trails. The trunks of many fallen trees lie rotting on the forest floor, many of them covered with colourful fungi. There are many fallen fruits and seeds on the path, acorns and chestnuts are especially numerous — plenty of food for birds and small mammals.

‘It is striking how rare palms are on Doi Suthep,’ wrote Hosséus. These words also hold true today, but along this dirt road you may occasionally come across jungle palms, such as rattan, which actually resemble vines rather than more conventional palm trees.

A flowering Mahonia nepalensis near the summit of Doi Pui.

In February, Mahonia nepalensis produces its clusters of yellow flowers. It is common near the summit.

After walking for about 30-40 minutes, you will get to a bend in the track. A fallen tree trunk, partly sawn off, lies in front of the remaining, still rooted stump, with a tree with white bark still growing beside it. Here, you descend a forest trail accompanied by the burbling of a small nearby stream.

Soon you will get to a razor-blade fence surrounding the palace compound. There is also a fortified booth, and a soldier may be on guard when members of the royal family are in residence. Near the tiny waterfall, you may see many butterflies. Hosséus’ remark that ‘one does not see butterflies’ is rather surprising, as over 500 species are now described on Doi Suthep. Following the trail along the fence uphill, you will come across other booths about every 150 metres. After passing the fifth or sixth, you can see some of the royal greenhouses in the palace compound. At the following booth, do not turn left to follow the fence, but turn right and ascend the trail leading past a large plastic water tank into the montane forest.

You will very likely be alone amidst trees covered with mosses, ferns, and orchids. Everything is sopping wet from the frequent rains and mist. This forest is home to the interesting orange-warted ‘crocodile salamander’ (Tylototriton verrucosus). It is the only salamander species in Thailand, where it is restricted to a few mountain heights in the North and Northeast. On a rainy day, you may see this tiny dinosaur-like amphibian slowly crawling over the forest floor.

 

The pygmy crawl frog (Leptobrachium minimum) is only 1.5 cm long.

The pygmy crawl frog (Leptobrachium minimum) is only 1.5 cm long.

the arrowhead snake

The arrowhead snake (Plagiopholis nuchalis) is common in evergreen forest.

The forest is also home to mountain snakes such as the Assamese mountain snake (Plagiopholis nuchalis) and the blackhead snake (Sibynophis collaris), which hunt for worms and skinks (a kind of lizard) respectively in the forest litter. Another snake species that occurs here is the stunningly beautiful red mountain racer (Oreophis porphyraceus). All these snakes are diurnal, so if you are lucky, you may spot them (related article: Mock cobras). The Assamese mountain snake is particularly abundant at elevations over 900 metres, and on sunny days they may be seen crossing the tracks or the main road. Among the various species of skinks is the rare Northern Thai Water Skink (Tropidophorus thai) which only occurs here and on a few other mountain peaks in northern Thailand. This wet ecosystem is also rich in fungi and a paradise for mycologists. In the rainy season hikers may come across Hmong villagers living in the park gathering edible mushrooms, such as the het daeng (‘red mushroom’) of the genus Russula (related article: Thai mushrooms).

4 species of fungi

Fout species of fungi from Doi Suthep's evergreen forest.

Gradually, the number of large trees decreases, until at last a substantial percentage of them consists of the yellow pine (Pinus kesiya). In the days of Hosséus expedition, ‘brown-skin locals were were collecting its wood’ and, these days, pine trees are still tapped for their resin. You are getting close to the top. At the open space with concrete water tanks and signs of a former camp site, do not follow the trail, but continue uphill over the layers of pine needles to the ruins of an old, moss-covered brick chedi (pagoda).

This is called San Ku, and is said to have been built in the thirteenth century. It marks the summit of Doi Suthep at 1601 metres. Local people often place traditional offerings at the chedi’s base, such as strings of sliced areca nuts. In recent times, the forest in this area has been degraded, and you will notice even some ‘exotic’ Eucalyptus trees were planted a few decades ago. From there, a trail leads to the narrow asphalt road.

If that’s enough, and you wish to start the descent, then turn left. After a kilometre, you will come to a viewpoint. You will see the Hmong village Ban Doi Pui below, and have a wide vista of the mountains to the west. Many far away slopes have been converted into agricultural land, and smoke may be rising from where the farmers are burning their fields or the adjacent forest. Such intrusions into the mountains are certainly not a relatively recent phenomenon. In 1904, Hosséus already noted ‘forest fires, which in Northern Siam cause great damage everywhere.’ Descending another two kilometres will bring you back to the Phu Phing Palace.

 

The forest-ginger Boesenbergia

Boesenbergia, a small representive of the ginger family, is flowering in the rainy season.

On leaving the ancient pagoda, however, the real diehards, can turn to the right and head for the summit of the even higher Doi Pui. You may notice the large purple flowers of the Magnolia-trees (Manglietia garrettii) along the road. After less than a kilometre, you will arrive at an abandoned control post. In February and March, Mahonia nepalensis produces its magnificent clusters of yellow flowers nearby. Otherwise, its thick, corky bark and stiff, pointed leaflets are unmistakable for this small tree, which is restricted to a few mountain peaks in the north. At the control post, take the right fork (the left one is closed to the public). This road leads to the Hmong village Ban Khun Chang Khian and has recently been asphalted. You do not need to go that far. After less than one kilometre, near a clearing around a building of the National Park Division, you will find the head of the trail to the top of Doi Pui. It’s an easy climb of about forty minutes to the summit (at 1685 metres), where yellow pine trees and Mahonia abound, and, if you’re lucky, there’ll be a fresh breeze to cool you down.

©Sjon Hauser: text, map, and pictures

Doi Suthep is a good place for spotting rare birds. My nephew Pim Julsing would certainly enjoy a visit to the mountain. His site www.natuurverslaving.nl is one of the best in the field of bird spotting in the Netherlands and some other countries in Europe (in Dutch). A good companion for bird watching in Thailand is Craig Robson’s A Field Guide to the Birds of Thailand. For identifying fungi Diversity of Mushrooms and Macrofungi in Thailand (2008) is the best book. To learn more about the trees on Doi Inthanon and to identify some 700 other tree species, consult the excellent illustrated Field Guide to Forest Trees of Northern Thailand by Simon Gardner, Pindar Sidisunthorn and Vilaiwan Anusarnsunthorn. All mentioned books are for sale at Dokmai Garden in Hang Dong (www.dokmaigarden.co.th).

 

Suggested treks and schedules in Doi Suthep – Doi Pui National Park

These treks require a good condition. In the rainy season shoes with a good profile are necessary as rocks and steep mud trails can be slippery. Use insect repellant to protect your skin from insect bites. Leeches are usually not abundant. But occasionally, in the rainy season, they may be a nuisance at the higher elavations.

Day 1:

8.00 a.m.: Start at the western end of Suthep Road (สินถนนสุเทพ). Turn right there, ignore the turn-offs to Wat Fai Hin, pass a back gate of the zoo, and, after a few hundred metres and passing a bridge over a little stream, turn into the narrow, steeply climbing asphalt lane on your left (see map). This lane soon ends at two buildings behind a fence. Here, turn right and strike off up the mountain slope. You have to cross a tiny stream — in the dry season just a deep gap in the earth. Then, proceed through decideous forest. You will soon become aware that you are following an indistinct trail more or less parallel to a rocky mountain stream off at some distance to the left. After about an hour you will get to Wat Pha Lat (วัดผาลาด).

9.30 a.m.: From this temple, follow the bank of the stream (Huai Pha Lat – ห้วยผาลาด) uphill and climb to the mainroad, cross it, and find a trail head obscured by bamboo thickets. Follow the sometimes steep trail through the evergreen forest for at least one hour; a final, steep ascend brings you to the hair-pin bend of the main road, just below Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (วัดพระธาตุดอยสุเทพ).

11.30 a.m.: Proceed to the numerous foodstalls and souvenir shops and have lunch 13.00 p.m.: Climb the many steps up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. The entrance fee is 40 baht. In shorts you are not allowed to enter the central sanctuary, but you can borrow a sarong at the gate.

4.30 p.m.: Follow the main road uphill to the Herbal Garden ( Suan Samun Phrai – สวนสมุนไพร) on the left and right. 15.00 p.m.: Find the octagonal pavilion on the left and the nearby trail head and descend into impressive evergreen forest. This is a short trail; it soon ascends to large boulders and the rock cliff with the Hermit Monk’s Cave (Tham Phra Ruesi – ถ้ำพระฤาษี). There, steep rocky steps lead to a open space along the main road.

16.00 p.m.: Wait for a red song thaeo (pick-up truck with two banks for passengers) and descend to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and Chiang Mai. About 16.45 p.m.: Drop off at the foot of the mountain to visit the Khruba Si Wichai Monument (related article: Khruba Si Wichai).

Day 2:

8.00 a.m.: Start before the main entrance of Chiang Mai Zoo, at the western end of Huai Kaeo Road ( ถนนห้วยแก้ว ). Bring food and drinks with you! Find a red song thaeo to Doi Suthep Temple (Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep – วัดพระธาตุดอยสุเทพ ). 8.30 a.m.: From the temple you should walk about one kilometre in the direction of the Royal Palace to the parking space along the road where a trail descends to the Hermit Monk’s Cave — the same spot where your trek had ended the previous day. (In case the song thaeo will proceed from the temple to the Royal Palace, it can take you right to this spot.)

9.00 a.m: On the other side of the road, a barrier marks the beginning of a dirt track that meanders through lush evergreen forest. After walking for about 30-40 minutes, you will get to the bend with a fallen tree trunk, partly sawn off, in front of the remaining, still rooted stump, and a tree with white bark still growing beside it. Here, you descend a forest trail until a razor-blade fence with a fortified booth. Follow the trail along the fence uphill. After passing the fifth or sixth, you can see some of the royal greenhouses in the palace compound. At the following booth, do not turn left to follow the fence, but turn right and ascend the trail leading past a large plastic water tank into the montane forest. 10.15 a.m.: proceed for about 30 minutes uphill to an open space with concrete water reservoirs and signs of a former camp site; continue uphill over the layers of pine needles to the ruins of an ancient pagoda.

10.45 a.m.: From this pagoda a track leads to the narrow asphalt road. Turn right and follow the road through magnificent forest, until a fork with a booth of the National Park Division. Here, take the right fork and descend for about 1 km until a large open space with a building of the National Park Division.

11.30 a.m.: On your left is the head of the trail to the summit of Doi Pui (yot doi puiยอดดอยปุย). 12.30 p.m.: From the summit another trail descends to the National Park Building, follow this trail instead of returning the same way as you have ascended. After about 25 minutes you come at an open space where the trail seems to end. Do not panic, you will find the head of the trail that continues downhill somewhere obscured by bushes. At last, it ends at the asphalt lane, some 200 metres downhill from the National Park Building.

13.30 p.m.: have a rest at the park building. 14.00 p.m.: Follow the asphalt lane back to the ruined chedi, and there, continue following this lane to a viewpoint.

14.45 p.m.: Continue descending. Where the narrow asphalt lane ends at the bend of a broader road, turn left, and proceed to the parking place at the Royal Palace ( ตำหนักภูพิงค์ราชนิเวศน์ ). 15.30 p.m.: There, embark a song thaeo to get down to the entrance of the Chiang Mai Zoo, where you will arrive about 16.15 p.m.

Day 2. Afternoon alternative for diehards:

13.30 p.m.: After completing the loop to the summit of Doi Pui, do not ascend to the National Park Building, but descend along the asphalt lane for 2-3 kilometres, until, past a coffee plantation on your right, it deteriorates into a dirt track. Continue for a few hundred metres until the turn off to the Hmong village Ban Khun Chang Khian (บ้านขุนช่างเคียน).

14.30 p.m.: Look around in this interesting hill tribe village and enjoy a noodle soup or some snacks. 15.15 p.m.: Find the dirt track to the Monthathan Falls (Nam Tok Monthathan – น้ำตกมณทาธาร) at the southeastern edge of the village.This track steadily descends for about 4 kilometres (If this is not what happens, you are on the wrong track!) After a rather easy walk of about one hour you will arrive at the scenic waterfall.

16.30 p.m.: Here you will probably find transportation to Chiang Mai. If not, walk another 3 kilometres on a paved lane to the main road. 17.15 p.m.: Here, wait for a song thaeo descending to the main entrance of the Chiang Mai Zoo, which is just 4 kilometres downhill. You will arrive about 17.30 at the zoo.