Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, 16km northwest of Chiang Mai, has it all! Waterfalls, Hmong Villages, Temples, mountain biking, hiking, and camping! *Read DAY 2 here*
Our mountain-born kids started camping long before their first birthdays, and love to sleep under the stars. Our two children (8 and 11) and I were visiting Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 2012 and heard about an amazing nearby campground in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, so we decided to check it out!
DAY 1 – Depart from Chiang Mai
Doi Suthep campground is located in the mountains, 24km outside of the city, in Doi Suthep National Park. I made a reservation online and packed our day packs.
What to bring
- Clothes (layers best) and socks, hats and gloves, the nights are cool/cold year round.
- Toiletries, towel, and some TP
- Sturdy shoes or sport sandals, good for hiking and exploring
- Bottled water, snacks, (adult beverages,) and any other packable food items you’d like to have
- Phone and handheld map/guide of the area (GPS may not be available)
- Small first aid kit (with White Flower Oil, my travel essential, helps prevent motion sickness.)
- Your sense of adventure!
You can bring your own camping gear, but the campground rents out everything you need to camp, so why not travel light?
I decided to hire a songthaew (red trucks with bench seating in the back) to take us up the mountain.
Songthaews run from several designated points in the city for about 40-50 baht per person, but you’ll usually need to wait until the driver has a full load before they’ll leave. You can also charter a private songthaew for 300-500 baht (one way) if you are willing.
Depending on your situation, you may want to rent motorbikes to drive up the mostly paved roads into Doi Suthep National Park.
When we were in Pai,Thailand, I rented a scooter for the three of us to get around, but I didn’t want to try to make this journey with the three of us on one bike!
First stop, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
On the way to the campground, we passed turnouts for waterfalls, that we planned to visit on our way back. Before long, we arrived at one of the most spectacular Wats (temples) in northern Thailand, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. It’s a Theravada Buddhist temple located high on a hill, about 15km out of Chiang Mai.
Legend has it, that this temple site (established in about 1383) was chosen after a white elephant carrying a piece of the supposed shoulder bone of Buddha, was released in the jungles in the valley and then made it’s way up the Doi Suthep mountains to the site of the temple today. The elephant then trumpeted three times and died. The location was deemed ‘holy,’ by the King and he had the temple built at the site.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is located high above the road, and you can ride up in a tram (30 baht,) or if you need to burn off a little excess “kid-energy,” climb the 309 steps up to the temple.
The staircase has multi-headed, ornate dragons adorning the entrance. You’ll also encounter children dressed in traditional costumes hoping you’ll share some of your bahts with them, in exchange for a photo.
We got to the top and you could sense excitement in the air, as groups of children darted in and out of the the temple entrance. We left our shoes outside and headed in.
We’d arrived during the current King’s 84th birthday celebration, so lots of locals and tourists alike had come to watch the children, dressed in their colorful costumes, perform traditional dances!
When you visit, take in the breathtaking 360 views of the surrounding hills from the many vantage points around the temple, and spend some relaxing time exploring the (normally tranquil) beautiful temple grounds.
The gold-plated chedi located at the center of the temple, considered very sacred, is surrounded by red and gold railings that enclose a walkway for devotees to perform ‘circumambulation,’ (the ritual of meditative walking around the chedi.)
After about an hour, we took the tram (instead of the stairway) back down to the parking area. We rode down with four monks who had also spent time at the temple. Monks are forbidden to touch women, lest they have to elaborately ‘cleanse’ themselves afterward, so I kept a respectful distance. But, these monks were so enamored by my golden-haired son, they lovingly drew him close the entire ride.
The Doi Suthep-Pui National Park bungalows
The songthaews line up near the temple parking area, in order of arrival. From there, they take travelers back to the city, or further up the road to the royal winter palace (Bhubing Palace,) the Hmong hill tribe village communities, and campground.
On to the campground!
We planned not to stop at the more touristy Hmong village up the road from the temple, opting for a smaller Hmong village, Baan Khun Chang Kian, a short walk out of the campground the following day. Unfortunately, our driver ‘misunderstood’ my instructions and took us down into Hmong Doi Pui Village.
The narrow road down to the village, dead ends at a parking lot full of vendors, cars and pedestrians. I’d read that this was an overwhelming tourist trap, and looking at the parking lot, the description was spot on! I’ve since heard that once you get past the touristy stalls in the parking lot, for a small fee you can see their gardens, a waterfall, and examples of how these people have lived in their rustic mountain community since they migrated there in the early 1970’s.
I packed some snacks and drinks before we left our house in Chiang Mai, because there isn’t a store at the campground. We later discovered that food and drinks can be purchased from the many vendors at Hmong Doi Pui Village and at almost every turnout along the main road.
On to the campground…again!
Our driver had to make a clutch destroying 30 point turn just to get out of the parking lot, but we eventually made our way back up to the main road we’d turned off of, and took a left. Coming up the main road from Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, take a right where the road splits and you’ll be on the road to the campground.
The road is narrow and winding, so our driver announced our approach by honking as he entered the multiple blind turns. Concentrate on your breathing, or you may arrive at the campground a traumatized mess! After traveling another 5 km up from where the road split, we arrived at the Doi Pui Campground.
Doi Pui Campground
Food, drink, and facilities
I awoke before sunrise and headed out in search of coffee, only to find other early risers also seeking hot beverages. The concession’s posted hours let us know that we’d all have to wait…