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One-day trip outside of Chiang Mai: Doi Suthep and Doi Pui

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Joanna Horanin

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Last updated at 22/02/2024, 01:30

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Chiang Mai is a fascinating city and it’s great to spend a few days here. However, just exploring the streets, pubs and bars may not be enough. That’s why I always advise those who ask what to do in Chiang Mai to head outside the city. The easiest way is to go to the nearby Doi Suthep Mountain and then to Doi Pui. This is a day trip outside of Chiang Mai that you are sure to enjoy.

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Doi Suthep can be seen from many places in the city. It is the most popular place for tours of the area. Doi Pui, which is a bit farther away, completes the picture. Keep reading to see what to see and do on a trip to the nearby mountains.

Rocks and waterfalls on Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Doi Suthep is right outside of the city and it’s easily accessible.

Doi Suthep – The location and religious significance

Doi Suthep and Doi Phui are two hills near Chiang Mai that are located in Doi Suthep National Park. Here you will find beautiful winding roads, waterfalls and hidden temples. The area is inhabited by the Hmong tribe, who toil in the area mainly making clothes and accessories, which they sell to tourists and stores in the city.

Due to its location and lack of buildings, it is very cold here in winter. That’s why both hills are a favorite getaway for Thais not only from Chiang Mai, but also from Bangkok.

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    Doi Suthep has additional religious significance. At the very top you will find one of the country’s most important temples – What Phra That Doi Suthep.

    A statue of a buddha, chiang mai, thailand.
    The main temple here is richly decorated.

    Doi Pui is a more recreational hill, good for hiking, trekking and camping.

    Both places are home to national minorities who go to great lengths to preserve their distinctiveness. The farther you go into the mountains, the more often you will see traditionally dressed people. The buildings are also becoming smaller and poorer. Tourism has not yet reached everywhere and villages located on Doi Pui, for example, do not earn as much as those located closer to the main temple.

    How to get there? Organising your trip

    Getting to the main temple is very easy. It is more difficult from Doi Pui, as the road after Doi Suthep is slowly becoming narrower and narrower. In the dry season and winter there are a lot of cars there and traffic jams form. An experienced driver should be able to handle it.

    A red truck on the street on doi suthep, chiang mai, thailand.
    Songteaws, red truck, cruise all year round from the city to the main temple and further as well.

    During the rainy season, fewer drivers choose to go as far as Doi Pui because of the mud and mucky roads. It may be easier by scooter, but opt for this option only if you do well on 2 wheels.

    The cheapest is the so-called songteaw, or red cab. You can catch it anywhere in the city. There are cab drivers at the Tae Phae gate who offer special trips right there. It’s best to have a group of people to split the cost of the trip. Check with the driver if he will take you further to Doi Pui. Not everyone wants to do this, as the road past the main temple is narrow and difficult for such a car to pass.

    The second option is a smaller, private cab. Here the cost will be higher, but you dictate the terms and getting to Doi Pui will not be a problem. You can hire a driver, for example, on 12GoAsia.

    If you want to learn extra about the area and Thailand, choose a guided tour. There are quite a few in the city, and you can buy one directly from the office or from your accommodation. However, if you are looking for something unique and want to create your own tour that you can customize, buy a trip with TakeMeTour. They have wonderful guides and I highly recommend their services.

    Finally, for those with the right qualifications and papers, I recommend renting a scooter and going there on your own. This is the best way to see everything.

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    What to see and do on Doi Suthep?

    The tour starts from Doi Suthep. This is the closest hill and is reached by a road leading directly from the heart of Chiang Mai. It takes about 20 minutes to get from the old city walls to the park entrance.

    The whole route has very good conditions for cars. There is a wide two-lane road. Although you drive uphill, it’s not that steep and you can really enjoy the route, stopping at attractions along the way.

    Huay Keaw Waterfall

    A view from the waterfall in doi suthep.
    Stop at this waterfall to start your trip.

    One of the first stops is the small but very nice Huay Kaew waterfall. A short path leads to it at first, which then turns into a paved path, running among the rocks.

    It offers a nice view of the city. The entire panorama is surrounded by greenery.

    The waterfall is not very grand, but it makes a very nice backdrop for photos and a good spot to relax in the shade.

    Remember that in the dry season, waterfalls of this type are always dry and have little water in them. In the rainy season, on the other hand, the waterfall may be closed for safety reasons.

    Admission to the waterfall is free.

    Wat Phalad

    Wat Phalad is a very underrated temple, very often overlooked by many. In recent years it has grown in popularity and there are certainly more tourists here now than there used to be.

    A chedi at wat phalad temple, doi suthep.
    This beautiful, quiet temple is your next stop.

    Its great advantages are the old buildings, hiding a couple of hundred-year-old Buddha statues, the greenery and water surrounding everything, and the view of the city.

    Admission to the temple is free.

    Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

    As I mentioned, this is one of the most important temples in the country, and certainly the most important religious site in Chiang Mai. This temple hides a fragment of the Buddha’s arm bone.

    A buddha statue at doi suthep, chiang mai, thailand.
    This temple is visited by thousands of people every year.

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    There are 309 steps leading up to Wat Phra That doi Suthep. You can also get to the top by an elevator.

    Inside you will find an observation deck with a beautiful view of the city. The main part is a golden chedi surrounded by many Buddha statues in various positions.

    Pro Tip: If this is your day trip outside Chiang Mai, save this temple for last. It is better to visit it either very early in the morning or in the evening, before sunset. It is hot here during the day and the light for photos is too harsh.

    A green statue of a buddha at doi suthep temple.
    There are various statues of Buddha scattered everywhere at the temple.

    Admission costs 100 Baht per person.

    Right at the bottom of the temple is a small Hmong village. Take a look here if you have some time. In my opinion, however, further on, at Doi Pui the villages are much more interesting.

    Attractions on Doi Pui

    Doi Pui is not so popular with tourists. More Thais traveling to Chiang Mai get here than foreigners. The reason may be the narrow and winding road. Tour operators are reluctant to take visitors there because there is a risk of bumps or scratches to the car. It takes a bit of effort to get there.

    You can, of course, find people to take you there. It’s worth knowing that in group tours sold by hotels and agencies, Doi Pui is unlikely to be listed.

    If you have the opportunity, it’s worth venturing here and getting to know the area a bit more.

    The Banmong Doi Pui Village

    A street with stalls on doi pui, chiang mai
    The village has a lot of street stalls, but you can also visit some stunning gardens here.

    A few kilometers past Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the road will slowly narrow. Driving along it, you will reach the Hmong village of Banmong.

    It is quite a touristic place. Most of the streets are lined with souvenir stalls. A sizable portion of the items, however, are actually made by local people, and the prices are really affordable.

    Walking up the streets, you will come to 2 flower gardens. It’s worth paying 20 Baht, especially in winter. Beautiful colorful flowers bloom here and it’s a lovely place to relax. Also stop at one of the cafes to drink local coffee, and enjoy the views.

    A view from doi pui, chiang mai.
    The gardens here offer magnificent views over the area.

    This is also where you should stop for lunch and the best khao soi. Khao Soi Loong Surin (Curry mee) is a tiny restaurant where the owners make a delicious soup with beef. It is their specialty. For this they give instead of the normal pickled mustard, kimchi style pickled mustard. I highly recommend this place to you.

    The camping field

    The field itself is not much of a tourist attraction. From the road it looks interesting and friendly. There is also one terrace here from which you can see the city. At night this view is even nicer.

    It is possible to stay overnight and rent a tent, with mattresses and sleeping bags. Renting a whole tent is about 400 Baht.

    The Doi Pui Viewpoint

    A view over a village in chiang mai, thailand.
    What a lovely view!

    Along the way you’ll pass many viewpoints and you’re sure to stop at some of them.

    This point, at Doi Pui, is probably the prettiest. From here you have a direct view of the mountains, and the Hmong village below, which you just visited. With good visibility, when there is no smog, the whole thing makes for a beautiful picture.

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    Phan Thip Coffee

    Phan Tip is a tiny cafe, located on a wooden covered terrace. Be sure to stop here for the delicious coffee, and the view from the cafe.

    You can also walk through the cafe’s garden, where coffee and exotic flowers grow.

    The Agriculture Centre

    Cherry blossoms, chiang rai.
    Go there in January to see these lovely flowers blossoming.

    A little further on, when the road becomes much bumpier, winding and narrow, at a bend, you will find the Doi Pui Agriculture Centre. It is most beautiful here in January, when the sakuras are in bloom. The center is planting more and more of these pink trees and in winter it is wonderfully candy-colored here.

    Admission to the garden is free.

    The Doi Pui Village

    A wooden hut on doi pui, chiang mai, thailand.
    This village is still very poor, but tourism is beginning to reach it.

    The last stop on our route is the village of Doi Pui.

    Until recently, it was a forgotten hamlet where nothing happened and no one looked in. Today you can see the progress there, although they are still far from even a Hmong village on Doi Suthep.

    The village is poor. People live in huts where they still cook on a hearth. There is not even an asphalt road or sidewalk here. Slowly, step by step, new things are appearing. There is a decent-looking cafe, souvenir stalls and a food court.

    Is it worth a look here? By all means! If only to see how people live in the mountains and meet elderly minority ladies.

    When to visit Doi Pui and Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai?

    yellow flowers in doi pui, chiang mai, thailand.
    The best season to visit is between December and February.

    Your day trip outside Chiang Mai can actually take place at any time of the year. However, it is worth keeping in mind the weather and the availability of certain attractions.

    The north of Thailand enjoys a cool climate and great weather between December and mid-February. This is an excellent time to visit Doi Pui and Doi Suthep.

    From mid-February, the burning of the surrounding fields begins and the air is not so good anymore. Smog rises over the mountains, which will not only poison your body, but also prevent you from enjoying the views.

    A view from the view point over chiang mai, thailand.
    This photo was taken in mid-January and there is some smog already visible.

    From March to June we have the dry season. This is the worst time to visit. Temperatures are over 40 degrees then. Smog is densest then.

    June to November is the rainy season. Personally, I like it very much. It brings relief from high temperatures and wonderful, spectacular storms. However, for tourists it will probably be a nuisance. The skies then are often overcast and there are heavy rains, which can be dangerous in the mountains and on the roads.

    What to take with you?

    When going to the mountains, you definitely need to keep in mind the season and the weather.

    In winter, when temperatures in the city are 30 degrees, it can be below 20 degrees on Doi Suthep and Doi Pui, and even 10 at night. I always wear long pants, a t-shirt and take a sweatshirt with me then.

    During the other seasons, the mountain will be cooler, but not cold. Only the night may be colder. So you can wear something lighter.

    A street stall on doi suthep.
    During January the temperatures here are quite pleasant.

    Remember, however, that you will definitely visit at least one temple, so even if it’s hot you need to bring something to cover your shoulders, and knees.

    In addition, it’s a good idea to bring sunscreen, a hat or head scarf, sunglasses and something for mosquitoes. Check here what to pack for Thailand.

    You don’t need to take provisions with you. There will always be something to eat and drink in the area.

    Remember about cash. No one is likely to pay with a card in the mountains. ATMs are by the elevator at What Phra That Doi Suthep.

    Respecting the local culture

    Residents of Doi Suthep and Doi Pui are rather shy, and many do not speak English. So don’t expect frequent chitchat. However, you can always try to chat someone up. You will most likely be met with shy smiles.

    Thai society in the north is very conservative. Women and men always cover their shoulders and knees. I would also recommend dressing with their comfort in mind and to avoid drawing too much attention to yourself. Besides, you’ll be visiting temples, so it’s still worth remembering to dress conservatively.

    monks at a temple in chiang mai.
    Remember to be respectful when visiting temples.

    During the trip you will meet many people from the Hmong minority. You can recognize them by their beautiful colorful clothes. You will definitely be tempted to take pictures of them. Do it respectfully. It is best to ask if you can and if they refuse, apologize and move away. Sometimes children will ask you for money for taking their picture. In my opinion, giving them anything in exchange for a photo does them no good and teaches them inappropriate behavior. Here the decision whether to give or not is up to you.

    Haggling at stalls in villages is acceptable. However, don’t haggle too pushily. If you offer something and the seller refuses, don’t argue. In this case, either buy the item or walk away and go to another vendor.

    How much time to spend in the mountains?

    To see everything, it is advisable to leave early in the morning. You will then return in the evening. Doi Suthep alone is half a day.

    Doi Pui always takes longer due to the fact that there is often a lot of traffic on the roads.

    A day trip outside Chiang Mai to Doi Pui and Doi Suthep will definitely be something you will remember as a highlight. The surroundings are beautiful, green, and the views are incredibly impressive.

    So far yet Doi Pui itself is not very touristy and offers a glimpse into the life of local communities. There are quite a few places along the trail where you can eat something good at a good price. Both hills are truly unique attractions in the Chiang Mai area.