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Doi Suthep-Pui National Park/Thailand

Introducing Doi Suthep-Pui National Park

Sixteen kilometres northwest of Chiang Mai is Doi Suthep (1676m), a peak named after the hermit Sudeva, who lived on the mountain’s slopes for many years. Near its summit is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (entrance fee 30B, tram fee 20B); first established in 1383 under King Keu Naone, it is one of the north’s most sacred temples. At the end of the winding road up the mountain, a staircase of 306 steps leads to the wat. You also have the option of riding a tram from the parking lot to the wat grounds.

At the top, weather permitting, there are some fine views of Chiang Mai. Inside the cloister is an exquisite Lanna-style, copper-plated chedi topped by a five-tiered gold umbrella – one of the holiest chedi in Thailand.

Within the monastery compound, the International Buddhism Center (IBC; 0 5329 5012; www.fivethousandyears.org; admission free, donations appreciated) offers informal chats and discussion (1pm to 3pm daily) as well as chanting (6pm). It is possible to do a three-day meditation retreat here but it is preferred that meditators start with the 21-day Vipassana foundation course.

About 4km beyond Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is Phra Tamnak Phu Phing, a winter palace for the royal family with palace gardens (admission 50B; 8.30am-11.30am & 1-3.30pm). It closes if the royal family are visiting.

The road that passes the palace splits off to the left, stopping at the peak of Doi Pui. From there, a road proceeds for a couple of kilometres to Ban Doi Pui, a Hmong hill-tribe village. Don’t expect much evidence of village life here though – it is basically a paved market selling Hmong crafts and other souvenirs, and there are some Nepalese stalls. There is a tiny museum (10B) giving some information about hill tribes and opium production.

Most visitors do a quick tour of the temple, the Hmong village and perhaps the winter palace grounds, altogether missing the surrounding park. This 265-sq-km reserve (adult/child under 14 yrs 200/100B; 8am-sunset) is home to more than 300 bird species and nearly 2000 species of ferns and flowering plants. Because of its proximity to urban Chiang Mai, development of the park has become a very sensitive issue. The western side of the park has been severely disturbed by poachers and land encroachers, including around 500 hill-tribe families, and the Night Safari has caused controversy by taking over parts of national park land.

There are extensive hiking trails in the park, including one that climbs the 1685m Doi Pui; the summit is a favourite picnic spot. If you’re cycling or driving to the summit, you can stop off along the way at Nam Tok Monthathon (admission adult/child 400/200B; 8am-sunset), 2.5km off the paved road to Doi Suthep. The trail is well marked; if you’re interested in checking the waterfalls out, have the sǎwngthǎew driver drop you off on the way up the mountain. Pools beneath the falls hold water year-round, although swimming is best during or just after the annual monsoon. The falls can be a little crowded on weekends. The 200B fee allows you to visit other waterfalls on the road to Suthep.

Other trails pass Hmong villages that rarely get foreign visitors. For a less commercialised Hmong village than Doi Pui, instead of going left on the road past the palace head right. Look out for the sign saying ‘Kun Chang Kian Mong Village – 7km’. The road is paved until you hit the Doi Pui camp ground, and from there it is dirt track for 3km to the village (difficult to travel along in the rainy season). In between the camp ground and the village is a coffee plantation where you can stop and have a cup of coffee or stay the night in basic accommodation (room 150B) with fantastic views.

Accommodation in the national park includes smart bungalows (0 5329 5014; doisuthep_pui@hotmail.com; r from 500B) about 1km north of the wat by the park headquarters. From here a 4km trail leads to the scenic and more isolated Nam Tok Sai Yai (Sai Yai waterfalls), and connects with a trail that leads to Nam Tok Monthathon. There is also the Doi Pui camp ground (0 5329 5014; doisuthep_pui@hotmail.com; 2/4/7 person tent 150/225/300B). Sleeping bags, gas fires, pots and pans are also available to hire. There’s a good information centre at the camp ground, with an exhibition of the flora and fauna of the park, and the agricultural calendar of the hill tribes. Mountain bikes (200B) can be hired here for some fat-tyred fun.