We’d been meaning to go up Doi Suthep ever since we got to Chiang Mai (the looming green mass to the west of the city is pretty hard to ignore), but it was February before we got round to it. Unfortunately that meant that we weren’t going to get the best visibility – the view of the mountain from our apartment on the east side of town was getting distinctly hazy.
I’d looked into organised tours, but they were of course expensive, and we didn’t want the ‘human zoo’ visit to a hilltribe village that featured on all the itineraries. So we charted our own songthaew for 800 baht – it would have been possible to go by shared songthaew for perhaps 300 baht, but it would have involved changing songthaews and a lot of hanging about.
The road started climbing immediately after the entrance to the zoo, and it was quickly obvious why tuk-tuks don’t make the trip – it’s far too steep. As we ascended the trees became noticeably greener, and it took 30 minutes to cover the 16km from the zoo to our first stop at Bhubing Palace. I’d forgotten to tell the driver that we wanted to go there first because the ticket office closes for lunch at 11:30, but obviously he’d realised that himself.
The car park was packed, and our driver was lucky to find a space. Many stalls around the edge sold clothes, snacks and handicrafts – no need to go to the Hmong village further up the hill, the villagers bring their wares to Bhuping.
It turned out we were rather lucky with our timing – a large notice by the ticket office regretfully announced that with effect from 5 days previously, the gardens would only open Friday to Sunday due to the water shortage. Happily, it was Friday. But before we could get past the gate our clothes were scrutinised and found wanting. I’d known that a dress code applied because the palace is a royal residence, but Mr V’s below-knee shorts had always passed muster before. Not this time. Nor was it acceptable for him to don the sarong that he’d brought (apparently they are considered women’s wear in Thailand, unlike neighbouring countries), and he had to hire a pair of baggy over-trousers for 15 baht. Girls in ripped jeans also had to cover up, but it appeared that cropped trousers were OK for women. Only small girls got away with short skirts.
At this altitude it was pleasantly cool compared with the city and the flower displays were very showy in a 1970s English garden kind of way, with snapdragons, phlox, begonias and pansies all around the edges of the rose beds. It seemed strange to see Chinese tourists eagerly photographing the lobelia and salvia clumps that marched around the edge of the lawn in the style of an English municipal park – I guess gaudy is still popular there.
It was nice, but I could really have done without the awful plinky-plonky music that came from loudspeakers all over the garden – it was really irritating and meant that we couldn’t hear the numerous birds. Near the rose garden was a greenhouse with orchids, bromeliads, a large tree fern and a waterfall, in front of which a constant procession of visitors posed for selfies.
Near the royal residence we took the small path uphill towards the reservoir, which proved to be functional rather than ornamental (although does have fountains). The water was very low – I guess closing the gardens for most of the week at least saves the water the visitors use, even though the plants still need watering.
Beyond the reservoir was a row of neat and clean food stalls for coffee, snacks, and meals shrimp pad thai and minced pork omelette at a reasonable 55 baht. We could easily have spent 2 hours exploring the whole garden, but conscious of our waiting driver and daunted by another steep hill, we cut back towards the exit.
Back down the road, we stopped at the entrance to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and, not fancying the 309 steps up to the temple, we opted for the 20 baht funicular, which deposited us right at the temple door. After a circuit of the crowded central area we moved to the wide and much more peaceful outer walkway, which broadened to a large viewing platform on the east side. Even with the haze the view over Chiang Mai far below was impressive – it was easy to pick out the moat and city walls, but Doi Ping Mansion was just too far into the haze.
The drive down Doi Suthep was much quicker than the drive up, but then we ground to a halt in Huay Kaew Road’s notorious traffic, and I was reminded how glad I was to live in the comparative serenity of Charoenprathet Road.