How to Hike the Wat Pha Lat Monk’s Trail in 2024: What a Difference 5 Years Can Make!

> June 04, 2024
How to Hike the Wat Pha Lat Monk’s Trail in 2024: What a Difference 5 Years Can Make!

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If it’s your first time on Chiang Mai’s Monk’s Trail and you’re going in without expectations of an Indiana Jones-esque adventure, you’ll be smitten. It’s still one of the most rewarding day hikes in Chiang Mai, mainly due to the mystical gem that is Wat Pha Lat (the temple you’re heading to).

But it’s no longer necessary—or even possible—to follow the pieces of saffron cloth (the same one monks’ robes are made of) wrapped around the trees to find the path. Most of them are gone, with only a few sorry-looking, dirty strips of material left. If you don’t know to look out for them, you’ll probably miss them altogether, which is a real shame because back in the day you really felt like you were taking the path used mainly by monks. Now it’s tourist central.

I’ll start with a disclaimer: This wasn’t my first Monk’s Trail rodeo—I was super hyped to go on the Monk’s Trail this February (2024), because the memories I have from hiking the trail 5 years ago are… significant. It was adventurous, treacherous, it was mysterious, and finally finding Wat Pha Lat in the middle of the jungle felt like a huge victory after managing to get very, very lost on our way there… But as they say: "It's not the success of the adventure that makes the best memories, but the intensity of the experience." See the whole story at the end of this article if you want to enjoy my misery.


Wat Pha Lat hike, Chaing Mai, Thailand

Arriving at Wat Pha Lat after the Monk’s Trail hike is like stepping into a mystical land… with free donuts if you’re lucky!
 

Fast forward to the Monk’s Trail in 2024 year and low and behold, the Monk’s Trail is a highway! Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating, but let’s just say if you’re hoping to find a semi-secret trail that only monks and a few savvy tourists take, you will be disappointed. Like I was. I guess I was secretly wishing to get lost again and relive the excitement (read: stress), but I’d have to have a blindfold and earplugs on for that to happen nowadays. Even so, I was glad that the Monk’s Trail made another appearance on my Chiang Mai itinerary, it’s still worth going, and it’s short enough to be a no-brainer.

In this article, I want to guide you through the Monk’s Trail, giving you details about reaching the trailhead, what the path is like, how to explore Wat Pha Lat, and generally give you answers to all of your questions before you go. This way please!

Monk’s Trail Map

Map showing the Monk’s Trail to Wat Pha Lat in Chiang Mai, including trailhead and side trail to Wat Anagami

The Monk’s Trail is easy to follow, but to be on the safe side, you can follow along the trail on mapy.cz

Tips before you go on the Monk’s Trail, aka Wat Pha Lat hike

Before you head out, here are a few simple tips:

  • Dress appropriately! You’re going to a temple and there may be—but probably won’t be—monks on the trail, too, so do the whole thing dressed, not just adding a sari at the end. Generally, covered knees and shoulders is a good, easy to follow rule for everyone. I can’t believe I need to say this, a covered midriff is just automatically assumed. The monks don’t care about fashion, people.
  • Take water. Despite walking in the shade most of the way, this is still Thailand, where share does nothing for the humidity. It gets very, very hot, so come prepared.
  • Take bug spray. We went in February and it was so hot that even the mosquitos were few and far between, but you will be in the shade a lot, which is typically where bugs like to hang out. And dengue fever likes to hang out in mosquitos in Thailand, so…
  • Take cash. You may not be able to buy water on the way, but if you decide to take a red truck or Grab back down the mountain, or continue up to Doi Suthep, you’ll want to be able to pay for things.
  • A map isn’t necessary, but I always feel better when I can track my whereabouts. If you want to hike all the way up to Wat Phra That, you’ll definitely want to have data in your phone and an offline version of the map to be on the safe side. You wouldn’t want to re-create my memories from my first hike on the Monk’s Trail (see end of article!). I used mapy.cz because they have a great hiking view where all the trails are visible.

Now that you’ve packed you day pack, let’s get on with the Monk’s Trail guide:

Monk’s Trail trailhead: Where it is and how to get there?

How to find the trailhead to Monk’s Trail up to Wat Pha Lat in Chiang Mai: entrance gate, sign with map, and flags marking the way

It’s no longer a semi-secret trail! You’ll see the wooden gate first and then the green map second. The map is pretty useless—just keep to the left and you’ll be fine
 

The trail to Wat Pha Lat starts next to the entrance to Army Radio and Television Channel, on Google Maps you’ll find the entrance marked as Wat Pha Lat Hike (Monk's trail). Some people take a red truck (a songthaew, Chiang Mai’s version of public transit), but then you need to walk to the trailhead all the way from the end of Suthep Road through uninteresting alleys, which seemed unnecessary. We just called a Grab straight form our hotel (Coucou Hotel—take a look and save it for when you’re ready to book, it’s awesome!). Easy peasy and just THB 150.

Right now, when I grab the little yellow fella by the head and drop him at the trailhead (aka Google Street view), I see cars and scooters parked there, but that is a lie, my friend. When I visited in February 2024, part of the road leading to the trailhead was closed to vehicles and our Grab dropped us off in this spot about 350 m (0.2 mi) before the trailhead.

Then, you walk the rest of the way—10 minutes max—on the asphalt road, passing a little checkpoint-looking thing where we weren’t sure if we need to pay or what’s happening, but nothing happened. We smiled and waved and so did the ladies sitting there. They may have just been hiding from the sun, who knows.

The wooden gate marking the entrance to the Monk’s Trail is the first sign you’ll get that you’re there. For me, expecting the inconspicuous entrance that was once there, I got confused for a second, thinking we’re in the wrong place. Nope. This is it!

Then, you’ll see the green map and you’re officially on your way up to Wat Pha Lat. Don’t try to decipher the map, it’s not much use. But the trail is very clear, because it is now marked with long, colorful banners dangling from poles the entire way. Like I said, no more “spot the saffron cloth on the tree”, trying to make your way through the jungle. Boo.

You’ll manage without a map, keeping to the left if you’re ever in doubt—there is one fork in the road which you could use if you make a look on the way back, but half of the trail is on a road, which is a no-go for me.

What is the Monk’s Trail?

On one hand, the Wat Pha Lat trail is one of Chiang Mai’s most popular hikes. It’s short (3 km/1.8 mi) and leads up through the forest on an easy-to-follow dirt path that’s at a mild to medium slope most of the time. There are some rocky bits, steeper sections, and spots where you’re going over big tree roots, but unless you have the stamina of a professional lazy person, you can do it. Just don’t underestimate the heat! Those temps will weigh you down like a sumo wrestler hitching a free ride on your back.

On the other, original hand, it serves as the traditional route for monks from Wat Pha Lat venturing into the city for morning alms. Or at least it used to. It certainly still was their chosen route 5 years ago when you really felt like you’re following in the monks’ footsteps.

These days, the monks have silently shifted to less crowded paths for their daily rituals—something about sharing the trail with droves of sweaty tourists that don’t know how to follow the dress code doesn't exactly scream 'serenity.' Can't say I blame them… But it’s really hard to not do a “challenge accepted!” while plotting to try to find their new path next time around.


Photo showing saffron cloth on trees on the left, and the new colorful banners marking the Monk’s Trail hike in 2024

No more searching for saffron on trees, nowadays it’s big colorful banners that you can’t miss
 

For us tourists, the Monk’s Trail starts at the foot of Doi Suthep to the west of Chiang Mai Old Town, going up the hill and ending at Wat Pha Lat just 45 minutes later. By the way, Pha Lat Temple is one of my absolute favorite temples in Chiang Mai, so this hike is really a double-whammy: one part good hike, one part spiritual awesomeness. Seriously, that temple complex is like stepping into another dimension!

Note: Just so we’re on the same page—the Monk’s Trail and the Wat Pha Lat hike are the same thing, except that some people refer to the trail all the way up to Wat Phra That (the big golden temple at the top of the mountain) when talking about the Monk’s Trail. I’m not those people, but I will give you info below on that second part of the trail if you want to consider adding it.

Note 2: There are more ways to “do” the Monk’s Trail, including making a loop out of it so you’re not taking the same way down, and you can add a steep side trail to Wat Anagami towards the top of the Monk’s Trail, too. We did, because who can resist dirt steps and ropes! I’ll tell you more about it below.


Buddha statue at Wat Pha Lat, Chiang Mai

I doubt you’ll see real monks on the Monk’s Trail, so you’ll have to make do with these guys at the temple

How long does the Monk’s Trail take?

The Wat Pha Lat hike, taking the Monk’s Trail, takes about 45 minutes uphill and half that time downhill, all things considered. By that I mean you could run up to the top in 30 minutes if:

  • you’re not going at a snail’s pace because you are dying of heat like I was (2024 is apparently breaking all heat records in Thailand and those temps will put a damper on your energy),
  • you’re not stopping embarrassingly often like I was (because of the heat, obviously, not because I got tired and my heart was in my throat or anything…),
  • you’re not stopping to smell the roses, err, stare and listen to the water in the stream like I was (hey, I was heading to a temple, let me contemplate and be mindful!). Definitely wasn’t staring at the water just to cover up another little breathing break or anything.
  • you’re Jan, aka Mr. I-hike-as-fast-as-I-travel.
  • [I also had an 8-year-old in tow that I can blame some of underwhelming tempo on, but who am I kidding.]

You’ll also want to leave yourself plenty of time to explore Wat Pha Lat once you get there—I’d say an hour for regular people, more if you’re easily sucked into the tranquility of the place (me! I was sucked in!). The side trail to and from Wat Anagami will add another 30–40 minutes to the Wat Pha Lat hike.

Hiking the Monk’s Trail: What’s it like?

Photos showing the terrain on the Monk’s Trail, Chiang Mai hiking trail

Though short, the Monk’s Trail hike does require some steady footing… though I wouldn’t go as far as recommending hiking shoes. Any tennis shoes will do the trick (remember monks do this in flip flops)
 

Hike length: 3 km (1.8 mi) out-and-back
Elevation gain: 160 m (520 ft)
Difficulty level: Easy to moderate (you can add a strenuous little side-gig up to Wat Anagami)
Hiking time: 1.5 hours, but add plenty of time for exploring Wat Pha Lat and the side trail
Parking and trailhead: Google Maps link 

Trail and terrain details

The path up to Wat Pha Lat is mostly dirt with some rocky sections, and quite a few places where you’re going over tree roots and such. It’s mostly shaded (thank god!!), as you’re walking in the dense forest, complete with forest sounds, and sometimes even through tunnels of branches. You’ll hike along the stream for some parts, so go ahead and take the opportunity to cool down (stick with your hands—I wouldn’t go splashing it on your face, who knows where it’s been).

The entire 1.5 km (0.9 mi) is uphill, but nothing too steep. The heat though, sheesh! By the looks of the trail, you’ll think it’s nothing, but then it’s like the trickles of sweat flying off of you are glueing your shoes to the ground.

There were a few places with obvious little paths veering off the main drag of the Monk’s Trail, that I had to explore. Save yourself the energy, they lead to nothing. So, to call this an adventure would be a big fat lie. It’s incredibly straightforward… which I guess could be a good thing for some people, like those that don’t think getting lost in the jungle is fun. For me, it was too “ready to tourists”, which heavily overshadowed the original meaning of the trail.

Still, you know you’re heading up to a treasure of a temple, Wat Pha Lat, and the atmosphere manages to stay at least somewhat sacred. It’s not even crowded, but you certainly will meet people going up and down. Luckily, humans are creatures of comfort, and most people will drive to the temple—there is, after all, a road running right above it.

Tip: If you want to be extra-sure not to get lost on the Monk’s Trail, use mapy.cz, which has a great trail view. We didn’t use it back in the day and ended up almost eaten alive by ants and stray dogs.

Arriving at Wat Pha Lat

Statues at Wat Pha Lat, Chiang Mai hiking trails, Thailand

Statues at Wat Pha Lat. The guy on the left is probably shocked at all the tourists that don’t follow the dress code
 

The jungles in these part are lush and dense and wild, but if you start looking to your right near the end of the trail, you’ll see the temple structures poking through the greenery in the distance as you approach it.

Then, you’ll arrive at a little bridge that marks the entrance to the temple from the Monk’s Trail. You can’t miss it, there’s a huge sign asking tourists to dress appropriately, i.e. no shorts or tank tops or other garments that don’t cover enough skin. There’s no gate or entrance fee, you just walk right in, passing the waterfalls on your right.

Or, if you make your way up to Wat Pha Lat a day before Makha Bucha Day, a significant Buddhist holiday, like we did, you’ll hear it from a mile away—apparently Wat Pha Lat started celebrating early, because we heard drums banging from the distance. Only when we arrived at the temple did we realize what’s happening. The usually serene Wat Pha Lat temple was crawling with people and festivities! And free snacks! I tried to resist, because not being a Thai or a Buddhist, it just felt wrong, but my will cracked when it came to the free donuts.

The “party” was a nice surprise, one I didn’t even know about when planning our Chiang Mai itinerary. But if you’re around in February, see if you’ll be there on the holiday (the precise date is different each year), because it’s a great way to peek inside Buddhist culture. It’s celebrated at all the temples around the city, which is many—though it seems just Wat Pha Lat had music and treats, from what I saw.


Attending Makha Bucha Day celebrations at Wat Pha Lat, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Makha Bucha Day celebrations at Wat Pha Lat! Clockwise from top left: Kids playing traditional instruments at the entrance of the main courtyard; lots of chanting going on—you can’t see them well but there are monks sitting all along the walls; a recreation of me and the free donuts I devoured; surprisingly good coffee being roasted in front of our eyes
 

Rant: Come on guys, you’re on the Monk’s Trail in Thailand, is it so hard to follow the rules and not walk around taking your shirt off?! And ladies, your ass looks great, but maybe don’t show it off in tight leggings and a “shirt” that barely covers your torso at a Buddhist temple. I feel secondhand embarrassment every time I’m next to these types of tourists and the locals probably think we’re all on the same level of stupidity.

Exploring Wat Pha Lat

Wat Pha Lat in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Wat Pha Lat is the perfect temple for nature-lovers
 

Ok, you’ve made it. Chiang Mai has many amazing temples, but Wat Pha Lat is special. It seems to emerge naturally from its surroundings, blending seamlessly into the lush landscape. It's as if the temple has grown organically out of the mountain itself, with trees gently draping over its structures, the water in the river turning into a waterfall falling perfectly into place among the structures, disappearing into the wild jungle below it.

Wat Pha Lat includes monks‘ living quarters, and you can really feel the spirit of this place that sits high above Chiang Mai city. It’s a real contrast to the busy Old Town, but not still… it’s sort of a profound tranquility that would be roaring if it weren’t so quiet. Then again, not if you’re there on Makha Bucha Day!

You can wander around freely, visiting several temples, courtyards, and stupas. You can walk over the river and even venture further back upstream to find a little shrine on the river. There are plenty of statues to find, nooks to examine and little details to admire at Wat Pha Lat.

There are no facilities at the temple, or at least I don’t think there are. Five years ago, there was a little snack and drinks stand on the opposite side on the approach from the road, but I have no idea if that’s the norm nowadays. Since we were there on the Buddhist holiday, there was plenty of food and drinks available.


Views at Wat Pha Lat, Chiang Mai

The waterfall that flows over the rocks was pretty dry this year, but it didn’t take away too much from Wat Pha Lat’s tranquility

Wat Phra Lat history and elephant story

Wat Pha Lat has a fascinating history steeped in legend and spirituality. Originating in the 14th century, it was a resting spot for a white elephant carrying a sacred Buddha relic up Doi Suthep mountain during the reign of King Kuena of the Lanna Kingdom. The story goes that the elephant, symbolizing endurance and divine guidance, chose this spot to rest and eventually died at the site where Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was later constructed. Wat Pha Lat was built on the spot where the elephant rested, marking it as a site of spiritual significance and a historical waypoint for monks and pilgrims heading to Doi Suthep.

In 1935, one of the head monks (I bet he was known as the lazy one) decided to have a road up to Wat Phra That built, and since then, monks not only rest at Wat Pha Lat, they live there too.

They still walk down to town on some new, secret version of the Monk’s Trail, but I don’t think any of them walk all the way up to the temple on the top of Doi Suthep anymore. In an age where monks have iPhones and monk youth can be found sitting under trees not meditating, but playing phone games, I think everyone, including monks, uses the road now. It is a tradition for monks and locals like to walk up to Doi Suthep for the sunrise on Makha Bucha Day, but I, unfortunately, missed that opportunity (because I didn’t feel like it).


Elephant statues at Wat Pha Lat, Chiang Mai

Shout out to the elephant that found this gorgeous spot. A great place for a break, buddy!

Leaving Wat Pha Lat

From Wat Pha Lat, you can easily reach the road above it and flag down a passing red truck to bring you back down to the city or call a Grab. You can also walk down the same way you hiked up just like we did, adding the side-trail up to the apparently abandoned Wat Anagami too (this can be done on the way up too, though).

Or, if you’re feeling strong and not as hot and dead as I was, you can continue on part 2 of the Monk’s trail and huff and puff all the way up the mountain to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

Side trail to Wat Anagami

Side trail off Monk’s Trail to Wat Anagami, Chiang Mai, Thailand

The sign showing that the side trail to Wat Anagami is a climb isn’t lying
 

A few steps before you reach Wat Pha Lat, you’ll notice a trail to the left with a sign telling you it’s a 400 m (0.24 mi) climb up to Wat Anagami. And they ain’t lying—climbing you will be! On many, many dirt stairs, mostly. They are lined by makeshift bamboo railings and ropes some of the way, which makes it a tad easier, though they do nothing for shitty fitness levels and you will get your heart rate up, especially if you’ve just indulged in coffee and donuts like me.


Part of the trail to Wat Anagami, Monk’s Trail, Chiang Mai

Just when you thought the stairs were the only thing you had to worry about, there’s an extra steep bit where the rope hanging down it is your best friend
 

It took us about 20 minutes to get to Wat Anagami. To be honest, the temple is nothing to look forward to. It seems and probably is abandoned, but at least you get a good shady spot to rest for a bit before heading back down, because the main temple is open-air. You can just sit down, hang out with Buddha, drink the rest of your water, hoping to catch a breeze. There are some views over the city from up there, but nothing spectacular, since most of what’s below you is blocked by trees.

Only go on this trail if you enjoy hiking for hiking or for the challenge of making it to the top.


Wat Anagami near Chiang Mai, Thailand

Wat Anagami looks abandoned, but the Buddha statues are still well taken care of
 

If you want (and I wanted!), you’re now just a few steps from the main road again, so it would be easy to hire some wheels and make your way back down that way. But if you have my son with you, he’ll tell you that that’s cheating and that if we don’t walk back on the trail, he won’t feel accomplished, and we won’t be able to say we did the whole hike. So back down the treacherous stairs we went, extending the time before I’d get to cool off at the pool at our lovely accommodation, Coucou Hotel.

It was enjoyable making some other hikers’ day by telling them, red faces and all, that they are a mere 2 minutes from the top. But I bet they took a red truck down! 

Extension to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep: Is it worth it?

Photo of buildings at Doi Suthep temple, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Do yourself a favor and just drive to Doi Suthep
 

If you walk up to the top of the river on Wat Pha Lat grounds, you’ll reach the road (you can also use the standard asphalt approach on the other side of the temple grounds). Climb over the railing (I’m not kidding), cross the road, and then up, up and awaaaay you go, along the power lines. The trail up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is basically a straight, steep 2 km (1.2 mi) line with no trail markings, and much less beaten than the Monk’s Trail to Wat Pha Lat. It should take 1.5 hours to get to the top.

I’m sure it does the trick for those wanting more of a challenge, but it seriously breaks my rule of not hiking to places where a road leads to, and I just couldn’t be bothered. Yeah, yeah, it’s the same road that leads to Wat Pha Lat too, but you wouldn’t know it when you get there from the Monk’s Trail, and I’m telling you it’s an exception to this rule.

When you see the hordes of people at Doi Suthep, you’ll know what I mean when I say it’s very touristy and it simply doesn’t feel like a spot you need to hike to.


Stairs leading to Wat Phra That on Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand

No matter how you get there, you’ll still have to walk up the dragon stairs to get to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Story time: The one where we got very lost on the Monk’s Trail

I’ve mentioned that my first time hiking the Monk’s Trail 5 years ago was a little more challenging… This was when the Monk’s Trail was marked just by saffron cloths and the path was far from obvious. I still remember making our way across the stream and then up the hill, sort of intuitively in the general direction we thought the temple would be. Hey, there was a tree wrapped in a cloth!

We even had two other solo travelers follow us, because surely a family with a little kid (my son was 3 at the time) wouldn’t just randomly head up into a Thai forest if they didn’t know what they were doing. Oh, how naïve they were! Eventually, both of our new friends gave up and one by one turned back like a couple of sissies, but not us! I was determined. Must. Reach. Temple. Like. Monk.

An hour and a half later (or was it 2?? I lost track of time), the temple was nowhere to be found, I was running out of fake smiles and “I’m sure we’re almost there” lies. Stupid monks with their stupid path. Then, after literally hopping over fallen electrical wires and fighting off thousands of ants (remember, this was all happening while we were balancing our 3-year-old on our shoulders to, um, protect him), we found… a road! Not a temple. A road.


Meme showing a family coming out of the jungle looking like Tom Hanks in Castaway

Let’s go on the Monk’s Trail they said, it’ll be fun they said
 

We emerged out of the forest looking like we just survived a week on a deserted island, two Thai men sitting by an official-looking building just barely raising an eyebrow. We continued on the road towards the temple when a group of stray dogs started slowly walking towards us like they just found their next meal. Anyway, long story short, we got to Wat Pha Lat.

The funny thing is that I now know that the road we finally found was the one right above Wat Anagami, because we took the now-official side-trail there this time around and I had PTSD the moment I spotted the area. Oh, good times.
 

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About me

About me

Hi! I’m Jan. I live in Prague, Czech Republic. I try to experience the best the world has to offer, and I don’t cease to be impressed. But if I’m not, I’m sure going to tell you! You can count on my full honesty and real opinions here. No bullcrap. I own and run several companies, which gives me great (but not unlimited) freedom to roam the world.  

I was first inspired to start this blog by my own experience of researching for upcoming trips—I often struggle with a lack of good information, accuracy, and authenticity of resources. You wouldn’t believe how many “travel bloggers” don’t even visit the destinations they write about! 

My goal with this blog is to provide you with complex and practical information so that you can plan your own vacation, complete with insights you’d only get if you visited the place. I also put together itineraries that are fully planned out trip guides.

Another aspect that drives this platform is my curiosity about the history, geography, politics, and economy of each country I visit, so I try to include this information in my articles, too. It’s always great to get the bigger picture, right? 

And just to be clear, I am not trying to compete with backpacking blogs or provide hacks for an economical and affordable experience. My vacations follow the standard pattern of traveling by plane, staying in good hotels, and renting a car on the spot to get around. I’m also always up for a fantastic meal, though I don’t shy away from local delicacies and street food, either.  

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