Looming over the sleepy city of Chiang Mai like an ominous giant guarding a sacred treasure, the twin mountains of Doi Suthep and Doi Pui stand in silent watch over the ancient capital of the Lanna Kingdom.
The taller of the twin sisters, Doi Pui, stands at 1,685 meters above sea level, while Doi Suthep checks in at a little over 1,670 meters. The mountains were declared a national park in 1981 with the intent of preserving the forest as a watershed for the region. The park covers and area of 262 square kilometers and fuels a number of tributaries which form part of the Mae Ping River.
The mountain is best known for the temple which bears its namesake, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, located on the summit of Doi Suthep. The temple is highly revered by devout Buddhists all throughout Southeast Asia and thousands of tourists and pilgrims visit this holy site every year.
The mountain had long been occupied by various hilltribes many decades before the government declared it a national park. Most of these indigenous peoples lived off the land, hunting in the forests and cultivating opium and cash crops through the use of slash-and-burn methods. This process of farming led to the destruction of many thousands of hectares of prime deciduous forest, as well as the extirpation of all large mammals such as tiger, elephant, and bear from the park .
Upon establishment of the National Park, the government acknowledged the hill tribes’ hereditary rights to the land by forming enclaves within the park where existing settlements were permitted to operate. The hill tribes were encouraged, via a royally-initiated management scheme under the patronage of His Majesty the King, to revert from cultivating opium to raising cash crops such as coffee, flowers and fruits. In time the local people shifted their occupation from agriculture to tourism, which led to the widening of the access road and construction of modern tourist facilities and attractions in the area.
Some of the forests in the lower regions were cleared decades prior to the founding of the national park. Most of the remaining virgin forest is located on the higher elevations or along the western and southern sectors of the park. Encroachment is an ongoing issue, mostly in the lower elevations which border human settlements. Most troubling are the seasonal forest fires set intentionally by locals and hill tribes as a way to clear the forest understory and improve visibility for hunting. The fires inhibit new growth in the forest by destroy the young saplings and severely damage the old trees, especially in the lower altitudes.
Due to the high number of human settlements and relative ease of access into the deepest recesses of the park, hunting still continues unabated and the trapping of wild birds for the cage bird trade empties the forests of many of its most colorful birds. The vast secret network of dirt roads and trails allow poachers to cart out their illegal cargo with little fear of repercussion.
The lower elevations are chiefly composed of deciduous forest which sheds during the onset of the dry season due to water stress. Higher up the mountain the forest is dominated by broadleaf evergreen trees. Crowning the summit of Doi Pui is naturally -occurring pine forest which resembles a mythical Bavarian forest.
Due to its high altitude, ease of access and close proximity to Chiang Mai city, Doi Suthep – Doi Pui is a popular birdwatching destination which attracts birders all year round. The mountain is home to over 220 species of birds and offers a variety of habitats for birders of varied tastes.
Birding in the lower elevations is restricted mostly to the forested waterfalls, of which there are plenty. Some of the waterfalls have small trails which lead into the interior which are productive at times. During the dry season the waterfalls will often run dry; however, if one were to trek upstream in search of pools of water, one can can enjoy quality birdwatching by just waiting for the birds to come down to bathe and drink. -All without having to exert too much energy!
Leeches are prevalent in the wet season so please wear protective gear and use a deet-based repellent.
The species of birds which can be found vary depending on the altitude and forest type. Doi Suthep – Doi Pui National Park has a wide diversity of birds, ranging from open country species to high altitude mountain dwelling species.
Mae Hia Forest Checkpoint
I’ve already reviewed Mae Hia Agricultural University previously and so I will not delve into too much detail about it in this review. However, few people know that there is a national park substation located just behind the university. The forest here is dominated by deciduous forest and in the dry season leaf litter can over two feet thick in some places. The barren, leafless branches make it easy to spot roosting Spotted Owlet, Collared Owlet and Asian Barred Owlet.
Birds found here include Greater Racket tailed Drongo, Shikra, Puff throated Babbler, Greater Yellownape, Blue Whistling Thrush and Red Junglefowl. Rarely encountered but present nonetheless are Alexandrine Parakeet and Grey headed Parakeet.
For more information about Mae Hia University, click here.
Huay Kaew and Mon Thon Tharn Waterfalls
These waterfalls are among the busiest and crowded natural attractions in Chiang Mai. Both are located outside the jurisdiction of the national park and have suffered tremendously from the impact of tourism and local trappers.
Huay Kaew, the lower tier of the two waterfalls, is usually teeming with locals who come to swim or enjoy a picnic. Catering to the tourists are a horde of food vendors who set up makeshift stalls along the street and walking paths. The only chance of finding any birds is to hike upstream, away from the crowds. Even then, it’s never a guarantee that there won’t be a small party of rowdy teenagers or drunken men just around the riverbend.
Mon Thon Tharn Waterfall is further up the mountain and offers better birding than its southernern sister. White crowned Laughingthrush and Greater necklaced Laughingthrush are two birds which make their presence known long before they are even located. Blue bearded Bee Eater often likes to perch on exposed dead branches of tall trees and Blue throated and Blue eared Barbets can often be heard singing duets in the treetops. Other birds include Red Whiskered and Sooty capped Bulbul, Greater Yellownape, Eurasian Jay and Greater Racket-tailed Drongo.
Lucky birders may also encounter the elusive Rusty naped Pitta along the damp gullies and walking trails in the forest.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
The temple and its surroundings are awash with commercial hullabaloo so there is little birding to be had around here, unlike 30 or 50 years ago when it was still a forest monastery. However, due to its height and commanding view of the valley, the temple offers birders the ideal spot to look for swifts, swallows and treeswifts whilst enjoying the spectacular view of the city.
Great Tit is also fairly common within the temple grounds and on occasion a party of minivets and babblers can be found making their way through the trees along the edge of the temple.
National Park Headquarters and Nature Trails
The national park office is located past the famed Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple and maintains a number of good quality trails which I’ve found to be worth walking in the early mornings. The moist forest is lively and offers a chance of encountering some of the special species which live here.
The nature trail hosts a number of interesting species such as Puff throated Bulbul, White browed Shortwing, Blue Pitta, Crested Serpent Eagle, Black Eagle, Velvet and Chestnut bellied Nuthatch and Brown Boobook.
This is the official residence of the Royal Family and is open to the public when not in use. Many of the same birds found at the National Park Office can be seen here with the addition of some flowerpeckers and sunbirds which are attracted to the flowering trees and bushes in the palace premises.
Minivets are an attraction not to be missed, with Small, Rosy and Scarlet Minivets on display in the trees around the palace.
Birding is best done around the outer boundaries of the palace as visitors entering the palace must adhere to certain formalities and are not allowed to wander off the set route.
Sun Koo Retreat
This small clearing is home to an ancient and sacred shrine and is used as a Buddhist retreat in the wet season or a military campsite when the Royal Family is visiting the north. It is located on the road to the summit. Long tailed Broadbill is frequently encountered here as is Grey throated Babbler, Yellow bellied Yuhina, Speckled Piculet and Blue winged Minla.
The road between Sun Koo and the summit is where birders have most frequently encountered pheasants, usually in the early mornings. Silver, Kalij and Humes Pheasants are all present on the mountain, the latter being by far the rarest of the three. Both Kalij and Silver Pheasants have been released into the wild as part of the National Park Wildlife Breeding Program so whether or not one would consider the feral population to be worthy of twitching is up for debate.
Summit of Doi Pui
A ranger substation marks the entrance to the summit trail. Most visitors are required to get a permit from the park office before embarking down the trail but most often the checkpoint is left unmanned until at least 8 or 9 AM. While I don’t promote breaking regulations, I have found no harm with arriving early and ducking in before the rangers arrive. -After all, birding on the summit after 9 AM isn’t going to be very successful! There is a parking lot for vehicles opposite the checkpoint.
The distance between the checkpoint and the summit is roughly three kilometers.
Many of the birds at this elevation skulking and hard to observe; much patience is needed while birding along this road.
Most of the birds tend to move about in large mixed groups known as “birdwaves”. Sometimes these birdwaves are the only opportunity for seeing anything on this trail! Birds frequently encountered in birdwaves include Black throated Sunbird, Chestnut flanked White Eye, Chestnut bellied and Velvet fronted Nuthatch, White tailed Warbler, Streak breasted Spiderhunter and Large Niltava.
Siberian and Eyebrowed Thrush can often be found among the pines and a variety of flycatchers such as Little Pied Flycatcher, Blue and White Flycatcher and Snowy Browed Flycatcher. Fire capped Tit has also been recorded at the summit in the past.
Other notable birds include White browed Scimitar Babbler, Green Cochoa, Great Tit, Sultan Tit, White headed Bulbul, Black Bulbul, Hill Prinia, Rufous bellied Niltava and Orange bellied Leafbird.
In the winter months the trees will be crawling with Phylloscopus warblers, most of which can pose a serious threat to mental health of birders attempting to identify them! The key is to identify the birds through their calls as the birds are quite hyperactive and getting a clear view can at times be nearly impossible.
Directions to Doi Suthep -Doi Pui National Park
From Chiang Mai city, drive along Huay Kaew road (Highway 1004) heading northwest past Chiang Mai University and Chiang Mai Zoo. The road is wide and bustling with activity and there is plenty of commercial traffic all the way along this road.
The first attraction you will encounter is Doi Suthep temple. After passing the temple you will see the national park office and campsite to the right of the road. To get a better idea of the surrounding area, please zoom out by pressing Ctrl on your keyboard and scrolling with your mouse.
The next tourist attraction is the Hmong Village and Phuping Palace. From here the road narrows down to a thin blacktop track which barely accommodates two-way traffic.
The road will continue to wind through the mountain, leading past the summit trail and second park campsite. The summit trail is marked on this map in green Thai writing.
A little past the second campsite the blacktop gives way to a dirt track. In the summer and winter months most vehicles can pass along the road with ease; however in the rainy season, the track becomes a sea of mud which is navigable only with the use of a four-wheel drive. Even then, it can be a dangerous undertaking.
Accommodations and Fees
While camping is permitted at the ranger substation on Doi Pui, most birders will find it logical to stay at a resort or hotel in Chiang Mai and make an early morning drive to the summit for birding. There are numerous choices of hotels in Chiang Mai city, ranging from local backpacker hostels to four and five-star hotels.
The national park ranger station on Doi Suthep has a few bungalows for rent and the quality of the accommodations are simple, clean and cheerful. -Although the mattresses will have some people wishing for a massage the following morning!
For those who want to be as close to nature as possible, there is a campsite a few kilometers past Doi Pui summit. Visitors can rent a tent from the head office and stay here overnight although there is no food available. Hot meals can be purchased at the Karen Village of Baan Kung Chang Khian just down the road.
Birders visiting the summit trail may be required to pay a fee but nowhere else on the mountain is there a checkpoint which is manned by park staff.
Pros: Easy access to forest sites within the park; generally productive birding; possibility for seeing both Green Cochoa and Silver Pheasant; lovely, cool weather all year round and birding is good near the summit during all but the wet season.
Cons: Traffic going up and down the mountain can be meddling and dangerous; forest fires in the summer negatively impacts the birding and visibility; hunting still an ongoing issue; very disturbed forest; sometimes the only birds around are restricted to bird waves.
Doi Suthep – Doi Pui offers birders a decent experience without having to go far from the comfort of Chiang Mai city. It definitely has the pedigree of a productive birdwatching site. While the bird list may not be as exciting as that of Doi Inthanon or Doi Angkhang, it is by far the most convenient site to visit.
Birders who can’t afford to visit Doi Inthanon, Doi Chiang Dao or Doi Angkhang due to time constraints can easily squeeze this park into their itinerary. However, those who are planning on visiting the aforementioned sites will see no need to add this site to their list of preferred destinations.
– Department of National Parks: Doi Suthep – Doi Pui Information and Datasheet
– Dave Sargeant’s review of Doi Suthep – Doi Pui National Park
– Birdlife International: Assessment of Doi Suthep – Doi Pui