Archaeological travel guide to the ruins of San Ku, the ancient mountaintop Buddhist temple many centuries older than Chiang Mai’s famous Wat Doi Suthep.
Name: San Ku สันกู่
Where: Doi Pui, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Location: 18.81567, 98.89539
Description: San Ku is a ruined mountaintop Buddhist temple predating the Lanna Thai kingdom in Chiang Mai.
Getting there: Although there is occasional public transit through the mountain roads, the ruins may .
Gazing at the mountain above Chiang Mai city, the famous temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep shines its golden stupa down over the valley day or night. This temple is the most famous attraction in the province and houses a relic supposedly stemming from the Buddha himself.
Centuries before the Doi Suthep temple was consecrated, the San Ku temple of Doi Pui served as the sacred mountain sanctuary of the Lawa people and Hariphunchai Kingdom in the valley below. In time, it was overshadowed by Chiang Mai’s Wat Doi Suthep and then forgotten entirely until 1984.
The Story of the San Ku Ruins
The monument of San Ku is recognized as the oldest archaeological site within the area of Doi Suthep and the surrounding foothills. Beyond this, however, there is little historical context as to its origin and it was actually lost to history until the year 1984, when a local monk brought the mound to the attention of archaeologists.
Wiang Chet Lin and the Legend of Vasuthep
Main article: Wiang Chet Lin, Lost City of the Lawa
Both archaeologists and the Thai people themselves recognize the Lawa people as the original inhabitants of the area that is now Thailand. Within the Ping River Valley, the Lawa occupied three known walled cities prior to the arrival of the Lanna Thais or the Dvaravati Mons of Hariphunchai.
One of these walled cities sat at the base of Doi Suthep mountain, commonly referred to as Wiang Chet Lin (Misankorn in the past). The others were Wiang Suan Dok and Wiang Nopburi, located where Wat Suan Dok and Wat Chiang Man are today, respectively.
During this same period, the Hariphunchai Kingdom (c. 750 – 1292 CE) based in modern Lamphun was exerting its influence over the entire region. Hariphunchai brought with it the Dvaravati Buddhist culture that dominated central Thailand at the time. This culture was integrated into local traditions, going also far as to claim that Hariphunchai was, like Wiang Chet Lin, founded by the legendary Lawa hermit Vasuthep.
There are several variations on the stories of Vasuthep, several of them contradictory. However, what most of them agree on is that he was a devout Lawa ascetic who retreated to a cave somewhere in the hills of Doi Suthep, before descending from the mountain to establish the City of Wiang Chet Lin for the Lawa and Hariphunchai for the Mon people, subsequently inviting Camadevi, the princess of Lavo (ancient Lopburi) to rule Hariphunchai.
San Ku, the Ancient Phra That Temple on Doi Pui
The name San Ku roughly translates as “stupa on a ridge”. This name is a modern designation, as the original name of the ancient temple is unknown in either the Mon or Lawa languages, and was built long before the arrival of Thais into the area.
The relationship between the Lawa cities at the base of Doi Suthep mountain and Hariphunchai is still unclear. While some legends and writings place them at war with each other, there is also evidence of several joint construction efforts. The monuments seem to have been made to their shared faith, One of these is Wat Ku Din Khao, visible today within the ancient city walls of Wiang Chet Lin, which is now a part of the Chiang Mai Zoo.
San Ku is another of these monuments. This mountaintop temple shares much of the same architectural style as Wat Ku Din Khao, including the basic design of a square-based chedi to the west of a brick viharn. Like Wat Ku Din Khao, it is built with relatively large bricks, very different from the style that the later Lanna era would use.
The square stupa of San Ku measures 4 meters on each side, and is currently 3 meters high, but would have originally been significantly taller. It stands to the rear of an east-facing viharn, which is 15 meters long and 5 meters wide. Were it not for the current trees blocking the entrance of the viharn, the entrance to the building would be facing the modern city of Chiang Mai — and by consequence, the ancient Lawa city of Wiang Chet Lin.
Archaeological Excavations at San Ku
The definitive work on San Ku was written by Surapol Damrikul, a researcher and professor emeritus at Chiang Mai University, who has taken part in the excavations at both San Ku at Wat Ku Din Khao. These excavations began in 1984, following the Department of Fine Arts being alerted of the monument by the former abbot of Doi Pui Bureau of Monks.
At the time excavations began, the entire ruined temple appeared to be an overgrown dirt mound in the middle of Doi Pui’s forests. However, there were clear signs of construction as random bricks lay scattered throughout the area — unfortunate remnants of illegal excavation and artifact looting prior to its proper excavation by archaeologists.
Despite the site having already been disturbed, excavations at San Ku discovered 2 Buddhist votive tablets which bore the Hariphunchai style. In addition to the architecture itself, this is a clear indication that the people of Lamphun were involved at this mountain sanctuary, despite the contemporary Lawa city at the mountain’s base. Also found at the site were pieces of pottery originating from Chiang Mai’s San Kamphaeng Kilns as well as pottery from Ming Dynasty China.
Professor Damrikul raises the question as to why San Ku was constructed at this high mountaintop in the first place? He then suggests that the answer might be traced back to the legendary hermit Vasuthep himself. Several tales of the Lawa and Hariphunchai people tell of the exploits of Vasuthep within the mountains overlooking Chiang Mai which would someday bear his name.
While this is not likely to have been the famous cave from which he emerged to found Wiang Chet Lin and Hariphunchai, there are other stories of reverence that were likely to have made this location a sacred place to indigenous Lawa people. To this day, local hill tribe ceremonies take place at the ancient San Ku monument.
This would make it an ideal place to build a mountain sanctuary to Buddhism when the Dvaravati culture arrived in the Ping River Valley and the Hariphunchai Kingdom began to spread its influence through the region.
Sumanathera and the White Elephant
Main article: Wiang Suan Dok
One of the defining eras in Lanna history was the residence of the Sri Lankan monk Sumanathera, a renowned Buddhist teacher who was invited by King Kuena from Sukhothai. Upon his arrival, Sumanathera presented the Lanna King with a phra that relic of the Buddha (supposedly the shoulder bone of Siddhartha Gautama) which, according to legend, miraculously split in two.
One of these relics was enshrined in the stupa at Wat Suan Dok. The other was assigned to an auspicious white elephant (a symbol of royalty in Thai culture) to seek out a second place of consecration. According to the legend, the elephant then gazed up to the mountains and proceeded to climb up the steep path.
When the white elephant reached the spot where Wat Phra That Doi Suthep now stands, it trumpeted three times, then died. King Kuena then ordered a temple to enshrine the shoulder bone relic be built at this location based on the omen given by his auspicious royal elephant.
Of course, much of this is likely embellished by history, but from it, Professor Damrikul proposes a fascinating theory as to the real reason for the location of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. He suggests that the original destination of the Buddha relic was intended to be the temple at San Ku, a Buddhist Shrine already ancient by the time of Kuena’s reign.
However, the royal elephant carrying the relic only managed to reach the lower mountain peak where Wat Doi Suthep now sits, and subsequently died. This was taken as the paramount omen, and a new temple was instead built on this spot, becoming Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.
Following the construction of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, this Buddhist monastery became the jewel of all temples within Chiang Mai, and remains so to this day. As a result, and with the Lawa and Hariphunchai being further integrated into the Lanna Kingdom, the ancient temple of San Ku fell into disuse, and then was forgotten entirely.
Visiting the San Ku Ruins
The ancient temple of San Ku sits atop Doi Pui (1,685 meters (5,528 ft)), the twin peak of the more famous Doi Suthep (1,676 meters (5,499 ft)). The road up the mountain leads to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the most famous tourist attraction in northern Thailand. However, beyond Wat Doi Suthep’s entrance, the road becomes much less travelled.
The Road Up Doi Suthep Mountain
It was a cloudy morning during Chiang Mai’s rainy season when I returned to the road up Doi Suthep. It’s a 3 lane road with continuous curves as it winds up the mountain’s slope. This was the road where I had first learned to ride a motorbike back in the fall of 2011, making it to the famous temple to see the sunset over Chiang Mai.
Admittedly, this was a pretty stupid idea looking back, given that I had to ride down the mountain in the dark. riding back at night.
However, many years since have improved by motorcycle skills, and this foggy morning made for an amazingly atmospheric ride up the otherwise empty roads, as well as a welcome break from what had recently been persistent sunlight and heat.
The road up the mountain passes several points of interest, including Wat Pha Lat, a few small waterfalls, and the very obvious entrance to Wat Doi Suthep. It finally seems the road comes to an end at Bhubing Palace. This palace is a relatively modern winter home built for the Thai royal family in 1961.
However, the roads do actually continue on to several mountain villages and national park sites. Once you pass Bhubing Palace, the road narrows significantly, and it is highly advisable to go slowly and acknowledge the blind spots around sharp curves through these forests.
Not far past Bhubing Palace, the road splits off to the left, leading to the Hmong ethnic village about 2.5 km away. The entrance to this road is marked by a wooden archway bearing the image of the Thai king.
Passing this fork in the road and continuing about 2km on the main road, you’ll come to a clearing leading to the ruins of San Ku.
The San Ku Ruins – Ancient Chedi and Viharn
The San Ku ruins are not immediately evident from the road, although there is a clearing large enough to park full-size cars. When I arrived there, the woods and the fog blended together for a very isolated and ghostly scene. One nearby viewpoint over the edge of the mountain had zero visibility past the ledge.
In the clearing, there is a wooden sign marking the path to San Ku in Thai, English and Chinese. This path leads about 50 meters from the road. Through the fog and foliage, the first sign of San Ku came in the sharp contrast of the saffron ribbons wrapped around the ancient stupa base. As the stupa came into clear view, it appeared as a small stepped pyramid with only the ruined receding levels of its base remaining.
Getting closer, it becomes clear just how imposing this monument would have been in its prime. The first terrace on the ground was almost as tall as me, with the remaining levels rising over 3 meters in height.
On each side of the stupa’s square base are small brick pedestals. 3 of these are physically separated from the stupa itself, while the fourth, east-facing pedestal appears to be connected and may have been a stairway. At the time of my visit, this pedal, which sits between the stupa and the viharn, was covered in animal figurines, candles, and incense offerings — making it difficult to get a clear look at its features.
The ridge from which the ruins get their modern name is indeed quite small, with it beginning to slope downward very near the east entrance of the ancient viharn base. It’s curious to note that, even though the viharn of a temple usually houses a Buddha image, no traces of any such image have been found at San Ku. However, the building style and Hariphunchai votive tablets are clearly Buddhist in origin.
The entire viharn structure, like the stupa itself, is completely covered in mossy overgrowth and feels right at home in the remote forest surroundings. At both the eastern corners of the viharn are two small lion figurines, similar to the shishi (石狮) lion guardians often found at Chinese temples and palaces.
Following the restoration work done after the 1984 excavations, the interior floor of San Ku’s viharn is quite smooth and level, with the center stairway providing a clear view to the bygone relic chamber behind it. Considering how much effort must have gone into creating this isolated sanctuary.
Beyond these two ruined structures, there is little else to see at the San Ku archaeology site. There is a very small informational display written in Thai and English, mostly detailing the restoration date. Every few steps, you might find one of San Ku’s ancient bricks partially sticking out of the sand.
Some other curious offerings and figurines seem to have been placed by local worshippers and are scattered around the clearing. It’s good to see that in addition to rediscovering what had been an otherwise forgotten part of the region’s history, locals are reawakening the site for their own modern use as well.
A very light drizzle began as I was finishing up at the ruins, although I was in no hurry to race back down the mountain. Even driving back through the foggy woods, the setting certainly begs the consideration as to the thoughts behind building it in the first place, and the reasons why it was forgotten.
Sure, there are dozens of ruins temples throughout Chiang Mai, and Thailand as a whole. However, the kings of Lanna went through great effort to establish their sacred temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Is Professor Surapol Damrikul correct that the relic now at Doi Suthep was originally intended to be housed at this ancient Hariphunchai shrine? Or had it already been lost and forgotten by the time of King Kuena and was never used or even considered by the Lanna Thais?
It’s an interesting question, and one that I hope more evidence might bring light to.
How to Get to the San Ku Ruins
GPS Coordinates: 18.81567, 98.89539
San Ku sits at the peak of Doi Pui mountain, and you must first pass Doi Suthep mountain to get there. While there are several ways for tourists to reach Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, such as Chiang Mai’s iconic red trucks, few of these will continue on to Doi Pui past the Bhubing Palace.
The only real option to reach Doi Pui and San Ku is with private transportation. Chiang Mai is an easy place to rent a motorbike or car to drive up the mountain with, but be sure you are confident in your ability to do so, there are several stretches which have serious potential to be hazardous. There are also many private tour guides in Chiang Mai that could easily group San Ku in with a visit to other sights on Doi Suthep.
Alternatively, there is also Chiang Mai’s Monks Trail, a pilgrimage trail up the mountain that is also popular with recreational hikers. This trail crosses the main road a few times, but also passes directly through Wat Pha Lat, Wat Doi Suthep, Phra Ruesi Cave, and ends at Bhubing Palace. From here, you can also follow the same quiet road throughout the woods to San Ku.
Legendary Lavo princess and first ruler of Hariphunchai who brought Buddhism and Dvaravati culture to northern Thailand.
Thai word meaning “stupa”
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Lanna Kingdom founded by King Mengrai in 1293.
Doi Suthep (ดอยสุเทพ)
Revered mountain on the western edge of Chiang Mai. The mountain peak has been used by both the Hariphunchai and Lanna Kingdoms to house sacred Buddhist relic temples.
Mon-Burmese ethnic group based in modern Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. Responsible for the introduction of Buddhism (Theravada sect) to Thailand.
Dvaravati kingdom in northern Thailand (c. 750 – 1292 CE) centered in the modern town of Lamphun. Eventually conquered by the Lanna Kingdom.
Lanna king from 1355-1385 CE. He expanded the Lanna domain to its largest extent and founded the Lankawong school of Buddhism in Lanna.
Thai kingdom based in northern Thailand and northwestern Laos. Its capitals included Chiang Rai, Wiang Kum Kam, and Chiang Mai.
City in northern Thailand and the historic capital of the Hariphunchai Kingdom.
Dvaravati kingdom in central Thailand centered in the modern town of Lopburi. Eventually conquered by the Khmer Empire.
Ethnic minority group who constructed three walled cities in the Chiang Mai valley: Wiang Nopburi, Wiang Ched Lin, and Wiang Suan Dok. They are also referenced in historic writings as Lua, Milukku, Tamilla, and La.
Common term in Thai temple names meaning “Buddha relic”, referencing the temple supposedly housing a relic of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. Also spelled “phrathat”.
Ethnic group originating in Myanmar who established the first civilizations in modern Thailand. The Mon kingdoms in Thailand are collectively referred to as Dvaravati.
Buddhist monument used to enshrine sacred relics or memorialize important figures. Its dome, bell, or otherwise tower-like appearance is an architectural representation of Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain said to represent the structure of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology.
Sri Lankan monk who resided in Sukhothai before being invited to Chiang Mai by King Kuena, He gifted the Lanna King a Buddha relic which is now housed at Wat Suan Dok and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.
Fabled Lawa hermit monk who is said to have founded Wiang Misankorn and Hariphunchai, and invited Camadevi to rule Hariphunchai.
The main worship hall in a Buddhist temple.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Sacred mountaintop temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand which is said to house a Buddha relic brought by the Sri Lanka Monk Sumanathera.
Wat Suan Dok
“Flower Garden Temple”, a historic temple west of Chiang Mai built by King Kuena to house the Buddhist Relic from the Sri Lankan monk Sumanathera.
Wiang Chet Lin
Fortification built by Lanna King Sam Fangkaen over the ruins of Wiang Misankorn.
Lawa walled city at the base of Doi Suthep founded before the Hariphunchai Period.
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- Damrikul, Surapol. “San-Ku Archaeological Site, Doi Pui Hill: Sacred Site of Wasuthep Hermit.” Journal of Fine Arts, vol. 5, no. 1, 2014, http://cmuir.cmu.ac.th/jspui/handle/6653943832/65062.
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- Pongpandecha, Narong and Ken Taylor. “Interpretation of the Cultural Landscape and Heritage Values of “Mae Koong Bok Village”, Tambon Sanklang, San Patong District, Chiang Mai, Thailand.” Suthiparithat Journal, 93rd ed., vol. 30, Dhurakij Pundit University, Bangkok, Thailand, 2016.
- Stratton, Carol, and Miriam McNair. Scott. Buddhist Sculpture of Northern Thailand. Buppha Press, 2004.
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- Wichien, Aroonrut. “Lawa (Lua) : A Study from Palm-Leaf Manuscripts and Stone Inscriptions.” Kyoto University, 2012. https://www.academia.edu/6206063/Lawa_Lua_A_Study_from_Palm-Leaf_Manuscripts_and_Stone_Inscriptions.
- Williams, Benjamin. “Wiang Chet Lin: Ancient Chiang Mai’s Lost City of the Lawa.” Paths Unwritten, 7 Feb. 2020, https://pathsunwritten.com/chiangmai-wiang-chetlin/.
- Williams, Benjamin. “Wiang Suan Dok: Ancient Chiang Mai’s Holy Outer City.” Paths Unwritten, 22 July 2019, https://pathsunwritten.com/suan-dok-chiang-mai/.
- สันกู่. (n.d.). Retrieved June 20, 2020, from http://www.sri.cmu.ac.th/~demo/index.php/site/historic_detail/id/17.