Wat Doi Suthep- Temple on the Mountain
November 23, 2016
The Loy Krathong Festival was so fun and interesting but it wasn’t the only thing we did while Jane and Steve were visiting Chiang Mai. We also travelled up the Doi Suthep mountain to visit the temple, Wat Doi Suthep.
Crowds in Chiang Mai
Before I share some more spectacular pictures of this golden wat, I wanted to clarify something that people commented on from an earlier post. Several people thought they could never wander out with so many people crowded around. That is the thing about Chiang Mai. The people here are kind and respectful to each other and to the visitors. That attitude seems to rub off on the farangs (tourists) as well. The lantern and krathong releases were exciting but not crazy. It was not just a drunken gathering. There were police in sight but I never saw them needing to do anything except move people back from the corners where the floats needed to turn.
We missed a turn on our walk back to our apartment from festival day 2 and ended up on some unknown back streets (soi). We walked over 3 km and it was after 11 pm but felt completely safe. There were lots of locals gathered around the food carts finishing off the day’s product. We stopped in a couple of chairs for a little rest outside a shop selling purses . Right away a gentleman offered us a drink menu from the bar next door. People worry more about the odd stray dog at night than they do the people. I’m working on a post on the sidewalks and streets that will give you an idea of what we see and have to watch for when we walk.
Chiang Mai is up in the hills of Thailand at an elevation of 1020 feet. We can see forested “mountains” all around the city. Doi Suthep is the one of the highest with its summit at 5250 ft. There is a national park on the mountain with hiking trails and waterfalls. We haven’t visited those areas yet so that will be the topic of another conversation.
Buddhism in Thailand
I don’t pretend to be an expert in Theravada Buddhism, but I have learned a few things that help me understand the purpose of the many wats (temples) for which Chiang Mai is famous. Although it is based on Buddha’s teachings from India, it also includes ideas from Hindu, Tantric and Mahayana influences, like the worship of Buddha images. The belief of spirits, magic and astrology are also common in Thailand. The Thais, however, believe that the strength of their country comes from Buddhism. the monarchy and nationhood.
Thais believe in reincarnation and to reach the stage of enlightenment, or nirvana–the ultimate state of being, they need to earn merit in whatever life they are presently in. This can be earned by becoming a monk, which most boys do for some time during their life. Giving food to a monk or having a monk bless a home or child-naming can also earn merit. Being kind and respectful to others also count, as does leaving offerings to Buddha. We’ve seen small banana baskets with food or flowers left on the sidewalk, or hung from a wall.
The Buddhist rules that apply visitors have to do with being respectful. Visits to a temple expect your shoulders and knees to be covered. I brought a scarf and bought some wrap around skirts to use for this purpose. You also take off your shoes before entering a temple or anyone’s home. Women may not touch a monk, or even sit next to one on public transportation. The head is considered the most sacred part of the body so you are not to touch anyone’s head. The feet are the lowest, least sacred part so you never point your feet at someone, especially a Buddha statue. Think of the lotus position with feet tucked away. It is very disrespectful to put your feet up on a chair or table, or close a drawer etc. with your feet.
Wat Doi Suthep
The Wat on the mountain was supposedly chosen by a White Elephant. In the 1390’s the king’s elephant walked up the mountain, trumpeted and turned around 3 times and the site was selected. It is near the summit of the mountain and can be seen from the city, shining from within the forest. Fortunately there is a paved road all the way there.
Getting to Wat Doi Suthep
The most common way to get there is by songtaew. You can take one from the city to the Chiang Mai Zoo, then transfer to another one that takes a group of people up to the top. It costs about 80 Bhat, or $3.00 to get there. These vehicles are open in the back with sliding windows behind the benches. The number of tune-ups they undergo is questionable. The road is steep and full of switchbacks. The exhaust blowing into the back and steady back and forth made feel quite queasy by the time we got to the Wat.
Upon arriving, we had 304 steps to climb to arrive at the actual temple. The steps were brick but the railings were a Naga, the serpent protector of Buddha. There a couple of pre-school girls in traditional dress on the bottom steps posing for pictures. I didn’t see their parents, but apparently someone was collecting money for those who wanted to make a donation. Those girls sat there all day in the heat. I don’t know of any kids from home that would be that patient.
The climb was shaded and once at the top we took our shoes off and began to look around. The Central Chedi was completed in the 16th Century and is gold plated. The filigree umbrellas on each corner are covered with gold leaf by pilgrims. It is so bright from all the gold that it is hard to look at some of them. One of the buildings had murals depicting the life of monks from the past. There were many statues of Buddha. His hand positions can symbolize reassurance, connecting to the earth, meditation or justice, to name a few.
The thing that disappointed me about this beautiful Buddhist temple were many of the visitors. Foreign tour guides were yelling at their clients with stories about the wat. Girls were doing jump pictures. There were signs to remind people to be quiet but you couldn’t see them through all the selfie sticks. At the same time, people were doing meditation walks around the chedi, hanging bells with good wishes on the eaves and being blessed by monks. Many areas were for people on their knees saying prayers. It is real place of worship. I would not expect to see the same people behave this way in a cathedral or even a church. I felt a bit embarrassed being there at all.
I’ve started adding a few more pictures under the travel heading in the menu at the top. This will be an ongoing process now that I know how to do it. Check back.
There are no immediate plans for any visitors, so for now we continue to explore the area and enjoy the retired lifestyle of “Let’s see what the day will bring.”