Chiang Mai Temple Tour
Two people, one bike, four temples, and a hundred stories.
When it came to Dain's bucket list for Chiang Mai, one thing was glaringly clear: he wanted to rent a motor bike.
Not one for the danger and imbalance of a motor bike, I spent several days trying to throw him off the trail. I suggested we rent a car, I suggested we walk or take a bus, but eventually he caught on and off we went to the bike shop. We came armed with all the information we'd need: don't let the office take your passport, make sure they offer insurance for both you and the bike, and if you're going uphill, you need at least 125cc. Mr. Mechanic in old city checked off all the boxes and, despite a slight delay as they searched for a helmet small enough to fit my little head, we were off.
Dain did his research and organized a temple tour around the Chiang Mai, hitting four of the most unique and significant temples in a very temple-laden city. The first stop was Wat Chedi Luang Worawihan, a large area in the heart of old city that housed many temples, old city posts, Buddha statues, and relics. It was here that I first encountered the "no women allowed" sign. Apparently, women are not allowed inside certain temples or city posts because they menstruate and are therefore an embarrassment to such important places. I kept my personal opinions aside here as Dain entered these places solo, assuring me that they weren't that special anyway!
Wat Chedi is especially interesting because alongside the typical gold and meticulously decorated temples is a massive old stone temple built hundreds of years ago. There's also a large reclining Buddha statue, and reclining Buddhas are rare- he's usually shown sitting cross-legged on an altar so his head is always above yours.
After walking the grounds, we sat down to participate in something I was quite excited about: Monk Chats. In this temple, monks live and study Buddhism in a school off the center courtyard, and in addition to learning Buddhist history and meditation, they study English. Monk Chats with visiting foreigners gives the monks a way to practice speaking English, and allows visitors like me a unique insight into a monk's daily life. I chose to ask our monk about Buddhism and he described the three tenants of Buddhism (Buddhist history, practice and ritual, and emotion/internalization). Dain asked why his robe was a brighter orange than some of the others', and he explained that the bright robe has come to signify a city monk, whereas the darker robes are usually worn by monks practicing in forest temples. We learned he had started studying to become a monk at age 12, and that one can begin as early as 7 years old but it's difficult for kids that young to pay attention. Overall a very fulfilling and unique experience- where better to learn about Buddhism than from a Buddhist monk?
Next, we wound through narrow streets just outside of the south gate until we found Wat Srisuphan, better known as the only temple in Thailand made entirely out of silver. It's a gorgeous temple and more recently finished, with intricate depictions of animals, zodiac symbols, and notable Thai landmarks decorating the exterior. Unfortunately, no embarrassing fertile women allowed inside (which I learned the hard way after a very upset woman chased me down and made me apologize to Buddha- whoops), but the outside is what you come to see anyway.
On our last stop for the day, we headed west into the Su Thep area of the city to visit Wat Umong in the beginning of the forest near the base of Doi Suthep mountain. What's striking about this temple is that it's more removed from the bustling city and crowds; throw in some trees and a small lake and you have a very tranquil temple visit. The old stone spire sits atop a hollowed-out hill where a little labyrinth of tunnels is home to about a dozen small Buddha shrines. It's the only place so far with visible tunnels, which made for solemn worship inside the darkness and stillness of its passageways.
The next day, with only the slightest bit of rain and fog, I jumped on the back of the bike, grabbed onto Dain's waist, and rode up past the zoo to the start of the Monk's Trail hike. The monk we spoke with the previous day says once a year on a special day, all monks walk this trail all the way up to the temple at the top- in sandals no less! Hikers can follow the trail to completion, which takes 5 hours each way, or turn back at certain temples along the way. We chose the latter.
Few tourists know about the hike, want to do it, or even know where to find it. It was so nice to get away from the very crowded Doi Suthep temple in favor for some nature, a little exercise, and some fantastic views.
Despite the relative difficulty in finding the trail head, the path was simple: follow the monks.
No, the monks weren't on the trail with us, but their legacy and orange robes were everywhere. It's a continued tradition for traveling monks to mark the way with the tie of your robe. Skinny trees with faded, torn, and barely colored ties mingled with their bright, tightly-tied young counterparts in a way that reminds you history is in the dense, humid air. The orange stood out starkly against the muted tones of the forest, not entirely unlike the burning lanterns against the dark New Year's Eve sky.
Although much less flashy than most temples we saw, Wat Phra Lat is exceptionally charming. The temple grounds incorporate the lush forest foliage tucking away shy Buddhas, the slowly tumbling waterfall culminating into an infinity pool seemingly spilling onto the city below, and sloping hillside to engender a magnificent and inspiring experience.