Our 40 hour marathon trip from Philadelphia ended in Chiang Mai, a small city in northern Thailand. After a decent night’s sleep in a real bed and a slow morning, we set off to find out what’s up with wats in this former capital of the ancient Lanna empire. (I was on the fence about engaging in any word play with “what’s” and “wats”. Obviously, my
corny less mature side won out).
Anticipating (correctly) that we might be jet-lagged and feeling lost in a country with a foreign alphabet (this was the name of our street — ถนนราชมรรคา — ), I pre-booked an afternoon guided tour of Chiang Mai’s major wats for our first afternoon. Our English-speaking guide, a young woman named Meeow, and a van driver picked us up at our hotel. This turned out to be a private tour because no one else signed up.
What is a Wat?
Our first question was, “What is a wat?” Meeow explained that a wat is a Buddhist temple complex, often accompanied by a Buddhist monastery and a monk training school. She told us that most Thai males do some period of Buddhist monk training, even if it’s just for three months. Poorer families often deliver their sons to the monastery at a young age for this training as it may be their only opportunity to have an education, so you see some quite young boys with shaved heads and orange robes.
Meeow explained that close to 95% of Thais are Theravada Buddhists. As in Christianity, Buddhism is divided into “denominations”, each with a somewhat different doctrine and rules. In Theravada Buddhism there is no worship of a supreme being, per se. However, Buddha is revered as a wise teacher who ultimately managed to achieve the completely enlightened state of Nirvana. Theravada Buddhists believe that we are doomed to a constant cycle of life (and its attendant suffering), death and rebirth until and unless we achieve Nirvana (the final, true enlightenment) which can only be accomplished through meditation and living the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
As in western cultures, it seemed that in Thailand, much treasure, human genius and toil has been devoted to religious art and architecture. To a large degree, this is displayed in elaborate wats, often built by successive rulers and maintained by donations from the faithful and support by the Thai monarchy. There are over 300 wats in the Chiang Mai area. Meeow took us to three of the most important.
If you will be visiting wats (and you absolutely should be if you are touring Thailand, Cambodia, Laos or Myanmar), do yourself a favor and understand that respect for Buddha requires that you be appropriately attired. For men and women, this means your ankles and shoulders must be covered and you will be removing your shoes. If your clothing does not pass muster, robes will be provided or available for rent.
Wat Chedi Luang
Within the confines of Old City Chiang Mai, stand the ruins of Wat Chedi Luang. Construction of this temple pagoda (chedi) started in about 1400, but it was partially destroyed by an earthquake and flood in 1545. It has been only partially restored. Many ancient wats, with their gold painted stupas (monuments) are so well maintained that they look brand new. To me, Wat Chedi Luang seemed evocative of the veneration of Buddha through the ages.
Wat Suan Dok
Our second stop was at Wat Suan Dok located about one kilometer west of the Old City Chiang Mai moat. This site is even older than Wat Chedi Luang, construction having started in 1371. The impressive, gold painted main chedi stands 157.5 (48 meters) high and is said to contain a relic of the Buddha. The next door shrine holds several enormous Buddha statues with an intricately decorated ceiling and pillars. The various Buddhas are in different positions, each signifying another aspect of Buddha’s life and teachings. This Wat Suan Dok complex also contains a field of white stupas containing the ashes of members of the Lanna royal family.
While being enshrined within the pagoda at Wat Suan Dok, the Buddha relic is said to have mysteriously split into two pieces. The king of Chiang Mai in about 1383, used a sacred white elephant to transport the second piece of the holy relic. It is said the elephant walked to the top of nearby Mount Suthep where he laid down. The King determined that this was a sign as to where he was meant to build the Wat to house the relic.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
The last Wat we visited with Meeow is perhaps the most famous in the Chiang Mai area and is the one constructed starting in 1383 where the white elephant came to rest on Mount Suthep (alt. 5,499 feet, 1,383 m.). The road to the Wat spirals upward through deciduous, and then evergreen, forests. There are scenic viewpoints overlooking the city of Chiang Mai, the center of which is 15 kms. distant.
At the top, Meeow gave us the option of climbing the 309 steps to the Wat or taking the funicular. We
wimped out and opted for the funicular. This impressive Wat is a popular destination for locals and tourists and so was quite crowded.
After we walked around the Wat and visited the ornate side chapels and large bells scattered around the site, we walked down the 309 steps. At the bottom, the street is lined with food stalls run by the local mountain tribes people. Meeow took us to a jade factory and store. Although the items were lovely, we now pretty much confine our souvenir purchases to refrigerator magnets, so we passed and kept our hard-earned baht.