Thai Tour: Day 3
Related Posts: For more on Chiang Mai’s Temples, see my post Ten of the Best: Chiang Mai Temples.
Another Early Morning
Nothing good can come of waking up late when you’re travelling. I’m sure of it. Get up at 08:00, get there by 09:00, and by the time you’ve had chance to wish you’d woken up earlier, the sun’s burning a hole in your back and the place is crawling with tourists.
I was at Wat Phra Singh, just before 07:00, having buzzed the five minutes round the corner from my hostel wondering whether a couple of hours lie-in might not have been such an awful prospect after all. It was another early rise, another early morning dash across town, arriving at another temple before most people were even half-way towards waking.
There was barely anyone else was around. The sun was already well up as I hurried through the gates and set about getting some exterior shots before the light became too harsh. A monk was sweeping the steps of the main prayer hall. A woman was setting up stools outside her noodle stall. Other than that, it was me and my camera with the place to ourselves.
For almost seven hundred years, Wat Phra Singh has been central to the cultural life of Chiang Mai. As the former home of Thailand’s most famous antiquity the Emerald Buddha, and since the 14th century home to the Phra Singh Buddha from which it takes its name, the “Lion Buddha Temple” has long been one of the most important temples in Chiang Mai and one of the best examples of Lanna architecture in all of Thailand.
Founded in 1345 by King Pha Yu, the fifth king of Lanna, Wat Phra Singh is also one of Chiang Mai’s largest temple complexes. There are two wiharns, a large chedi, a library, an ubosot hall for ordaining ceremonies, as well as accommodation for the many monks in residence and several other smaller buildings. There’s even a full-sized middle school for both novice monks and regular students.
The large main prayer hall, the Wihan Luang, wasn’t yet open, but already a dazzling whiteness was reflecting off its gold-fronted façade. The present building – a 1925 rebuilding of the 14th century original – was itself restored in 2008. Housing the five hundred year-old Phra Chao Thong Tip Buddha, it is guarded by the twin naga serpents decorating the front staircase which, together with its three-tiered roof and ornate mosaics, offer one of the most impressive first impressions in the city.
Monks and schoolboys
It may have still been early, but it wasn’t long before business started picking up. Songthaews, the red pick-up trucks used as the principle mode of public transport in Chiang Mai, began pulling into the car park in steady streams. In the back, squads of young monks arriving for morning classes, not at the temple, but at the high-school beside it. Orange-robes mingled with the regular students arriving on their scooters. It was as if a military exercise were getting underway the way they piled out of the truck, six or seven at a time, and hot-footed it towards the playground.
They were all boys, of course. No self-respecting young monk would be asked to school with a lady. Yet there seemed to be a distinct separation between the two sets of students. The monks would carry their bags across to their cloakroom while those in school uniform played football. There was no mingling from what I could tell. Even during the assembly there were two distinct ranks (orange on one side, white shirts and blue shorts on the other) all standing patiently, squinting in the blazing sun for twenty minutes whilst the torturous process of news, prayer and songs was dealt with.
The Phra Singh Buddha statue
I’d escaped into the shade of the temple long before the student brass band signalled the end of their torment. I was in the smaller of the two halls, Wihan Lai Kham. Ahead of me, three golden Buddhas seated at the rear of the hall looked on impassively. The middle of the three was bathed in the yellow glow of a spotlight from somewhere above, while around it, the ornate detail of the temple’s gold patterning spread out along the red-painted backdrop.
This was the famous Phra Singh Buddha statue, brought to Chiang Mai around 1367 and housed in Wihan Lai Kham ever since. It is said to have originated in India and arrived in Chiang Mai from Sri Lanka via Ayutthaya, though nobody knows for sure. Nor is it certain whether the Chiang Mai Phra Singh Buddha statue is the original statue at all, since almost identical statues can be found in Bangkok and Nakhon Si Thammarat in the south of the country.
Not that it matters. The Chiang Mai Phra Singh is still as revered as it ever was; still taken from Wihan Lai Kham every April and carried through the streets of Chiang Mai during Songkran for the faithful to pay their respects. It is also still the most famous symbol of my favourite Chiang Mai temple.
A temple worth getting up for
Wat Phra Singh is a temple at which there’s always something going on worth getting up for. It is a living temple of monks and schooling, prayer and great photo opportunities. No matter if you’re waking up at dawn to watch the comings and goings as the sun comes up, or catching the evening prayer session, there’s enough to satisfy the most gnawing of cultural cravings.
I could have spent all morning watching the temple come to life. After morning prayers, some of the younger monks (who had since returned after the school assembly) had set about their daily chores. There was incense to be gathered, borders to be trimmed, and plenty more sweeping to be done before the tourists started trickling in after 09:00. But by that time, all the action I was likely to see that morning had already been and gone. I was hungry. And I still had train tickets to buy.