Thai Tour: Day 1
Related Posts: For more on Chiang Mai’s Temples, see my post Ten of the Best: Chiang Mai Temples.
A second chance for Chiang Mai
I’d been to Chiang Mai once before, only a few months before. On that occasion, I’d left not knowing what all the fuss was about. Everybody I’d spoken to about the city had spoken of it as some kind mystical, mountain-ringed Xanadu, where every cliché about what life in Thailand for the soul-searching foreigner should be like rang true. They’d speak misty-eyed of its “laid-back vibe”, its “chilled-out cafes” and its “totally different feel to Bangkok”. I’d just found it a bit of a theme park – the monks and the temples, the lattes and the elephant-print pants. It was a temple town, more tourist attraction than travel destination. I’d vowed that next time I visited, I’d go beyond the tourist centre, and give Chiang Mai a second chance.
It was with this aim that I found myself at 8:30 am on my first morning there, riding along on a Man Utd decorated scooter like a kid with a birthday present, out beyond the moat towards Wat Suan Dok. The temple was a couple of kilometres west of the old town and it was already rising comfortably above 30°C. If I’d had any hair, it would probably have been blowing about my face in a foppish manner. As it was, the only thing blowing about my face were the fumes from the half-dozen scooter exhausts in front of me as I approached the temple gates.
Founded in 1370, Wat Suan Dok, like so many other Chiang Mai temples, is a temple with its own distinctive characteristics. It was constructed on the site of a former royal flower garden on the orders of King Kue Na of the Lanna Kingdom, intended as a retreat for a visiting monk from the neighbouring kingdom of Sukothai. Indeed, the name Wat Suan Dok translates roughly to Flower Garden Temple. Unique amongst the many other wats in the city, its rows of whitewashed chedis standing in the temple grounds collectively house the ashes of a few centuries of the Lanna royal family. They were already reflecting the morning sunlight too harshly when I arrived.
Elephants and relics
The golden pagoda too, at the rear of the main hall, was giving off a glare. It is said to have contained a relic of the Buddha brought over from Sukothai by the monk for whom the temple was built. Believed to have been the shoulder bone of the Buddha himself, the relic is said to have mysteriously duplicated itself while enshrined within the pagoda. In response, the new relic was placed on the back of an elephant which proceeded to climb Mount Suthep, then promptly die. On the spot at which the elephant expired, Wat Prathat Doi Suthep is said to have been built and the relic enshrined within the central chedi of the new temple.
Now call me a cynic, but I’m pretty sure that didn’t happen. Somewhere in the last 700 years, I suspect a couple of cunning monks decided it would be amusing to see how far they could push the tale towards the fantastical. They did a good job. But every temple, it seems, needs its legend. And as far as legends go, I guess spontaneous replication and relic-carrying elephants are no more or less believable then the next. It was certainly a fantastic setting though – the blue sky, the green grass, that strip of bright white stupas in between. The shadows on the peaks of Doi Suthep were gradually blowing out in the background. I was the only civilian around.
The monks were just finishing their morning prayer session as I entered the temple. The day’s offerings had been collected and the large silver urns full of toilet rolls, soap, snacks and toothpaste, were being emptied into a couple of carts and shopping trolleys that had been wheeled into the main hall. Watching over them was a 15 foot-tall seated Buddha, glowing golden at the centre of the altar, surrounded by his acolytes.
They were mostly kids. Dressed in their orange robes, looking barely older than six or seven years old, they were attempting to steer their goodie-laden trolleys down the ramp without spilling their load. Others were carrying equally high-piled baskets back to their living quarters, one on either side. They looked like they were returning from a particularly successful trick-or-treat mission, all smiles with their morning’s loot, while the elder monks busied themselves with their own daily chores in and around the temple.
The only way to see Chiang Mai
I spent an hour or so taking photos and exploring the grounds before I was back on the bike and on my way. The sun was out, my tank was full, and an afternoon of leisurely exploring lay ahead. It was the ideal way to see Chiang Mai. It didn’t make sense to pay 60 baht a time (depending on your bargaining skills) for a tuk-tuk or songthaew when 300 baht was all it cost to hire a bike for the day. With your own set of wheels, Chiang Mai can be yours to explore at your leisure. And leisure is very much part of the Chiang Mai vocabulary.
In all, I must have been riding for the best part of three or four hours that day. After Wat Suan Dok, I explored the country park-like campus of Chiang Mai University before heading out to the 700 year old Wat Umong, with its tunnels and Buddha heads, nestled in the forest at the foot of Doi Suthep. By the time I got back, despite what I’d thought had been more than enough of my trusty SPF 50 applied, my hands and forearms had turned the same shade of red as my bike, and I was staring at an evening of aloe vera and pain. Tomorrow I’d be back on the bike again. I was already praying for rain.
Related Posts: Click tag: Thai Tour for more from my Thai Diaries.