Saturday, February 9, 2013

Chiang Mai - Doi Suthep

Chiang Mai - Wat Prathat Suthep

I was enthused about leaving the crowds, smog, and hustle of Bangkok behind.  We were going to be "headquartered" in Chang Mai, Thailand, for the next few days.  Chiang Mai is the largest city in the North of Thailand, and although I was feeling a bit over watted and weary, hyper-templed and tired, I was looking forward to seeing two of its 300+ Buddhist Wats (temples).  Strictly speaking, a "wat" is a Buddhist compound that includes a temple, at least one large image of the Buddha, and an area for teaching.  A wat has to have three or more monks in residence, and they are quartered separately from the religious areas.  It also has to be endorsed by the Thai state.  No monks?  No state endorsement?  The wat now becomes a "monastery".  In reality, "wat" is used for any kind of place of worship.  Except a mosque.  Confused yet?  I was.  So, let's start with simple and build upon that.

How about a Buddhist Basic?  Buddha is a title or description, not a name.  A Christian parallel would be the word "messiah"... again, a title, not a name.  "The Buddha", also called the historical Buddha, was the Prince Siddhartha Gautama.  Some time around 500 BC, he renounced his royal heritage, along with its wealth and trappings (and his earrings), to go out into the world and seek enlightenment.

Earrings?  500BC?  All good Lanna Princes accessorized with large (think "heavy") earrings and other jewelry.  Once he renounced his royalty and shed his earrings, he still had long earlobes.  And you current dorks with the stretched earlobes... remember that fashion repeats itself.  Hope your dad kept some of his wide ties.

And now you know why Buddha's ears are usually portrayed as quite long.  Check out all his images and statues.  Or, you could just go to Wal-Mart and check out the customers...

Enlightenment Moment: Buddhism is not a religion, but a source of contemplative wisdom.


Buddhism is very complicated.  There can be up to 250 "guidelines".
It can also be very simple and casual.  Is there a set of Buddhist rules or "commandments" that absolutely cannot be broken?  Um... No, not really, but there are several sets of guidelines that should always be kept in mind.  Everything is flexible in Buddhism, and rules change according to circumstance.  As I understand it, most Dhamma Buddhist texts will tell you to just relax.  Go easy on yourself.  Incorporate the guidelines for a good life that you are prepared to accept and use.  When you're comfortable with those in your daily life, perhaps it's time to look inside yourself, determine where you need improvement, and take on a few more of the "guidelines".

"There is nothing pertaining to the Buddhist religion that should cause anxiety in the minds or emotions of others. There is no custom of converting a people to Buddhism; quite the contrary, no Buddhist will tell you anything unless you ask."
-Venerable Adrienne Howley, in her book The Naked Buddha.

Thank goodness.  I like that.  Kind of exemplifies my occasional quest for freedom from religion.

Today's adventure:  Driving 25km, climbing almost 1700 meters up a winding, heavily-forested road to Wat Phrathat Suthep.  Wat Phrathat Suthep is one of Northern Thailand's most famous temples, and is perfect for OF's to visit:  begin your visit with a ride to the top of the hill Doi Suthep in a funicular, end your visit with a stroll down the famous 300-step stairway guarded on ether side by seven-headed nagas (snakes... very lucky!) on either side.  Quite interesting.

Stairs to the top of Doi Sutep, guarded by Nagas

Wat Prathat Sutep and its Nagas are widely represented by both Hindu and Buddhist cultures.  The Buddhist naga may be represented by the hooded King Cobra, and may have one, three, five, seven or even nine heads.  (Remember?  Even numbers are unlucky!)  Sometimes it may change shapes and have a dragon's head, like the stairs leading up Doi Suthep.  Convenient, huh?  Nagas may live in the ocean, in caverns, and then there's Phaya Naga that lives in the Mekong River.  Another famous Buddhist naga is Mucalinda, protector of the Buddha.  In one legend, the Buddha is meditating in a great forest when a terrific storm occurs.  Graciously, Naga King Mucalinda shelters the Buddha from the storm with his seven snake heads.  After the storm, the naga shape shifts into a Brahmin (Hindu scholar of the highest level) who pays public tribute to the Buddha.   

atop the stairs... 

White Elephant (see next pic)

The Legend of the White Elephant atop Doi Suthep

Our guide related the White Elephant Legend to us as we drove the 25km up Doi Sutep.  According to this legend a monk had a dream or vision in which he was instructed to go to Ban Pang Cha, near the Lao border, and search for a relic.  What luck.  The monk, Sumanathera, found a magic shoulder bone from the Buddha that glowed, changed shapes, and could become invisible.  He immediately returned it to king Dharmma.  Placed before the king, the bone suddenly... just laid there.  It did nothing.  No magic.  It didn't replicate itself, glow, or levitate.  Dismissed and turned away by the king, Sumanathera left with the "relic" returning to Northern Thailand in the year 1368.  There, it magically split into two pieces.  Reports of it "glowing", however, are still sketchy after 645 years).  The smaller piece of the Buddha relic was enshrined in the wat Suandok.  The larger piece was placed upon the back of a royal white elephant by the king.  That white elephant, it is said, climbed to the very top of Doi Suthep, and either turned around three times... or trumpeted three times... and died right there on the spot.  King of the Lannas, king Nu Naone interpreted this is a very good sign and had this beautiful temple built where the elephant died.

A note on white elephants...
White elephants were considered sacred by the rulers of Siam (Thailand) and were protected and revered.  For a king to own a White Elephant was evidence of wealth and opulence for all to see.  To own such a huge beast symbolized the great prosperity of the kingdom, the power of its ruler, and the peace of the nation.  A blessing can also be a curse, though.  If a king gifted you with a white elephant, it was considered a great honor.  You were now favored by the king!  It was also a curse, though, because you had to feed and care for it, as it could not be given away, and you couldn't really use a royal white elephant for work.  It wasn't practical to own one, but it cost a lot for up-keep.  Which reminds me...  I had a great big fifth-wheel "toy-box" that we used for motorcycle and balloon rallies.  It was white, too.  But that's a story for another time.

Not a White Elephant (see previous pic)

Not nearly as much mojo as someone who would ride a white elephant.

Arriving at the top of the stairs (heck, just kidding, we took the funicular) I was ready for the sights of this very famous wat.
Okay, we've endured all the usual travel discomforts, we've come halfway around the world when Winnie said "Wait!  I have to take a picture of flowers".

And of course, our guide and I waited.
and I'm glad we did...
Winnie points, shoots, and scores on the flower picture!

Doffing our shoes just outside the temple, and dressed "respectfully", we queued up in a small line and entered Wat Prathat.  Within the walled temple are pagodas, statues, bells, and shrines.

One of the very first things to capture my eye was the huge gold gilt chedi toward the back of the temple area.  This ornate cone-shaped structure is said to house a relic (shoulder bone) of the Buddha, thus making this pagoda very sacred.

The Sacred Chedi of Wat Prathat Suthep

Pictured above are some of the many local area residents and visitors who have made the climb to the top of Doi Suthep to worship in one of the temples.  One of the resident monks is sprinkling them with holy water and blessing them.  The statue on the right is one of my favorite Buddhas... one hand palm up indicating that he is still in an enlightened state, even with one hand down quelling the subterranean evil below.  Note that the statue's "halo" is more of an aura that completely encircles the Buddha's body.

We brought a really cool small jade Buddha in this pose back as a souvenir of our Buddhist temple explorations.  I think that we got a one-time-only really good deal on it, price-wise, being all jade and everything.  (I think that she -the clerk- liked me.  ;-)  Well, it was green.  It could have been jade.. really... isn't Acrylic in the Jade family?  No?  Uh oh.  Although I think that I may already be attaining some enlightenment here, I still like the little green statue. So there.

Enlightenment Moment:  Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.

I thought that this little chapel was quite beautiful.  I'm still amazed at how incredibly ornate and sumptuous this whole temple was.  Beautiful.

Then, in the next chapel area...

... yet another ornate area for worship or meditation.  Did I say meditation?  The only way I could ever even remotely meditate and/or seek inner peace is in a dark room.  Or maybe out in the forest.  There's just too much to look at in here for me to adequately concentrate on an infinitesimally small dot in the middle of my chi...  Oh, look!  Serpents and Monkey Gods!  Oh... what was I yammering on about?  Ah, yes.  The chi thingy.. with that imaginary point deep in my gut that's the center of the universe...  it's probably not going to happen before the end of my current incarnation...
Maybe next time.
Maybe not.

Some of these monks, however... seem to have it down, pat.  Okay, they seem to...

Sleeping monk

Sleeping monk

Dead monk (what the...)

Well that dead guy may have been holy and all... but I thought it was a little on the creepy side.  But then, again, although I didn't know it at the time, I was soon to learn about really, really, really creepy stuff that stretched my mind between two far-apart countries.  More about that when we get to Ha Noi, People's Republic of Viet Nam.

But now, though, I'm noticing a number of dogs and some "baby monks"... youngsters draped in traditional orange garb about their waists thence over the shoulder.. Well.  You know.  While the youthful monks stayed pretty well out of site, the dogs pretty well had the run of the courtyards of the temples.

It made me smile when I saw what I thought was this rather healthy looking bitch just snoozing away the hot afternoon on the marble floor of the temple.  Life is good.  Depending on perspective, I suppose.  I asked our guide why the dog was sleeping in the sun, instead of off in the shade somewhere.  He explained that "When the dog lies in the sun, its lice don't bother it as much."

Enlightenment Moment: No Touch Dog.

I later discovered that a few of the the "youthful" looking monks, along with all the dogs, were "throw-aways".  For whatever reasons, their parents would just drive up, drop them off, and leave, never to be seen again... they were abandoned to the monks to care for them.

That made me sad.  Then it made me happy as I thought that they'd all, child and dog alike, be taken care of here at the Temple.

Enlightenment Moment: Notwithstanding ones misfortunes, Life Is Good.

Chatras either side of shrine room entrance

I thought that this was destined to be one of those dud pics that would end up in the round file.  Then, I noticed the tall golden chatras (umbrellas) flanking the entrance to one of the shrine rooms...  Hmmm, quite interesting.  The name "chatra" means mushroom.  Okay, in my imagination I could envision gold-gilt mushroom tops.  In life, the umbrella protects you from the sun and rain.  In Buddhism, the umbrella symbolizes a different kind of protection... protection from what one might consider human frailties: jealousy, suffering, and desire, as examples.

It was also a major status symbol for royalty, since the number of parasols being held by your servants was directly proportional to your rank, importance, and power.  It didn't hurt to be riding atop a white elephant, either, if you were a king.  Ah yes.  Just stylin' an profilin' ala 650 years ago...

Enlightenment Moment:  It's good to be the king.

I think that I could have gotten into the king thing.  How much more fun would that have been, as opposed to...say... riding up and down South Main street in a '49 Chevrolet scoping out chicks?

Temple bells

Padding along the smooth, cool tiles in bare feet, we came upon these temple bells.  Curious, but a little self-conscious and uncertain as to proper protocol, I really, really wanted to ring some of them.   So I sidled up with great nonchalance, waited a respectful moment (no monks currently in sight), and rang one of them.  Then two of them.  Then three of them.  Sweet, beautiful, pure tones.  Music!  I felt a little guilty and a little exhilarated at the same time.  I remembered having a similar feeling that time I shop-lifted some candy.  My moral compass obviously still wasn't being adequately protected by any nearby chatras.

I really liked this image on a number of levels.  The two-headed naga stair rails... with dragon heads, human-like arms,  the prayer bell to my right, and I was finally in a damn picture that I didn't have to suck my stomach in and hold my breath while Winnie zooms in and out for an eternity.  Oh!  And did you see the chicks checking me out from the second floor window?  They were Hot!  And one of them mentioned a gray tass.  I told Winnie that I didn't even see any tasses.  I don't even know what a tass is.

Winnie at the Jackfruit tree

This was a beautiful old jackfruit tree, probably older than the temple itself.  I really liked what the monks had done with this tree.  They built their temple around the tree, instead of just bulldozing and burning the tree to get it out of the way of progress.

Enlightenment Moment:  Monks are conservationists.

Pictured above are some of the "daily Buddhas", representing Monday through Sunday, each with differing hand placement, clothing, jewelry, etc., all significant.  Our guide led us to a large, dusty book containing hundreds of pages of tables where we able to look up the day of the week of our birth.  Turns out both Winnie and I were both born on Fridays.

Friday's Buddha

For Fridays: the "Contemplating Buddha" (Paang Rum Peung) stands with hands resting across the chest, the right hand covering the left. The pose implies a complete spiritual transformation. A benevolent tranquility expresses the equanimity obtained through Vipassana meditation. The meditative practice develops clear seeing by training the faculties through direct experience.

Here is Winnie's "Friday" pose.

Next time Winnie "gets on a tear" I'm going to whip this pic outta my billfold and remind her about all that tranquility, benevolence, and equanimity stuff.

The seven-headed naga behind her head was a "Saturday" statue that just happened to be behind her.  Mea culpa.  It was a photography mistake - a big one - by yours truly.  It did turn out to be an interesting image, though.  I guess it's back to Photo Composition 101a for me!

Enlightenment Moment:  Don't worry about making a mistake.  Rock on!

Shrine to monk Krubra Srivichai

As late as 1934, there was only a steep, dangerous trail through the forest to the top of doi Suthep and the wat Prathat Suthep.  A local monk, Krubra Srivichai organized local villages to build a road from Chiang Mai to the temple.  He asked each village to construct ten meters of roadway.  It is said that the villagers were excited to be a part of Buddhist history in the making and, unbelievably, completed the road construction through impenetrable forest in just under six months.

The sun is starting to sink lower to the horizon, and it's now time to head for a cool bed.  But first, there's that 300 step naga-protected stairway down to the parking lot.
Only 300 steps.

Only 237 more steps to the bottom.

Here comes Winnie

Ha!  The old guy (me) made it down before Winnie!  I'm not too smooth, but I am fast.  (And thankfully, six weeks later, I have just picked the last scab off.)

Finally at the bottom, I was just delighted to get a quick snap of this darling little girl in her beautiful royal period costume.  Having a snack.  Oh, and just in case you were wondering, the little boy in the back, right hand side, is also "dressed up" for the day in his Spider Man! costume.

As I mentioned earlier... some things are Universal.  As they should be.


  1. That was a busy day! The whole place is possibly too spiritual for my tastes -- or maybe it would just make me feel guilty for not being more enlightened. But at least I'm not dead like that poor monk. Can't believe you just mentioned "dead monk" with no further explanation. Really dead? Just propped up out in the middle of things? I'm definitely not that enlightened. All in all, a wonderful tour of words and images. It's not Texas, of course, but... Larry

  2. Some nice pictures along with some great commentary! Thanks for sharing. I agree with Anonymous Larry, the dead dude is just plain weird. "There are strange things done under the midnight sun...."
    PS - See no flames!

  3. Wow, Tim. Thank you for taking the time to share all the commentary along with this incredible beauty! patty

  4. Tim I always enjoy your deep thought commentary filled with compassion, inspiration,and wit. You have a great way of inviting the reader to feel like we are enjoying the vacation right along side of you. Seeing you and Winnie enjoying a life time adventure together is like watching Minnie and Micky Mouse meet in National Geographic. I love you guys and miss yall. Thank you for including me on this incredible journey.