About sixteen years ago I traveled through southern Thailand. I was working in Japan and on spring break. I was there during Songkran, the Thai New Year. Eventually I moved on to Phuket and Pi Pi Islands. Thailand was phenomenal.
Sixteen years later, on my arrival I discovered that I missed the Thai New Year by a few days. No wonder everyone looked tired when I arrived. Ha! I wasn’t too disappointed. Having spent a considerable amount of time in the south years ago, I wanted to explore the northern area of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. I set camp in Chiang Mai and enjoyed the slow pace of the north, a sharp contrast from tourist laden Bangkok and Phuket. I have to admit that I was in Chiang Mai for ten days before I did anything wildly related to tourism. I went to the mall, bought some books, read a lot, wrote newsletters, walked less than a block to eat and in the evening gathered with everyone to hear of the day’s adventures and give a couple of the girls from China a chance to practice English.
The Temples – Beauty Overload
The temples in Thailand are ancient, beautiful and abundant. There are more than 200 ancient Buddhist wats (temples) in and around the Chiang Mai area. They are breathtaking. After a while, the temples made me feel a bit jaded. Like the churches in Europe, once you’ve seen four or five the awe and wonder dissipates. Below are pictures of the Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Chiang Man, Wat Lam Chiang and the most famous Wat Doi Suthep, a very popular mountain top temple with some others mixed in.
The temple of Wat Doi Suthep is the most sacred in northern Thailand. The 309 steps below are a popular way to get to the temple. I tell you it’s a tough climb. I could tell by the red sweaty faces of some of the people who took the stairs. I watched them for a while after I stepped off the funicular. You didn’t think I was going to walk up the steps? I walked down the 309 steps. Ten points for me.
Getting Around Chiang Mai
A ride in a songthaew or red taxi as they are commonly called cost around 10-30Thb; about .30 to .90 cents. They are everywhere so there is no problem getting to where you want to go. Sometimes they will stop for riders and turn them down if they are not going in the desired direction. Not to worry, two to three minutes later another one comes along and will be headed in the right direction. Unlike taxis there can be several people and the driver decides the order to drop off passengers. But at thirty cents I was willing to wait my turn.
The Singing Taxi Driver
The only reason to call for a taxi is if you are seeking refuge from the heat or in a hurry. I had a private taxi. Mr. Chay and I bonded over our love of pop rock music from the 60’s and 70’s. I called him the singing taxi driver. A most precious day was when he was taking me up the mountain, a 45 minute drive, to Wat Doi Suthep and we sang at the top of our lungs, Rod Stewart, the Beach Boys and Mick Jagger. We even sang about an “itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini”. Of course I knew all of the words. What fun. Yes there is a nerd hidden somewhere in my soul. When I could not deal with the heat and the tuk-tuks I called Mr. Chay. We met when I used the Grab taxi app for the first time. It’s just like Uber but you get a real taxi. I called Mr. Chay, the “singing taxi driver”. The first time we sang together I was in the back seat singing with his radio blaring “Stand by Me” and I was surprised that he knew all the words. When we both agreed that real music ceased after the 70’s, he became my go-to taxi driver.
On Buddha Day I could not find anyone who could tell me what the day celebrates. The banks and government offices were closed. Most businesses were open and the coffee houses filled with locals who usually would have been at work. Eventually I discovered that it celebrates Buddha’s enlightenment. Nearly ninety-five percent of Thais are Buddhist. It was a pretty uneventful day; there were no festivals or activity above the norm at the temples I visited. Buddha is everywhere, everywhere in Thailand. It’s almost impossible to move more than a few feet without seeing an image or statue of Buddha.
Wat Rong Khun (White Temple) Chiang Rai
Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple, is one of the most recognized and visited temples in Thailand. The first view of it is breath-taking. The size and color is like something out of a Disney movie; a winter wonderland in 104 degree heat. The temple is white with silver tones that come from the sparkling mirror pieces used throughout the temple and adjoining buildings. This picture, maybe because of the overcast sky, has a grayish hue to it. But this temple is all white. I imagine on a day of sunshine it would probably be blinding.
The temple was created by a Thai visual artist who wanted to share the teachings of Buddhism. The white color represents the purity of Buddha and the glass the wisdom of Buddha. The original temple was run down and decaying due to lack of funding for the necessary repair. The artist, Chalemchai Kositpipat, took on the task of rebuilding the temple with his personal funds.
To reach the main temple requires one to pass over a bridge positioned over a lake. In front of the bridge are hundreds of hand sculptures that symbolize desire and human suffering which is related to hell. So basically you have to pass through hell.The hands are pretty eerie. Crossing over the bridge called “cycle of rebirth” signifies the crossing over from the cycle of death and rebirth into a state free of suffering. In Buddhism there exists a belief that the cessation of desire and overcoming worldly things as temptation, greed, and desire is the way to happiness. After crossing the bridge you end up at the “Gate of Heaven” which leads into the temple.
The artist’s interpretation of hell. This is not a place I want go!
The building that stands out in a sea of white is the ornately decorated gold building that had me intrigued. Could not wait to get there. I later discovered it was the bathroom. An entire building, everything painted in gold and it’s a bathroom. Amazing! I want one. But there is a little more depth in meaning here. The white temples represent the mind, the gold building represents the body and how humans focus on worldly possessions, desires, and money.The building is a reminder to focus on the mind and not material possessions. Good advice.
There is so much to share about Thailand check out part II