Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
In October of 2009, Tony and I were stationed in Chiang Mai, the northern “cultural capital” of Thailand. The city is stated to be a must-see destination in any foreigners’ travels through the country. Our days were occupied by challenging TESOL classes at the famous BP Chiang Mai Hotel in the center of the old city, but we were able to take the weekends exploring the city in its fullest. Most travelers with whom we’ve spoken reflect fondly on their time in the city, and a strong expatriate presence is evident in the numerous used book stores, pizza restaurants, burger bars, and massage parlors. After spending a month wandering Chiang Mai’s honeycomb, I can’t say I love the city. It’s nice to wake up in a cheap guesthouse, drink real coffee, and take a warm shower but within a few short days the major attractions are conquered leaving the same bitter sensation of wasting time in an internet cafe responding to e-mails you neither care about or need to. This being said; it is the perfect starting place for the Mea Hong Song Loop and has more motorbike rental shops than Seoul has coffee huts. For this reason, I chose to make Chiang Mai a jumping off point for my March northern exploration and scheduled a day of sightseeing for Hannah and I.
On a clear day Doi Suthep mountain acts as a western backdrop for Chiang Mai and one of the main tourist attractions is a trip to its mountaintop Wat. Songtows (pick-up truck taxis) can be rented for around 50 baht a person from the city’s western university for a one-way trip up winding mountain road.
On my first trip the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep I was left unimpressed after previously hearing of its grandeur and dealing with the throng of tourists. This time I though I knew what to expecting as we rounded the last corner of paved mountain road in our songtow with a hand-less driver.
As we retched the naga dragons at the base of the temple’s staircase, rain drops started hitting my head and the sun disappeared behind dark purple storm clouds. We reached the summit and purchased our 30 baht entry tickets just as the rain started falling harder. The shops normally filled with tourists had pulled their metal doors shut and we became the only people left at the top of the mountain; spare a very small group of tourists and the Doi Sutep monks. The chedi floodlights turned on and monk started their evening prayers. To be honest I half expected a flood of black-cloaked ninjas to scale the walls and start battling or at least a hail of arrows to land in my vicinity.
To Thais Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is Thailand’s most important pilgrimage destination. Legend states that the relics of Wat Suan Dork were being transported on the back of a sacred white elephant. The elephant climbed Doi Suthep, trumpeted three times, turned around three times, and died, marking the spot for King Ku Nu to build the a chedi to encase the relics.
Any visit of Chiang Mai should include a trip to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Its terraces reveal a breathtaking view through the jungle over the plains of Chiang Mai province. The Wat itself is nothing short of spectacular and its golden chedi creates a beautiful and peaceful image in the center of this sacred place. The outer wooden doors are intricately carved with Buddhist depictions and glisten with gold, red, and green paint. Buddism is not something I claim to understand completely, but the places of peace and reflection it has spawned continue to mesmerize me.