7. Chiang Mai, city of temples

Ancient tradition collides with modern tourism on a “visa run” to northern Thailand. If I lived here, I would no doubt be a Buddhist.  …

Sleepy stone elephant on Chang Moi Road bridge (JGA photo)

From the time I first ventured into Thailand at the age of 26, I had been hearing rapturous recommendations about travel to Chiang Mai, in the country’s far north.

Metropolitan Bangkok was a must for travelers, of course. So, too, were the islands and beaches of the long southern peninsula. But they wouldn’t enchant me, I was told, in the same way as Chiang Mai.

It took me decades, and four more visits to Thailand, before I reached this destination. And guess what? Everything that everyone had said was right. Now, there is no place in Thailand to which I want to return more.  Had I arrived as a young man, I may never have left.

Tuk-tuks provide transportation on Ratchadamnoen Road (JGA photo)

What is it about Chiang Mai? Nestled beside the Ping River, amidst the forested foothills of Thailand’s highest mountains, it has a quiet charm that reflects the gentle culture of Laos and Myanmar — both of which are nearer than Bangkok itself.

Unlike Asia’s megacities, and despite Chiang Mai’s rapidly growing population (about 200,000 in the city, more than 1 million in the metro area), the tone is NOT frantic. Indeed, visitors like myself are more likely to travel around the city by foot, three-wheeled tuktuk, or songthaew (re-outfitted pickup trucks) than by taxi, bus or train.  

I got a great price on a five-day, round-trip air fare from Ho Chi Minh City to Chiang Mai on Vietnam Airlines. From the international airport, I clambered aboard a songthaew to be delivered to the cheap private room I had booked at a hostel near the city center. (The owner, a young Belgian man, made great waffles.) Then I set out to explore.

Wat Phan Tao (JGA photo)

Chiang Mai, ironically, means “New City” in the Thai language. Seven centuries old is hardly “new”: It was founded at the end of the 13th century as a trade hub and as the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lan Na. Within 50 years it had been fortified with gated walls and a moat. Most of those ramparts remain today, embracing a city center of about one mile square.

For me, an erstwhile scholar of Asian religion, I was most enthralled by the concentration of ornate Buddhist temples and pagodas in Chiang Mai, and especially in the central city.

The practice of Buddhism in northern Thailand is very different from that of southern Vietnam. It is even more pronounced than, say, the difference between the Protestant and Catholic practices of the Christian church. The Theravada school of Buddhism, as it is understood in Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Sri Lanka, reveres the Buddha as a teacher, as one who set a course of mindfulness and study 2,500 years ago. (Most followers of the Mahayana school, as practiced in China, Korea and Japan, confer more god-like status upon the Buddha; in Vietnam, there is the additional worship of a mother goddess.)

Wat Chedi Luang (JGA photo)

Many of Chiang Mai’s greatest wats (temples) predate the cathedrals of Europe. Among my favorites was Wat Phra Singh, a landmark since 1345. Its classic northern Thai-style architecture provides a home for a sacred Buddha image that was carried to Thailand from India, via Ceylon (Sri Lanka), more than 1,000 years ago — and was taken to Chiang Mai when the city became the Lan Na capital.

Wat Chedi Luang, whose construction began in 1401, is dominated by large chedi (a stone stupa) that was badly damaged by an earthquake in the 16th century. It was never fully restored. There are many impressive Buddha images, including a large reclining Buddha, within its walls.

 Wat Chiang Man, near the walled city’s north gate, is the oldest in Chiang Mai. It dates from the late 1200s, and was the home of ancient King Megrai when he built his capital. Its treasures include remarkable images of marble and crystal.

Buddha images, Wat Dok Eung (JGA photo)

I especially enjoyed Wat Pan Ping and Wat Dok Eung, whose colorful image houses display a large number of Buddha images. The whimsical art at Wat Pat Ping also includes depictions of a goddess taming a snake, and of three monks in a “see, hear, speak no evil” pose.

In all, more than half of the city’s 24 wats are within the ancient walls. At Wat RamPoeng, students (including many westerners) may stay from 10 days to more than a month to practice in the vipassana technique at the Northern Insight Meditation Center.

Chiang Mai’s most famous temple is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, built in 1333 atop Doi Suthep. This peak, 1,073 meters (3,520 feet) high, northwest of the city, is at the heart of Doi Suthep-Pui National Park and is a popular pilgrimage location. The temple can be seen on clear days from much of the city.

Opor offers prayers (JGA photo)

I owe special thanks to my friend Opor for sharing her practice of Buddhism in Chiang Mai. I met this woman on my second day in the city, and we were almost constant companions thereafter. As we explored various temples and pagodas, she provided an example that I followed in showing respect according to local tradition: shoes off, head bowed, often kneeling — and, when appropriate, extending my forehead to the carpet.

Next: Chiang Mai’s Northern Thai cuisine

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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