Quick note: This week I’m over at Turtleduck Press, talking about my latest “ooh, shiny!” obsession — gardening.
It’s time for another installment of travel tales from my trip through Asia. In this episode, we’re still in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Chiang Mai is famous for more than the adventure tourism I mentioned last time. It’s also known for its temples, or wats….
Wat Prathat Doi SutheP
Early in our stay, we took a group tour up Doi Suthep, a mountain next to the city. The main attraction of the mountain is the temple it hosts, Wat Prathat Doi Suthep. There’s a legend about its founding — involving a white elephant (sacred in Thailand) and a relic of Buddha — which you can read on Wikipedia.
This temple was our first experience with Thai religious architecture and Buddhism as practised in Thailand. I’d seen pictures, of course, but the sheer lavishness of the decoration was amazing in person. I wandered around in a daze snapping photos of everything, drunk on the beauty and worldbuilding potential.
One enters the temple via a long staircase that leads into a courtyard containing a smallish building, a golden stupa, and some subsidiary shrines. We had to cover our shoulders to go inside the temple complex, and remove our shoes to enter the sanctuary. The complex had more tourists than worshipers inside, an odd and sometimes uncomfortable mixture.
Although the temple complex is more than six hundred years old, it has been kept freshly painted over the years, so it looks new. Even the murals that line the covered walks around the inside edge of the courtyard are repainted regularly, because they don’t last in that climate.
On the way up to the temple, our group tour stopped at a village belonging to the Hmong minority group, for some of that cultural tourism I mentioned last time. Had I known, I would have gone with a different tour.
The villagers seemed happy enough to see us, but the whole place had an air of unreality, like a theme park (so did the temple, a little). The main square was full of tour minivans and souvenir stands, and little old ladies in traditional dress wandered around selling trinkets.
Our Thai tour guide enthusiastically explained that this group of Hmong is originally from China, their language is mutually incomprehensible with Thai (though most now speak both), and they’re Christian…in other words, look how exotic. Sigh. So I deliberately didn’t buy anything or take any pictures.
Wiang Kum Kam
On another day, we took a morning boat cruise along the river to Wiang Kum Kam, a ruined city that predates Chiang Mai. Most of what remains is, unsurprisingly, temples.
The cruise involved a short boat ride in a beautiful wooden boat, then a horse and (tiny) carriage ride that took us around the remains of the temples, and finally a fruit snack before the return boat ride. We were the only two people on the cruise, which made things a little weird, especially since it was clearly a family operation – we were served the snack by a little girl in what was basically a poor farmyard.
My guidebook defined Wiang Kum Kam as an ancient ruined city. What it failed to make clear was that the ruins are interspersed in a more modern village – not surprising, really, but also not the lost jungle-eaten city I’d been picturing (damn that imagination!). And the ruins themselves weren’t very evocative. Though I looked hard, for the most part I couldn’t see anything more than old piles of bricks.
Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phan Tao
Back in Chiang Mai that evening, we headed out to explore the Old City, starting with one of Thailand’s famous outdoor night markets. This one was largely full of tourist goods (we bought placemats whose clones we later saw all over Thailand) but also full of locals. We saw children doing a music performance and monks wandering through the crowd.
We also had our only experience of hearing the national anthem played in public – apparently this is done twice a day, but we were never in crowds when it happened. Everyone stops moving until the anthem finishes, then goes about their business. It’s slightly surreal (especially when one or two tourists don’t get the memo and keep walking around) and also kind of moving.
While exploring the market, we ran across at least three temples, including my favourite of all those we saw in Chiang Mai, Wat Phan Tao.
Wat Phan Tao was built in the traditional northern Thai style, but unusually, it was constructed entirely from wood, including the Buddha statue inside. The warm wood makes a beautiful contrast to the golden glitter and glitz of Wat Chedi Luang next door and Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep on the mountaintop. And it’s especially magical at night.
Next time, we head south, to the hustle and bustle of Bangkok…
Your turn. Do you have a favourite building or a favourite architectural style? Religious architecture tends to be particularly extravagant all over the world — which kind do you like?