Thailand has been a tourist/traveler’s mecca for a long time. Known as The Land of Smiles, the Thais are friendly, polite and humble. I think that has a lot to do with their religion – Buddhism. So while in Chiang Mai where there are many beautiful wats – Buddhist temples – within walking distance of the city center I set out to wat hop, armed with no guidebook and the little Thai that I’d learnt that morning.
Wat Chiang Man
This is Chiang Mai oldest wat, built on the site where King Mangrai camped during the building of the city as his new capital. I was impressed by the intricate details and designs on the wall, although ladened with gold but it was beautifully done. After taking my shoes off, I walked in and sat on the carpeted floor. There was nobody around and it was really peaceful. Sitting there, there seemed to have a heavy silence that drew me into a restful state. I felt like there was no rush I could be there for as long as I wanted; as if someone pushed a slow-down button.
The chedi – pagoda – at the back has a golden dome and stone foundation with elephants. Itwas made to look as if the whole chedi was carried on elephants’ back. The crevices house small and tiny Buddha statues. Some tugged so far inside as if they were playing hide-and-seek with you.
Wat Chedi Luang
When I walked into the main hall of this wat, I was greeted by myriads of Buddha statues in different sizes and positions. I sat down on the carpeted floor and drank in my surrounding. There were a few devotees deep in prayer. Then I heard a soft chatting of the monks in a distance, interrupted sporadically by the dull sound of a gong. It was a setting of complete serenity. I found myself slowly drawn into a meditative mood. Unlike most Chinese Buddhist temples where you’ll be suffocated by the smokes of the incense before you could meditate, Thai wats seem to be drawing you into communion with your inner self and the divine; maybe they are one and the same.
The chedi at the back of this temple was the tallest in Chiang Mai but partially collapsed during an earthquake. Still it’s an impressive structure. There are 4 big golden Buddhas sitting in each crevice facing east-south-north-west. And on special occasions you can “bath”the Buddha by operating a pulley driven water container that pours water over the top of the shrine.
In the compound I saw lots of monks in saffron, brown and yellow robes walking around, most of them looked young, teenagers and early 20s.I later found out that that’s because the Buddhist University is there.
Wat Phan Tao
However, I actually preferred the smaller wooden Wat Phan Tao next door. To my untrained eyes, this wat has some Hinduism influence in its style and feel. It’s a welcomed relief from too much gold. I saw an old lady coming in, walked to the altar, knelt down and pray. Then she stood up and walked over to a table laid with hundreds of bowls and very diligently dropped coins in them one by one – this is said to bring good luck. Her demeanor exuded piety and humility, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her; the simplicity and devotion of her act made me think about my own spiritual devotion, or the lack of. The is a sense of peace and joy that comes from devoting yourself to a spiritual exercise.
Wat Phra Singh
2 singhs (lions) greeted me at the door of this wat. It’s another impressive temple where the roof sparked in the midday sun. There’s a little tree covered area just behind the chedi where I saw devotees’ praying ritual.
First they got some incense and lotus flower, knelt and prayed in front of the Buddha statue. Then they stuck the incense in the bowl provided and laid the flower next to it. Then the got a banner and hung it around the chedi. After which, they could “bath” the Buddha statue on the chedi if they wanted to. All these were done in reverent silence. I sat there mesmerized.
This is a very popular wat among locals as I witnessed on Vesak Day or Buddha Day as it is called in Thailand. There were thousands of devotees there lighting candles and incense and praying. Thousands more carrying lotus flowers, unlit candles/incenses with hands clapped walking in circle round the main temple hall. I saw a few people buying caged birds and releasing them, that’s for good karma I was told. On that note, I actually saw a sign in English asking tourists not to buy those caged birds in order to discourage people from caging birds and selling them.
Wat Suan Dok
This wat is located just outside the old city wall. I took a leisure walk on a hot there there. On the way passing a lot of local eateries and smiling people pointing me the way.
The main hall of the temple felt more open as there are no walls, just open grilled windows. Even the statues here are more colorful; Besides the normal gold Buddhas, there are Buddhas clothed in different colors and adorned in precious stones.
I tried to sit down Thai style – with both legs folded backward towards the left or right – but it felt really uncomfortable and strange. So I just sat cross-leg, watching some devotees offering gifts to a monk in exchange for his prayers and blessings. Then in walk 5 young monks, they went straight to the altar, knelt and bowed -head to floor- a few times. When I left I automatically gave a small bow to the Buddhas sitting there farewelling me.
It was a good day, though tired from all the walking I felt really good from being inside these peaceful and serene temples.
If you are not fed up with anything Buddhist by the end of your wat hopping, there are 2 wats – Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Suan Dok – that do “monk chat” sessions. You can go and chat with the monk about Buddhism, Dharma (teachings of Buddha), meditation methods, etc. Most of them speak good English; Especially the ones in Wat Chedi Luang as they are students in the Buddhist University majoring in English.
So the next day, I walked back to Wat Chedi Luang and approached 2 saffron clad monks and had a chat with them.