The Old City of Chiang Mai:
Buddhist Monks, Temples, and Friends in Thai Places
Monday, December 7, 2015
Today was a morning steeped in Buddhism which continued into the afternoon with a very special guided tour to the historic and ancient temples in the old city center of Chiang Mai with my friend Mary, who lives in this beautiful city.
Of all of the Southeast Asian countries, Thailand has the greatest number of Buddhists, with about 95% of the population following the practice of Theravada Buddhism. Here, and throughout much of Southeast Asia, the Sangha - living as a monk - is a rite of passage into manhood for many boys and young men. This life offers them the opportunity to learn the precepts of their religion, to meditate and study, and to offer community service. But it is an austere life, as they are required to give up all of their worldly goods except for three robes, their bowl for collecting alms, and a very few other necessary items.
These young men rely on the community for their food, so Rob and I rose very early to participate in the ritual of offering alms. We gathered outside of the Huay Keaw park on the hills just outside of the city where volunteers were already setting up trays of food. Nearby stalls sold lotus blossoms and floral wreaths to be used at the temple above us.
Soon, the boys, dressed in their distinctive bright orange robes and carrying their large silver alms bowls, began to arrive, walking up the street in a single line. Most of the boys were quite young, appearing between about eight to fourteen years old.
The young monks formed a single line in front of the stalls, and we lined up facing them with our offerings, placing the food from our trays into their bowls. The experience was quiet and solemn, with some of the participants kneeling before the monks in prayer.
Once the alms-giving ended, we visited Mahachulalongkornrahavidyalaya Buddhist University, (gotta love those Thai names!) which includes "The Foundation for Study and Propagation of Buddhism in the Regions of Mae Khong River." Inside, we had an interesting "monk chat," with a monk who was very proficient in English. He shared some of the fundamentals of Buddhism and we had the opportunity to ask questions.
The rest of the morning was spent at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a gleaming golden complex of temple buildings high atop a hill overlooking the city and the most famous and revered temple of Chiang Mai. Our group rode the rot daang (red truck) that brings visitors from all over the city up the winding road to the base of the temple mountain, then we joined hundreds of others to climb the 306 step stairway to the top. I was amazed by the large crowds, but soon learned that today was King Rama IX's actual birthday, and the Thai people were enjoying the national holiday to honor him. (Warning to my dear readers: One of my favorite things about Thailand is the art and architecture, so I'm going a bit crazy with the photos in the rest of this post. Trust me - this is only about a quarter of the photos I took that day!)
Like the cathedrals that were built to hold bits of "the true cross" or fragments of the bones of Christian saints, this temple was built to hold a bone fragment believed to be from the shoulder of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. According to legend, this fragment of bone was mounted onto a sacred white elephant who roamed the mountain until it died in this spot. Thus King Keu Naone chose as this site for the temple in 1383.
Yo brought our group to the shade of a breadfruit tree and provided an orientation to the temple, then Rob and I went off on our own to explore the gorgeous grounds and buildings of the temple compound.
At the center of the complex is the large golden chedi, which holds Buddha's relic. The central square glowed gold, the sunlight illuminating the many altars and decorative structures surrounding the stupa. The Buddhist pilgrims flowed through the narrow pathways, many with their hands pressed together in prayer and leaving offerings on the altars.
After lunch, my friend Mary arrived at our hotel to accompany me to the old city center. Mary and I had met on Facebook through a mutual friend. We had never met in person before, but she greeted me like an old friend. She is from the U.S. but has lived here in Thailand for fourteen years as I write this...and has been a practicing Buddhist for over thirty years.
What a delight having someone who knows the city so well show me around. We hailed a tuk-tuk to take us to the temples within the ancient city's walls, and I laughed (silently) when she scolded the driver - in the Thai language - for trying to gouge us with tourist prices!
Most of our time in the ancient city was spent in the complex of buildings that make up Wat Chedi Luang. A chedi, or stupa, is the tall bell-like Thai pagoda found in many of the temples, and luang means "great" or "very big." This was certainly an accurate description. The original height of this massive building, begun in the late 1300s, was 80 meters - over 260 feet. Although the building was damaged, probably by an earthquake in the 1500s, the tower still measures about 60 meters (almost 200 feet) high and dominates the complex. The chedi once held the Emerald Buddha, a very sacred statue that we had seen earlier in our trip in the Wat Phra Kawe temple on the grounds of the Royal Palace in Bangkok.
Near the chedi are other important temples. Facing the great pagoda is a long open-sided building that houses an impressive reclining Buddha, Pha Buddasaiya, which probably dates to the 15th century. This gold covered plaster stature is about 9 meters long and 2 meters high.
The most beautiful building we visited was the large viharn, or assembly hall, filled with black columns decorated with gold, a gleaming red roof, and colorful prayer flags hanging along the walls to either side. The altar held a large standing Buddha called Phra Chao Arratot, and other seated Buddha images. Mary and I joined the other pilgrims in paying our respects to Buddha.
We were NOT able to enter another of the temples which contains the Sao Inthakin, or City Pillar, which, according to legend, marks the center of the universe. A sign at the entrance indicates that women's monthly cycle "humiliates and ruins the sanctity of the city pillar." Hmmmph. I might take issue with that, but in fairness, it also prohibits the entry of men who dress inappropriately because "disobeying of the rules will cause social instability."
Next to the Wat Chedi Luang complex is Wat Phan Tao, which means "Monastery of a Thousand Kilns," a reference to the many images of Buddha in the compound. It a beautiful building of carved teakwood surrounded by a garden and dozens of bright yellow prayer flags. This building originally served as the palace of Chiang Mai's King Chao Mahawong in the mid-1800s, but it now serves as an active monastery. Behind the monastery was a lovely garden hung with prayer bells and flags.
We visited several other temples in the old city.
Of course there were a multitude of images of Buddha, but none so amusing as this one - who turned out not to be Buddha at all!
A sign below explained the story: "This monk is Tan Pra Maha Kajjana. He is an arahant (enlightened one). But he is NOT the Lord Buddha. He used to be so handsome that some monks took him as the Lord Buddha. When other monks saw him from afar, they would prepare themselves as if they were receiving the Lord Buddha.
Once a man saw Tan Pra Maha Kajjana and thought he was a woman. If Tan Pra Maha Kajjana were a woman, the man would take Tan Pra Maja Kajjana as his wife. This evil thought to an enlightened monk is a grave sin. As a result, the man immediately became a woman. He was ashamed and escaped to another town.
Tan Pra Maha Kajjana did not want to cause trouble to other people because of his good looks, nor did he want people to be attached to his outer appearance. Therefore, he changed himself into a fat, ugly looking monk."
Mary and I ended our exploration of the old city at one of her favorite local eateries where she introduced me to Mango Sticky Rice. Rob and I would be leaving the next day to return to Bangkok for our flight home, so I was very sorry to have to say farewell so soon to my new friend!