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"Wat Phra That Doi Suthep"
By Kathryn Brimacombe
Editor / Feature Writer
Although I have been to Chiang Mai several times, each time I go I visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Despite it being number one on the tourist hit list for Chiang Mai, it stills beckons me as it stands proudly from the top of the mountain, overlooking the city below. Whenever the golden temple comes into my view as I'm walking along the streets, I'm filled with a sense of peace and contentment, as if it's protecting me. It calls to me, and I go.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was established more than six hundred years ago by King Keu Naone of Lanna, a kingdom in northern Thailand of which Chiang Mai was the capital. The legend says that during that time, a monk from Sukothai had a vision of a fire. When he followed the fire, he found a bone that had come from Lord Buddha. He brought the relic to his king, but the king soon lost interest when the bone failed to display any magical powers. But King Keu Naone, who had heard the story, asked the monk to bring the bone to Chiang Mai and constructed a new chedi (or pagoda) to house it. When the time came to enshrine the relic, however, it split in two.

The King decreed that half of the bone should be placed on a sacred white elephant, and the elephant should be followed. The elephant left Chiang Mai by its northern gate (known today as Chang Puak, or White Elephant Gate) and walked west into the mountains. The elephant climbed up the 1676 metre Doi Suthep, or Suthep Mountain, but when it neared the summit it trumpeted and died. On that spot in 1383 the King ordered the temple to be built.

For more than 500 years, devout worshippers had to make the arduous trek to the temple through the jungle to the top of the mountain. But then in 1934, Phra Krubra Srivichai, a local monk, thought the temple needed to be accessed more easily and organized several villages to build a road. He asked each village to construct 10 metres, and within six months the winding road was complete. Phra Krubra Srivichai was held in such high regard a statue devoted to him was created at the base of the mountain, where it still stands. It is believed to be good luck to pay homage to him before ascending Doi Suthep.

The songthaew drops me off safely at the foot of the stairs leading up to the temple, after spending many stomach-churning minutes winding along the 13-km steep road through beautiful jungle to reach the summit. I stare at the long staircase in front of me, which consists of more than 200 steps, take a deep breath and begin my ascent, thinking that this isn't as bad as having to climb the entire mountain itself to reach the temple.

The staircase is flanked on both sides by the scaly snake-like bodies of the nagas, whose fierce multiple heads form the banisters' bottoms. Thus, the nagas, who in Buddhist mythology protected Buddha before his enlightenment by shooting down lightening bolts aimed at him, guarding the sacred temple.

After stopping half-way to catch my breath, sharing exclamations about the strenuous climb with other tourists, I finally reach the top and enter the temple grounds, first taking off my shoes. The temple is breathtaking in its gold and vermillion splendour, twinkling in the sun's gaze against the deep blue sky.

Wiping my face with a handkerchief to catch the beads of sweat dripping down, I enter the inner courtyard and am greeted by the sight of the copper-plated chedi topped with a five-tiered golden umbrella, glinting like golden fire. All around it are throngs of tourists, and I must maneuver my way through to get a good view.

In front of the chedi people are praying, their eyes closed, their hands placed together in a wai, whilst a candle, flowers and joss sticks are pressed between their palms. After their prayers have been said, they light the candles and place them in a rack that is dripping in dried wax, then lay their flowers on a metal tray, and finally light their joss sticks and position them in a sand-filled pot.

I walk around the chedi, the scent of burning incense following me, my eyes never leaving the beautiful pagoda whose golden glow darkens to a deep copper colour in the shadows. Behind the chedi is another temple and I glance inside the dark room filled with Buddha effigies. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I see an elderly monk sitting on the floor, murmuring and blessing an older woman seated in a lotus position in front of him. Not wishing to disturb such a sacred moment, I quietly retire and continue my walk.

Leaving the inner sanctuary and the chedi, I head outside of the main temple where I had been told I would see a fantastic view of Chiang Mai. Passing by a holy Bodhi tree, which people say had actually grown from a clipping of the very tree under which Buddha became enlightened, I come across two rows of large bells.

A young man grabs the gong of the first bell and gently taps the side, creating a resonating sound. As he continues along the row, ringing each bell lightly, the sound follows me as my eyes draw me to the bright pink bougainvilleas that reach their limbs and paper-thin petals to the viewpoint.

Leaning my elbows on the railing, I look over the tops of trees to Chiang Mai below. The sky is a clear blue with a few puffs of clouds in the distance, and with little haze I can see for miles and miles. The runway of Chiang Mai International Airport stretches out to my right, and I watch as an incoming plane lands on the tarmac.

I gaze out to the horizon for several more minutes, feeling the benevolent presence of the temple extending outward to those around me and to the people of Chiang Mai below. Then the sweet scent of burning incense tickles my nose, and turning my eyes towards the temple, I follow the smoky trail back to the golden chedi.



Other Articles by Kathryn Brimacombe
    National Museum Shows Wealth of History
    Garden Shrine Abounds with Strange Gods
    Rocket Festival Appeases Rain God
    "Coming Home to Nong Khai"
    "At Home in Thailand"
    Korean Buddhism Values Education


Kathryn Margaret Brimacombe is a Canadian freelance writer and photographer, who also works as an editor at The Seoul Times. Before coming to Korea, Thailand was her home for many years. Her articles have appeared in several publications, including the Pattaya Mail and Chiang Mai Mail newspapers in Thailand, and The Province newspaper in Canada. She has a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of British Columbia, as well as a certificate in journalism.

 

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