Feb 2, 2014

A Mountaintop Temple for Christmas

Wat Doi Suthep

In 1368, the King's white elephant climbed Doi Suthep mountain, trumpeted three times, and died on the spot. It was interpreted as a divine sign, and a temple was constructed on the site. This became the legendary beginning to Chiang Mai's most famous temple, Wat Doi Suthep.

On Christmas day, we took a shared "taxi", called a songthaew, up to the temple site.

You better hold on tight! The driver drove crazy speeds up the twisting mountain road.

The 309 steps up Doi Suthep's tip, with two 7-headed Naga handrails. Groups of college students clustered at points, singing and calling out for donations. The steps were challenging because of the thin air.

First look at Wat Doi Suthep; I was dazzled by the shining golden color.

Going wat walking that morning, we had found places with tranquility and surprising solitude amidst the busyness of central Chiang Mai. Wat Doi Suthep didn't have the same feeling; it was a huge tourist destination. The temple had become commercialized by charging an entrance fee and selling souvenirs.

The entrance fee only applied to farang (foreigners), but not Thais. Once inside, I was shocked to see monks behind the selling stalls. One of the Bhikkhu (Thai monk) vows is to renounce all money and material things. They don't handle cash; instead, an administrative community of laypeople handle finances for the temple. To see monks selling "magic lucky" amulets made me sad.

Tying "good luck and health" bracelets. The monk tied them around the men's wrists, since they are not allowed to touch women, and a layperson next to him tied the rest.

When I graduated from university, the monks at MBMC held a blessing for me to be safe on my upcoming journey and have good health and happiness in my life. It was a very special moment, with a white string tied around the Buddha's hand and my head, connecting me to the divine within. They then tied an orange (just like their robes) braided bracelet around my wrist, careful not to touch my skin. The bracelet had three wooden beads - one each for the Buddha (the divine), Dhamma (the law), and Sangha (the community). It was a very meaningful moment, having just accomplished the hardest thing in my life I had ever strived for. That bracelet stayed on my wrist for about 9 months before it broke.

Compared with the above picture, I didn't think the bunches of white yarn tied around the people's wrists were as meaningful; that it didn't have the same effect. It was just a long line of visitors, getting a free souvenir they could show others, going in for a quick "good luck" token. This isn't the case for everyone, and I'm just as guilty, waiting in line to get one like everybody else. This one only lasted two days though, before they had to remove it at the hospital (but that's another story...)

Bells lining the ceiling's edge around the square courtyard of the temple.

I think I was disappointed in Wat Doi Suthep because I was searching for my perception of authenticity. In a world of hipsters, where people go out of their way to remove meaning from their original source, I keep going to original sources and finding lack of meaning. Or, maybe it's lack of the meaning in what I was expecting, and I have to be more open to ones I wasn't expecting?

Mr. C turned it around when he purchased a bell. Not just a souvenir, we three used it as a focal point for our wishes to have a safe, enjoyable trip and to be thankful for where we are in life. Then we three hung it up at the temple to join the wishes of those who came before us. We created our own meaning.

Our bell

Adding our bell to the rest to swing freely in the wind.

View on the way back down.


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