THAILAND

The Buddhas of Chiang Mai

Looking for things to do in Chiang Mai? Search out the different Buddhas at the Buddhist temples around the city.

 A Buddha inside a niche at the chedi of Wat Buppharam

A Buddha inside a niche at the chedi of Wat Buppharam

It’s said that Chiang Mai is home to 300 temples (wats in Thai). Duke and I did our best to hit them all — though after a week or so, we only crossed about a dozen off our list.

In the vein of our the Cats of Marrakech and Cats of Fès posts, I figured we could do one on the Buddhas of Chiang Mai.

The ears are always elongated, like those kids who had spacers but took them out, only to have their stretched-out lobes flop back and forth.

The idea is that the Buddha is then able to hear all that’s needed in the world.

Most of the Buddhas you’ll encounter at these wats are in the Chiang Saen or Lanna style from 11th and 18th centuries. At the time, Northern Thailand was part of the Lanna kingdom. The Buddhas of this second-largest city in Thailand tend to have round faces with Mona Lisa smiles.

Because Buddhist monks shave their heads, I’ve always thought of the Buddha as having set the original example. But depictions of the Buddha actually show tight curls framing his head.

His nose can be on the long and narrow side — or even a bit pig-like (at least when seen from below).

The ears are always elongated, like those kids who had spacers but took them out, only to have their stretched-out lobes flop back and forth. You can tell that I’m not the biggest fan of this look, but the idea is that the Buddha is then able to hear all that’s needed in the world.

His torso tends to be on the slightly plump side, tapering to a narrower waist.

In some depictions, the Buddha is bare-chested and sometimes draped in a saffron cloth. Other Buddhas have this one-shouldered robe as part of their design.

Now and then, especially on smaller Buddhas that aren’t the central focus of a viharn (the main area of worship at a temple), you’ll see Buddhas covered in gold leaf.

 Wat Bupphararam

Wat Bupphararam

Buddha Meaning for Each Day of the Week

Statues of the Buddha feature various poses, eight of which are tied to days of the week:

Sunday: The Open-Eye Posture, standing, as he did under the bodhi tree, for seven days after reaching enlightenment, contemplating the suffering of all living things.

Monday: Preventing Calamities, standing, causing torrential rain to fall upon the city of Vesali, which was invaded by devils that feasted on the living and the dead.

Tuesday: The Reclining Buddha, humbling a proud giant named Asurindarahu.

Wednesday: This day is divided into two poses, depending on the time of day.

Before noon: Holding an Alms Bowl, standing, collecting the food for the day — a practice still performed by Buddhist monks.

After noon: Resting With a Monkey and an Elephant, seated, seeking refuge from arguing monks in the Palilayaka, or Palelai, Forest. The monkey offers the Buddha a beehive, while the elephant presents a water pot.

Thursday: Meditation, sitting in a yoga posture, when the Buddha vowed not to leave his spot on the grass until he reached enlightenment.

Friday: Contemplation, standing, under the banyan tree, wondering how the heck he’ll explain his teachings, or dharma, about the cause of suffering.

Saturday: Seated Under the Naga Hood, meditating and protected from rain by Mucalinda, the seven-headed King of the Naga.

 Wat Doi Suthep

Wat Doi Suthep

As the central image in a wat, more often than not, the Buddha is sitting cross-legged, one leg on top of the other, with one hand in his lap, palm upward, and the other draped downward over his leg. This is the Calling the Earth to Witness position, which symbolized the Buddha’s moment of enlightenment.

Some of the Buddhas are standing, and you’ll also find a few Reclining Buddhas, which I personally like to call Sleepy-time Buddhas.

Around the 16th century, the statues of the Buddha were made of a thin alloy, though some were even cast with gold.

Here’s a sampling of the Buddhas we found around town. –Wally

 Wat Buppharam

Wat Buppharam

 Wat Buppharam

Wat Buppharam

 Wat Buppharam

Wat Buppharam

 Wat Buppharam

Wat Buppharam

 Wat Chedi Luang

Wat Chedi Luang

 Wat Chedi Luang

Wat Chedi Luang

 Wat Chedi Luang

Wat Chedi Luang

 Wat Doi Kham

Wat Doi Kham

 Wat Doi Suthep

Wat Doi Suthep

 Wat Doi Suthep

Wat Doi Suthep

 Wat Upakut

Wat Upakut

 Wat Upakut

Wat Upakut

 Wat Jet Lin

Wat Jet Lin

 Wat Kuan Kama

Wat Kuan Kama

 Wat Lok Molee

Wat Lok Molee

 Wat Palad

Wat Palad

 Wat Rajamontean

Wat Rajamontean

 Wat Sri Suphan

Wat Sri Suphan

 Wat Sri Suphan

Wat Sri Suphan

 Wat Sri Suphan

Wat Sri Suphan

Wat Chom Thong and Vipassana Meditation Retreat

A Thai Buddhist temple dedicated to those born in the Year of the Rat at the base of Doi Inthanon known for its free meditation courses.

 Wat Phra That Si Chom Thong houses a holy relic: fragments of the Buddha’s skull

Wat Phra That Si Chom Thong houses a holy relic: fragments of the Buddha’s skull

En route to Doi Inthanon to see its waterfalls and soaring modern pagodas, our driver Tommy asked us if we wanted to stop at a temple at the base of the mountain.

The wat he wanted to share with us is about an hour and a half from Chiang Mai and is dedicated to those born in the Year of the Rat.

“That’s my sign,” I told Tommy, excited about that fact for the first time in my life.

“That’s lucky!” he exclaimed.

The temple is one of the most revered in all of Northern Thailand because it supposedly holds bits of the right side of the Buddha’s skull.
 The temple is dedicated to those born in the Year of the Rat — like this fancy fellow

The temple is dedicated to those born in the Year of the Rat — like this fancy fellow


Learn More About the Chinese and Thai Zodiac


The names of Thai temples tend to be mouthfuls. This wat, Phra That Si Chom Thong Woraviharn, is no exception.

 This misshapen statue is supposed to be of a lion

This misshapen statue is supposed to be of a lion

Holy Skull Fragments

It was built in the mid-1400s atop a hill, Doi Chom Thong, which the Buddha is said to have visited. In fact, he supposedly even stated that the site would one day be home to one of his holy relics.

 This small shrine, or mondop, is where the holy relic of Chom Thong is kept

This small shrine, or mondop, is where the holy relic of Chom Thong is kept

That prediction came true, and the wat is one of the most revered in all of Northern Thailand because it supposedly holds bits of the right side of the Buddha’s skull. The relic was found in 1452 and is described as being smooth and the size “of jujube seeds” and the off-white color of “dried medlar flowers.”

 At most Buddhist temples, relics are stored in chedis like these — but not at this one

At most Buddhist temples, relics are stored in chedis like these — but not at this one

The oldest structure at the wat is the golden chedi. What’s interesting is that the pagodas known as chedis don’t house the relics as at most Thai temples. Instead, they’re stored within a mondop, a small temple-like shrine framed by tall thin columns.

The Buddha’s skull fragments are taken out of the mondop on important Buddhist holidays for devotees to pay homage to them.

 The viharn is the main building on site

The viharn is the main building on site

 The focal point of the assembly hall features numerous Buddhas, elephant tusks and an elaborately carved centerpiece

The focal point of the assembly hall features numerous Buddhas, elephant tusks and an elaborately carved centerpiece

Visiting the Viharn

The main building on the wat grounds is the Lanna-style viharn, which contains gorgeous wood carvings. The statues, many of which are gold or are covered in gold leaf, the teak beams, the intricately carved shrine, the light diffused through the bright orange umbrellas, which symbolize enlightenment and are compared to halos in the Christian tradition — they all lend the space a warm, intense glow.

 It’s not unusual for viharns to have multiple statues of the Buddha

It’s not unusual for viharns to have multiple statues of the Buddha

 Some of the statues are covered in gold leaf

Some of the statues are covered in gold leaf

 Look up — even the teak ceiling is elaborately painted 

Look up — even the teak ceiling is elaborately painted 

 Walk around the altarpiece — it’s so elaborate it should be seen from every angle

Walk around the altarpiece — it’s so elaborate it should be seen from every angle

On our way out of the wat, Duke and I stopped by a vendor’s table near the entrance to buy a small ceramic rat to put in the shrine in our bedroom.

 We found a garage-like building out back with this strange contraption

We found a garage-like building out back with this strange contraption

The temple is also home to the Insight Meditation Center, founded in 1991 by Phra Dhammungkalajarn Vi (aka Phra Ajaan Tong Sirimangalo). Our chauffeur Tommy proudly informed us that his cousin is the director of the meditation center. If you’re in no hurry and are intrigued by, or already a practitioner of meditation, here’s more information about this fascinating option.

 Those staying at the meditation retreat wear white

Those staying at the meditation retreat wear white

Q&A About the Insight Meditation Center at Chom Tong

Where’s the meditation center located?

Behind the main temple. Look for the CMQ Lanna International Library.

 

What happens at the meditation retreat?

Students receive individual instruction in vipassana meditation. Your guide will educate you in an intensive form of a technique developed by Mahasi Sayadaw, a Burmese monk, with sequences of mindful prostrations, walking and sitting meditation following the teachings of Ajaan Tong Sirimangalo, a local monk.

Exercises are led in English and Thai, and work to apply mindfulness to the body, feelings, mind and “mind-objects,” known as the Satipatthana, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness are a device that stops evil, stops bad deeds, stops defilement. … We will have pure hearts always.
— Ajaan Tong Sirimangalo

What is vipassana meditation?

Vipassana is a word from Pali (the classic language of Theravada Buddhism) that means seeing clearly or seeing through. It’s often translated as “insight,” and practitioners of vipassana meditation attempt to see through the true nature of reality.

Vipassana strives for a clear awareness of exactly what is happening as it happens. Practitioners bring their minds to rest, focusing on only one item and not allowing them to wander. When this is accomplished, a deep calm pervades the body and mind. It’s also described as using concentration as a tool by which your awareness can chip away at the wall of illusion that cuts us off from the living light of reality so you can see the impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and selflessness of physical phenomena.

It takes years to master, but one day the meditator is said to chisel through that wall and tumble into the presence of light. This transformation is called liberation and is permanent.

 The vipassana meditation technique was developed by a couple of Buddhist monks

The vipassana meditation technique was developed by a couple of Buddhist monks

 Umbrellas, like the one in the viharn, symbolize enlightenment

Umbrellas, like the one in the viharn, symbolize enlightenment

Why should I go?

There have been studies recently that show the benefits of meditation in reducing everything from anxiety to depression to pain.

“Why should we be mindful?” asks Sirimangalo, who still teaches at Chom Thong. “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness are a device that stops evil, stops bad deeds, stops defilement. … during the time when we are mindful, evil won’t enter in to reach our hearts. We will have pure hearts always. It is like dark and shining light. Mindfulness is a shining light; all defilements, all evil states, are like darkness. When the bright light shines, the darkness disappears. For this reason, we should be mindful at all times — our mind will be bright, clean and peaceful all of the time.”

 

How do I go about reserving space at the retreat?

Make a reservation in advance — otherwise they can’t guarantee that space will be available. They ask that people arrive around 1 p.m. You can email the International Department at reservationchomtong@yahoo.com.

 

What’s the dress code?

The retreat is affiliated with the wat (temple) and follows their rules of modesty. Men can wear T-shirts, but tank tops and sweats aren’t allowed. Shorts should cover the knees. For women, shirts should cover their shoulders, not expose their chests and should be at least elbow-length. Skirts or pants should reach the ankles. They also would like you to limit your makeup and perfume use.

That being said, while you’re at the retreat, they ask that you wear white clothing that fits their sense of decorum. You can bring your own, borrow some from the center or buy some at vendors just off the temple grounds.

In the winter, especially December and January, it can get quite cold. You’ll want a sweatshirt  or jacket and socks if you visit then.

 

What should I bring?

  • Toiletries, including toothpaste and soap
  • Toilet paper
  • Passport
  • Digital alarm clock and/or timer
  • Flashlight
  • Flip-flops or sandals
  • Water bottle
  • Insect repellent

 

How long will the course be?

While you’re welcome to stay for as long or as short as you like, they recommend 21 days for the basic course. Once you’ve taken that, you can do a 10-day retreat. No previous experience with meditation is necessary and all courses are individual, so they start the day you arrive. Keep in mind that if they’re fully booked, those who are staying longer are given preference.

On your first day, you’ll be given an introduction to the course and will meet with your teacher.

 

How much will this cost me?

Nothing — though the organization does run on donations, in line with the Buddhist principle of dana (generosity). Donations to the center help pay for electricity, water and general maintenance. Donations to the teachers cover their living expenses, as they’re all volunteers and don’t make a salary. Donations for food pay for the two meals a day prepared by nuns in the temple. –Wally

 Rats! You’ll see lots of depictions of them at Wat Chom Thong

Rats! You’ll see lots of depictions of them at Wat Chom Thong

Wat Phra That Si Chom Thong Worawihan
Ban Luang
Chom Thong District
Chiang Mai 50160, Thailand

Must-See Chiang Mai: Wat Phra Singh

One of the best examples of Lanna architecture, the Lion Buddha Temple features golden chedi, gorgeously decorated buildings and some hellish murals.

 Wat Phra Singh is held up as one of the best examples of Lanna architecture

Wat Phra Singh is held up as one of the best examples of Lanna architecture

Wat Phra Singh is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Chiang Mai. And while it’s an impressive temple — that’s a short walk to Wat Chedi Luang, another spot travelers always hit — Duke and I sometimes prefer exploring some of the more off-the-beaten-path wats.

 The temple is one of the most popular stops for tourists staying in Chiang Mai

The temple is one of the most popular stops for tourists staying in Chiang Mai

That being said, travelers should definitely add Wat Phra Singh to their itinerary. Parts of the wat, which translates to the Lion Buddha Temple, were built in the mid-1300s and renovated in the early 1800s.

 There’s no shortage of glittering gold on many Thai temples — and Wat Phra Singh is no exception

There’s no shortage of glittering gold on many Thai temples — and Wat Phra Singh is no exception

The temple complex’s buildings are gorgeously gilded, with their telltale Lanna-style rooftops, layered like feathers on wings about to spread and soar into the heavens. In fact, Wat Phra Singh is held up as one of the finest examples of Lanna architecture.

 The famous Lion Buddha, the star of the Thai New Year parade/water fight, lost its original head

The famous Lion Buddha, the star of the Thai New Year parade/water fight, lost its original head

Viharn Lai Kham: Marvelous Murals and the Headless Lion Buddha

At the back of the walled-in compound is the Viharn Lai Kham (the Gilded Hall), an assembly hall that features fading murals from the 1820s. The paintings depict scenes from the Jataka tales, native to India, which tell of the previous lives of the Buddha. Another source says the murals show local ways of life. To be honest, it was hard to make much out.

This is where the namesake Lion Buddha, a treasure from the 14th century, is housed. Local lore says the statue came from Sri Lanka, though some historians say it looks suspiciously as if it was made locally. (There’s no direct connection to a lion, leading some to posit that the Singh in its name is actually a corruption of Sri Lanka.) In 1922 someone dared to steal the head right off the Lion Buddha! Talk about bad karma!

During the Thai New Year festival, Songkran, the Lion Buddha is carried through Chiang Mai, and people splash water on it for good luck.

 The beautiful doors at the Viharn Lai Khan hint at what its name translates to: the Gilded Hall

The beautiful doors at the Viharn Lai Khan hint at what its name translates to: the Gilded Hall

While we admired the interior of the viharn, a couple of Thai students came over and asked if they could interview Duke. From their broken English and Duke’s attempts to speak about the murals without knowing much about them…well, let’s just say I don’t think the documentary will be scoring any prizes at Sundance.

 There aren’t any lions on the grounds of Phra Singh that we could see — but you’ll always find plenty of giant snakes called nagas

There aren’t any lions on the grounds of Phra Singh that we could see — but you’ll always find plenty of giant snakes called nagas

 The pagodas found on Thai temple grounds hold some sort of sacred relic

The pagodas found on Thai temple grounds hold some sort of sacred relic

 Elephants sticking out of the golden spire make this a one-of-a-kind chedi in Chiang Mai

Elephants sticking out of the golden spire make this a one-of-a-kind chedi in Chiang Mai

Golden Chedi With Elephant Adornments

The oldest structure on site is the main chedi, which was constructed in 1345 by King Pha Yu to enshrine the ashes of his father, King Kham Fu. The golden yellow chedi is blindly bright in the sunlight. Elephants are depicted as emerging from the chedi, the front halves of their bodies poking out of the shiny copper.

 While you’re here, maybe say a prayer that you don’t go to Naraka to be tortured 

While you’re here, maybe say a prayer that you don’t go to Naraka to be tortured 

Viharn Luang: A Vision of Heaven and Hell

The largest building on the grounds is the Viharn Luang. The current structure replaced the original in 1925. There’s another highly venerated Buddha image inside. Referred to as Phra Chao Thong Tip, it was cast in gold and copper back in 1477. The Buddha is seated and has his hands gesturing in the Subduing Mara mudra, which calls back to when the demon Mara tried to distract the Buddha as he sat under the bodhi tree, about to reach enlightenment.

 A polite worshipper shows that you never point your feet toward an image of the Buddha (though I’m not sure you should take bath in a viharn)

A polite worshipper shows that you never point your feet toward an image of the Buddha (though I’m not sure you should take bath in a viharn)

While we were looking at the line of smaller Buddhas off to the right (one for each day of the week), we heard behind us, “Excuse me, but I think I know you.”

I turned around and saw a dark-haired girl with large geek-chic glasses looking over at Duke.

“Lali!” he exclaimed.

Turns out Duke and Lali used to work together, before she went off to Korea to teach English.

That job had ended, and Lali and her new friend Hailey had just returned from a week volunteering with the Elephant Nature Park in the jungle near a Karen tribe village, living amongst wild elephants. Completely cut off from their phones and the internet, both of them described the experience as life-changing, spiritual.

 In the main viharn are depictions of Naraka, the Buddhist Hell

In the main viharn are depictions of Naraka, the Buddhist Hell

 What the Hell? Who’s hungry?

What the Hell? Who’s hungry?

The girls rushed off to Chedi Luang for a monk chat, while Duke and I walked up front. We couldn’t believe our eyes — painted along the front right side of the viharn are the strangest scenes we’ve seen at a wat: human bodies with the heads of various animals, including a duck, a rooster, a cow and a boar, being boiled alive in a giant cauldron; a man and a woman tied to a post while what look like circular saws dig into their skulls, dripping blood onto their torsos. We were certainly intrigued. Turns out these depict Naraka, the Buddhist version of Hell. (It’s telling that Naraka translates literally to “of man.”)

 Strands of bells hang behind the chedi

Strands of bells hang behind the chedi

Snack Break!

Off to the side of the complex is an adjoining park with a small ramshackle plaza. We ordered ice cream from the booth and licked it quickly, as it melted almost instantly in the heat.

 The 700 or so monks at the wat would have been ordained in the ubosot

The 700 or so monks at the wat would have been ordained in the ubosot

Ubosot: Creepy Wax Figures

You’ll find a couple of other noteworthy buildings on site as well, including the ubosot, where monks get ordained. (There are said to be 700 monks in residence at this temple!) It’s a wooden structure with an amazing lattice-work ceiling built in 1806.

 The Buddha of the Phra Singh ubosot

The Buddha of the Phra Singh ubosot

 A gorgeously gilded multi-story altarpiece

A gorgeously gilded multi-story altarpiece

The interior is awash in a deep burgundy covered with elaborate gold detailing. It’s quite striking — as are the frighteningly lifelike monk figurines. I swear, the first time I saw one I honestly thought it was a monk sitting perfectly still, meditating. These creepy replicas of actual deceased monks can be found in many of the wats in Chiang Mai.

 These monks sure can sit still

These monks sure can sit still

 It wasn’t until we got up close that we realized the monks weren’t real

It wasn’t until we got up close that we realized the monks weren’t real

 Get used to seeing creepy replicas of famous monks — quite a few temples in the Chiang Mai area have them

Get used to seeing creepy replicas of famous monks — quite a few temples in the Chiang Mai area have them

 This Emerald Buddha is a replica — the real one’s in Bangkok

This Emerald Buddha is a replica — the real one’s in Bangkok

At one end is yet another copy of the revered Emerald Buddha (the original has its own temple, Wat Phra Kaew, in Bangkok).

 The library is raised off the ground to help protect the scriptures it houses

The library is raised off the ground to help protect the scriptures it houses

Ho Trai: A Library Guarded by Demonic Spirits

The ho trai, or library, built in 1477, is easy to spot — it’s raised upon a stone platform to help protect the ancient Buddhist scriptures stored within from floods and insects. All around the exterior are fearsome depictions of devatas, who guard the contents of the library. Duke and I slowly worked our way around the base, marveling at the strange creatures.

 The library is lined with strange devatas, or spiritual creatures, like this fellow

The library is lined with strange devatas, or spiritual creatures, like this fellow

 Maybe you’re supposed to ring the bells along the path…but we didn’t want to take the chance

Maybe you’re supposed to ring the bells along the path…but we didn’t want to take the chance

 End your adventure exploring Wat Phra Singh with a stroll down the bizarre bamboo walkway

End your adventure exploring Wat Phra Singh with a stroll down the bizarre bamboo walkway

Along the Bamboo Path

At the back of the complex, saffron flags with red mandalas stuck out in clusters from a grassy knoll. To end our adventure at Wat Phra Singh, Duke and I walked along a noisy bamboo walkway lined with red posts bearing silver bells and topped by red umbrellas. The path wound its way along a pitch-black moat. As the path joined the road out front, we passed a dog happily gnawing a bone as the sun began setting, casting its golden glow upon the world. –Wally

mopedsflags.jpg
phrasinghdog.JPG

Wat Phra Singh
Si Phum
Mueang Chiang Mai District
Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand

Wat Phra That Doi Kham: The Lucky Lottery Temple of Chiang Mai

Admire the big Buddha and offer flowers to have a wish come true at the Golden Mountain Temple, popular with locals and home to the giants Pu Sae and Ya Sae.

 The seated Buddha at Wat Phra That Doi Kham rises over five stories high

The seated Buddha at Wat Phra That Doi Kham rises over five stories high

It’s not one of the typical tourist stops, but that’s what we loved about our driver, Tommy. He got to know Duke’s and my preferences, and quickly realized we wanted to experience as many temples as we could, including those more popular with local residents than travelers.

And when Duke mentioned a folktale he had read involving two human-munching giants, Tommy knew the spot.

 Just outside of the city of Chiang Mai, this temple complex is popular with locals but not with tourists

Just outside of the city of Chiang Mai, this temple complex is popular with locals but not with tourists


To hire Tommy as a driver — which we highly recommend — email him at t.tommy2556@gmail.com.


 Gold, red and white dominate the temple, which is filled with typical Thai flourishes

Gold, red and white dominate the temple, which is filled with typical Thai flourishes

Wat Phra That Doi Kham, the Golden Mountain Temple, is perched on the slopes of Mount Kham and will give you a glimpse of how a traditional Thai temple operates. Everywhere you look are small stands, pavilions and statues brightly painted white, yellow and red. There are market stalls, where you can purchase offerings and souvenirs (I bought a beaded bracelet). Numerous small shrines encircle the chedi spire.

 Khun Luang Viranka tried unsuccessfully to woo the queen who built the temple — and ended up wearing her dirty panties on his head with a spear through the heart

Khun Luang Viranka tried unsuccessfully to woo the queen who built the temple — and ended up wearing her dirty panties on his head with a spear through the heart

In one of the shrines there’s a statue of a man holding a spear. This is Khun Luang Viranka, who wanted to marry Queen Chamadevi. She, along with her twin sons, are the ones who had the temple built. Chamadevi told Viranka that if he could throw his spear from Doi Suthep and into her walled city, Lamphun, 15 miles away, she would accept his proposal.

She didn’t want to marry him, though, and was concerned that he might succeed. So she sent a cursed gift to him, a hat fashioned from one of her undergarments, soiled by menstrual blood. He put the hat on, and when it came time to throw the spear, it thudded to the ground, only having traveled a measly few feet.

Distraught, he threw his spear up into the air. It came hurtling back straight down — right through his chest.

Instead of hats made of soiled panties, people offer Viranka fruit placed on a silver platter, figurines of elephants by his feet or jasmine garlands hung from his wooden spear.

 The goddess of compassion, Kwan Yin, and her handmaidens accessorize with white and pink necklaces. They just can’t get enough!

The goddess of compassion, Kwan Yin, and her handmaidens accessorize with white and pink necklaces. They just can’t get enough!

There’s a shrine devoted to Queen Chamadevi, flanked by a pair of monkeys, while another features figurines of Chinese-styled women, one of whom is Kwan Yin, the goddess of compassion. These statues are weighed down with cheap beaded necklaces.

 The big Buddha can be found at one end of the wat, closest to the parking area

The big Buddha can be found at one end of the wat, closest to the parking area

The enormous seated Buddha statue overlooking the entrance to the temple complex is said to be the largest in the Chiang Mai area, rising 56 feet — the rough equivalent of a five-story building.

Make a Wish

The most popular offerings at Wat Phra That Doi Kham are pretty garlands of small white jasmine flowers. These, Tommy told us, are for a special part of the temple, where people pray to the Luang Por Tan Jai Buddha, the Buddha of Success, in hopes of having their wishes granted. When someone won the lottery after praying here, the temple became the go-to place to say a prayer for a quick financial windfall. And, of course, near the parking area, you’ll see numerous vendors holding what look like briefcases filled with pads of lottery tickets for sale.

 Piles of jasmine garlands are offered by those who pray for a wish to come true — and by those whose wish did come true

Piles of jasmine garlands are offered by those who pray for a wish to come true — and by those whose wish did come true

 “Dear Buddha, please let me win the lottery.”

“Dear Buddha, please let me win the lottery.”

 You can spot lottery vendors by their briefcase-like containers filled with tickets

You can spot lottery vendors by their briefcase-like containers filled with tickets

To pray to the Luang Por Tan Jai Buddha, find the crowded open-air pavilion filled with piles of flowers. State your wish, your name —  and how many jasmine garlands you’ll offer after the Buddha grants your wish.

 The giant Pu Sae, who reluctantly gave up eating humans so long as a water buffalo is sacrificed once a year

The giant Pu Sae, who reluctantly gave up eating humans so long as a water buffalo is sacrificed once a year

 Ya Sae, the female giant, converted to Buddhism like her husband

Ya Sae, the female giant, converted to Buddhism like her husband

Pu Sae and Ya Sae: They Might Be Giants

The oldest part of the temple is the chedi, which dates back to 687. This is where Duke’s folktale comes in. Thousands of years ago, two giants, Pu Sae, and his wife, Ya Sae, rampaged the slopes of Doi Suthep with their son, Sudeva, taking great delight in eating human flesh. (They’re typically described as cannibals, and one theory is that they were actually humans — part of the Lawa people who still live in these mountains.)

Once, when the Buddha was traveling the area, the fierce family followed his trail, intending to make a meal of him. While meditating, the Buddha became aware of their intentions, and stamped his foot into a boulder so hard it left an impression that remains to this day and has become a shrine.

This display of power terrified the giants so much, they (mostly) gave up their rapacious ways and converted to Buddhism. At first, they begged to be allowed to eat just one tasty human a year, but Buddha naturally refused. They then begged to be allowed to eat human flesh only once every seven years. They were refused again, and finally agreed that they’d settle for an annual sacrifice of a water buffalo. This gruesome practice is part of a yearly festival to ensure plentiful rain.

The Buddha plucked out one of his hairs to put inside the chedi. (Whenever you see a temple with “Phra That” as part of its name, it’s an indication that the chedi houses a relic of the Buddha.)

In some versions of the tale, the giants are actually shapeshifting Hindu demons, rakshasas, who try to eat the Buddha. He kills them with kindness, so to speak, and they revered him and swore off eating human flesh.

The giants are now said to protect the temple. They don’t do the best job, apparently, since the chedi collapsed in 1966 after heavy rains. Though, of course, that could have all been part of the plan. Ancient Buddha images were unearthed, leading to a revitalization of the temple.

Today you can find shrines to this famous couple, the gold leaf on their faces peeling off, giving them an appropriately gruesome look. Though we’re not sure why, it seems that worshippers place folded dress shirts still wrapped in plastic upon their laps as offerings. Holy shirt!

 Smoke from incense gives the Hermit’s shrine an otherworldly look

Smoke from incense gives the Hermit’s shrine an otherworldly look

The Hermit and the Queen

The giants’ son, known alternately as the Ruesi, Lersi, Suthep Hermit or Sudeva, gave up meat forever, shaved his head and became a Buddhist monk. The cave where he took up residence is atop Doi Suthep, the mountain that later took his name.

We were excited to deduce that the likeness of the bearded man wearing a tiger skin at Doi Kham (as well as at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep) was the hermit we sought.

 Another shrine to the Ruesi, or Hermit, at Doi Kham. You can spot him by his tiger skin cloak

Another shrine to the Ruesi, or Hermit, at Doi Kham. You can spot him by his tiger skin cloak

This fellow was living his solitary life, when one day he found the young princess who would become Queen Chamadevi, sitting atop a giant lotus. He raised the girl, who went on to marry a prince of the Mon kingdom in Central Thailand. The king later sent her up north to establish a new city and a sister kingdom for the Mon people, who were the first to bring Buddhism to the area.

 The festive plaza that overlooks the countryside at one end of the temple

The festive plaza that overlooks the countryside at one end of the temple

The Panoramic Overlook

The rear of the temple complex feels like a city square and offers a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside. We came from the parking lot in the opposite direction, but you can access the terrace and wat by climbing a massive stairwell lined with undulating golden nagas, the mythical serpents found everywhere in Thai architecture and iconography.

 Golden naga undulate up the hill, leading to the panoramic overlook

Golden naga undulate up the hill, leading to the panoramic overlook

 Duke and Wally pose on the love bench on the enormous back patio

Duke and Wally pose on the love bench on the enormous back patio

Duke and I sat on a bench beneath numerous artificial red and white roses woven into a vaguely heart-shaped arch. It was silly and sweet.

“Could you imagine anything like this at a church?” I asked Duke.

That’s part of what I love about temples. They’re places to pray, but they’re also communal spaces with an air of festivity about them.

 Part elephant, part human, part bird, these creatures guard an entrance to the heart of the temple

Part elephant, part human, part bird, these creatures guard an entrance to the heart of the temple

The back patio is guarded by two strange elephant-headed, bird-legged creatures to either side of a stairway that leads to the temple.

 

If you’ve got some extra time in Chiang Mai and want to see a temple that’s more popular with locals (hoping to win big in the lottery), swing by Doi Kham, perhaps as part of a day trip to Doi Suthep. Just be sure to make plans to return to offer jasmine garlands if your wish comes true. –Wally

 Bells and nagas fill Wat Phra That Doi Kham

Bells and nagas fill Wat Phra That Doi Kham

Wat Phra That Doi Kham
Mu Ban Chiang Mai Lake Land Road
Tambon Su Thep
Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai
Chang Wat
Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand

What’s a Spirit House?

A relic of animism in a Buddhist country, a san phra phum can keep spirits happy. Neglect the Daily offering and You might be in trouble.

 This spirit house includes a ladder for easy access should the spirit wish to leave and wander the Earth

This spirit house includes a ladder for easy access should the spirit wish to leave and wander the Earth

Although the vast majority of Thais are Buddhist, nearly all believe that the spiritual world coexists with the physical world. The country’s older animist origins predate the emergence of Theravada Buddhism. Supernatural forces play an important role in daily life and are not confined to the realm of myth or folklore. Collectively known as phi, these spirits are present everywhere, inhabiting both living and inanimate objects.

When a new building is constructed, be it a traditional village house or a multi-story office block, the owners will construct a home for the spirits who also occupy that land.

The more attention you give to a spirit,  the more good luck you will receive. Phi can also cause trouble if not given enough care, and wreak havoc when made homeless.

Among the innumerable variety of phi, many of which can influence human life, are the ghosts of people killed by animals, women who died in childbirth, and those who perished but didn’t receive a proper burial.

 Spirit houses, known as san phra phum, are small shrines that provide a home for guardian spirits. Every home and most businesses in Thailand have one

Spirit houses, known as san phra phum, are small shrines that provide a home for guardian spirits. Every home and most businesses in Thailand have one

Spirits in the Material World

Throughout Thailand, miniature dwellings perched on chest-high pedestals, or spirit houses, can be seen standing in close proximity to homes, hotels and other businesses. Known as san phra phum in Thai, some are simple weathered teak wood structures resembling traditional Thai homes, while others are ornate, colorful, spire-topped cast concrete affairs that look more like miniature temples.

These abodes function as a home for displaced phi. Trees are one of the most common places for phi to dwell. A rock, river bend, spring or cave is infused with spiritual properties. Wally and I encountered a shrine to Mae Nak, one of Thailand’s best-known ghosts, on a trail leading to Mae Ya Waterfall, part of Doi Inthanon National Park.



 The four-faced Hindu god Brahma is a popular figure in spirit houses, especially in the Bangkok area

The four-faced Hindu god Brahma is a popular figure in spirit houses, especially in the Bangkok area

Appeasing the Spirits

The san phra phum must be given the proper spot on the site. The current human landlords respect the right of the ethereal previous owners to remain — even if they didn’t know them when they were alive.

A Brahmin priest or astrologer is consulted to supervise the appropriate placement and optimal time to undertake this venture. Spirit houses should preferably be located in front of a tree, and not to the left side of a door or facing a toilet or road.

 Wally and Duke gave offerings of fruit and said prayers at the spirit house on the grounds of their hotel

Wally and Duke gave offerings of fruit and said prayers at the spirit house on the grounds of their hotel

Our hotel in Chiang Mai, Hotel des Artists Ping Silhouette, had a lovely wooden spirit house standing beside a jackfruit tree. We would visit it each morning to offer our prayers (and some lady finger bananas) to Nang Kwak, the Thai goddess of wealth, holding a sword in one hand and a money bag in the other.

To appease the spirits, daily offerings are placed on the platform surrounding the san phra phum. Incense, flowers, snacks and ubiquitous bottles of Strawberry Fanta complete with straws are intended to sustain the resident spirit. Once properly satiated, spirits become the territory’s guardians and can offer multiple services. Their principal job is to protect the landowner and their homes from illness, poverty and bad luck. The more attention you give to the spirit,  the more success and good luck you will receive. Phi can also cause trouble if not given enough care and are apt to wreak havoc when made homeless.

 Much like in Egyptian tombs, spirit houses often include figurines of servants to wait upon the guardian spirits, along with elephants for transport and dancers to entertain

Much like in Egyptian tombs, spirit houses often include figurines of servants to wait upon the guardian spirits, along with elephants for transport and dancers to entertain

As it’s tough finding reliable help, figurines including servants, dancers, animals and occasionally small cars — all things intended to symbolically assist the resident phi — are placed and displayed in front of the spirit house. There may be an animal that represents the astrological year the house was constructed or the deity enshrined within. (Learn more about the Thai zodiac here.)

 Pii Po Ya, or Spirits of the Grandfather and Grandmother, are represented by figurines of an old man and woman

Pii Po Ya, or Spirits of the Grandfather and Grandmother, are represented by figurines of an old man and woman

I was more than slightly obsessed in finding and photographing a spirit house graveyard after I read about it on the fantastic Spirit House Connection website. Apparently, these are collections of broken, discarded spirit houses no longer fit for use and can sometimes be found beneath the branches of sacred bodhi trees. Even though we had a driver who spoke English quite well, we weren’t ever able to fully explain what we were looking for. –Duke

Elephant Nature Park: A Day You’ll Never Forget

Feed and bathe the residents of this elephant sanctuary outside of Chiang Mai.

 Water buffalo coexist with the elephants at the park, one of the highest-rated sanctuaries in Northern Thailand

Water buffalo coexist with the elephants at the park, one of the highest-rated sanctuaries in Northern Thailand

Before we did a bit of research, we didn’t know any better. We thought the idea of riding an elephant would be fun. But the more we read in preparation for our trip to Chiang Mai, the more we realized we didn’t want to be a part of perpetuating the ill treatment of elephants and that we wanted instead to visit a sanctuary, a place where elephants were rescued and not exploited.

 It’s heartbreaking to think how much these elephants suffered before their idyllic life in the sanctuary

It’s heartbreaking to think how much these elephants suffered before their idyllic life in the sanctuary

The Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai had great reviews, so we booked a half-day visit with them. A van came to pick us up at our hotel, stopping in town to gather other travelers. The ride takes over an hour, and be warned: You’ll have to sit through a horrific video detailing the barbaric practices of “training” elephants.



The sad fact is that en route to the park, while you’re learning about the cruel practices trainers use to break one of these creatures, you’ll pass tourist operations where people are riding elephants. Which means they’re guilty of the atrocities you’re watching on the small screen at the front of the van.

 Spend a day at the Elephant Nature Park to feed, bathe and get to know rescued elephants

Spend a day at the Elephant Nature Park to feed, bathe and get to know rescued elephants

The Elephant Nature Park’s mission is to rescue elephants who have been retired from the logging trade, have been abused by the tourism circuit or have suffered in some other way.
 Elephants live about as long as humans do

Elephants live about as long as humans do

The Elephant Nature Park was founded by Lek Chailert. Her mission is to rescue elephants who have been retired from the logging trade, have been abused by the tourism circuit (trekking, street begging, circuses) or have suffered in some other way.

 Little Yindee is one of seven baby elephants to have been born in the park

Little Yindee is one of seven baby elephants to have been born in the park

The park purchases elephants for about 2 to 3 million baht and offers them a 500-acre sanctuary to roam freely. There are currently over 30. A lot of them have medical problems from their ill treatment in the past, and here they receive excellent medical care and the proper diet.

 Elephants at the park get fed corn, rice, watermelon and squash — but they seem to prefer bananas

Elephants at the park get fed corn, rice, watermelon and squash — but they seem to prefer bananas

Insider Tip: You’ll do a lot of walking, so we don’t recommend wearing flip-flops as a lot of the other guests did. But you also don’t want to wear shoes you can’t get wet — at the end of the tour, you have the chance to go into the river to bathe an elephant, and we had to go barefoot. The best footwear would be walking sandals that can go in the water.

 Wally and Duke had a fun day at the Elephant Nature Park while visiting Chiang Mai

Wally and Duke had a fun day at the Elephant Nature Park while visiting Chiang Mai

Please Do Feed the Animals

At the Elephant Nature Park, you get divided into smaller groups of 12 or so, and you make the rounds seeing the elephants as they go about their day. Our first stop was to feed Kham Moon. She’s 55 years old (elephants have the same life expectancy as humans!). She was involved in logging until she broke her leg and was deemed useless for those purposes. Now she’s a sweet, if spoiled, resident of the park.

There are baskets of food you’re allowed to feed the elephants. We fed her pumpkins at first, but after a while she spotted the bananas and only had eyes for them. These big beasts sure love to eat — they consume at least 10 percent of their body weight every day! Our guide, Nieo, told us that elephants eat for 20 hours a day and sleep only three to four.

 Many of the elephants at the park show signs of their previously abusive lives

Many of the elephants at the park show signs of their previously abusive lives

An elephant's trunk is its most versatile tool. It’s used for breathing, smelling, trumpeting, touching, grasping for leaves, sucking up and sometimes spraying out water. This useful bit of equipment has 40,000 muscles (compared to the human body which has just 639 muscles), Nieo explained.

 You don’t really realize how wise and sweet these animals are until you get up close and personal with them

You don’t really realize how wise and sweet these animals are until you get up close and personal with them

It’s really quite freaky but amazing watching elephants eat. The end of their snouts are able to grab food, moving like fingers. I’d hold out a banana, then quickly move my hand away as the snout pulsated, squealing like a little girl.

 An elephant’s trunk is an amazingly useful appendage

An elephant’s trunk is an amazingly useful appendage

When near an elephant, always stand where it can see you — they don’t have peripheral vision. You also shouldn’t stand directly in front or behind an elephant, Nieo told us.

It’s true that elephants are scared of mice, our guide added. “They don’t like small things — including children. They move too fast.” Keep that in mind if you’re bringing little ones along.

Our next stop was feeding Sook Jai, an 82-year-old elephant. She’s blind and has no teeth, so we had to peel bananas before giving them to her.

Another elephant fun fact: They’re natural born farmers. They only digest 40 percent of their food, so whatever they eat grows out of their poop.

 The elephants cool off in the water and use their trunks to spray themselves

The elephants cool off in the water and use their trunks to spray themselves

Bath Time

Our group moved through the hot sun over to the watering hole, watching the elephants cool off, spewing the brown water onto their backs. We learned that one of the elephants in the group had been rescued after stepping on a landmine.

A baby elephant named Yindee splashed in the water with her cohorts. She’s one of seven elephants to have been born in the park.

 Duke thinks this elephant could use some good moisturizer

Duke thinks this elephant could use some good moisturizer

 Wally makes a new friend

Wally makes a new friend

Some of the mahouts splashed one of the elephants who has bad legs and can’t lie down in the water. While we watched these giant creatures cool off, the operation across the river had people riding elephants right by guys recklessly driving off-road ATVs. Our group all disparaged them, and I suggested throwing elephant dung at them.

 Our guide was informative and had a great sense of humor

Our guide was informative and had a great sense of humor

By the river, we fed an elephant named Jandee. That means “Kind Heart,” Nieo told us. It’s ironic, though because this 66-year-old is a bit feisty and would fight if she was near other elephants.

She doesn’t have any teeth, either, so we fed her rice balls.

I pretended like I was going to throw one. “Snowball fight!” I joked, giving Jandee her treat.

She swung her trunk around with the rice ball before eating it. “She likes to play with her food,” I pointed out.

Jandee is the second largest elephant at the camp. She’s from a photo studio on the island of Ko Tao, where people could take wedding photos with her. But the operator didn’t have license, and she was purchased and brought to the Elephant Nature Park.

You’ll also see a lot of elephants using their trunks to toss mud and dirt onto their backs. It acts as a natural sunscreen to protect their skin and keep them cool.

 The park is also a rescue center for cats (as well as dogs)

The park is also a rescue center for cats (as well as dogs)

Midway through the morning, we break for lunch so we could actually feed ourselves and not just the elephants. We had heard that the buffet was delicious, and the online reviews didn’t lie. There are numerous local dishes to choose from, and many of them are vegetarian.

After we were done eating, Duke and I wandered behind the kitchen to the Cat Kingdom. In addition to rescuing elephants, the park also saves water buffalo, dogs (avoid the ones with red bandanas around their necks, as they’re not good around people) and cats. The feline contingency has its own domain, which we explored.

 When you join the elephants in the river, be advised that the muddy water can stain your clothes

When you join the elephants in the river, be advised that the muddy water can stain your clothes

The final stop of the day is watering elephants. In addition to not recommending you go barefoot (one of the girls with us stepped on something and cut her foot pretty badly), you also shouldn’t wear anything you won’t mind getting stained. The water is brown, and I got drenched when a young woman on the opposite side of the elephant overshot, and the bucketful of water landed right on me. The mud in the water must have some intense pigmentation because my shorts and shirt never got fully clean afterward.

The Elephant Nature Park has a noble goal, and it’s great to see these intelligent creatures up close and personal. If you’re spending five or so days in Chiang Mai, this is a day trip you should definitely put on your list (along with ziplining at Flight of the Gibbon and the colorful tour of temples in Chiang Rai, starting with the White Temple).

There were some Brits in our group who decided to skip the after-lunch activities and just sat in the pavilion getting wasted. We had to listen to them drunkenly shout and whine that they needed the loo the entire ride home.

That aside, a day at the Elephant Nature Park will make you better understand (and even fall in love with) elephants. They never forget, and neither will you. –Wally

 We’re putting our foot down — go to an elephant sanctuary and don’t perpetuate the abuse of these amazing creatures

We’re putting our foot down — go to an elephant sanctuary and don’t perpetuate the abuse of these amazing creatures

Elephant Nature Park
209/2 Sridom Chai Road
Tambon Kuet Chang
Amphoe Mae Taen
Chang Wat
Chiang Mai 50100, Thailand

5 Off-the-Beaten-Path Chiang Mai Temples

There’s no shortage of things to do in Chiang Mai. Spend a day visiting some of the lesser-known wats.

With literally hundreds of ancient and beautiful temples (known as wats) to choose from it’s easy to become overwhelmed when trying to decide which to visit when staying in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The city’s history is a melting pot of cultures which are reflected in the architectural influences from outside the region, including Sri Lanka, Burma, China and Laos. Here’s our guide to four hidden gems you might miss unless you know where to look.

 

 A giant Buddha head greets visitors to Wat Jetlin

A giant Buddha head greets visitors to Wat Jetlin

Wat Jetlin (aka Jedlin, Chedlin)

While this temple is not exactly a major tourist destination, it does contain a few quirky elements worth seeing.

Just inside the entrance a massive stone Buddha head greeted us. The courtyard includes a bizarre five-eyed panda-like creature that eats hot coals and poops out gold, as well as an open-air pavilion with a seated skeleton sporting a pair of black sunglasses and a colorful dashiki shirt. We saw a variation of the coal-eating creature at Wat Sang Kaew, just outside of Chiang Rai.

 Say hi to the dapper skeleton at Wat Jetlin

Say hi to the dapper skeleton at Wat Jetlin

 This mutated beast eats coals and defecates gold!

This mutated beast eats coals and defecates gold!

The interior of the Lanna-style viharn contains red lacquered columns and a large golden Buddha seated in the Bhumisparsha mudra, or Earth witness position, a gesture that symbolizes the Buddha’s enlightenment under the sacred bodhi tree. King Mekuthi, the 18th monarch of the Mangrai dynasty, was coronated here.

Most chedi throughout the province are clad in copper, brass plate or white plaster. The chedi of Wat Jetlin is in its original state: lime mortar and red clay bricks. Halfway up the four sides of the chedi are niches containing Buddha images.

Walk past the chedi until you reach a narrow covered bridge that leads across a pond where humongous lily pads float. The gaping maws of giant carp break the mirrored surface to slurp insects and the food pellets we purchased.

Address: 6 Salan Road, Soi 7

 

 The prettiest part of Wat Ket Karam is the metallic mosaic on the back of the viharn

The prettiest part of Wat Ket Karam is the metallic mosaic on the back of the viharn

Wat Ket Karam

Situated on the east bank of the Mae Ping river outside of the Old City, the Wat Ket district was provided as an enclave for foreigners, many of whom were involved in the teak trade and were required by law to live there. The center was on Charoenrat Road, which was also one of the largest Chinese communities outside of China.

The 15th century compound of Wat Ket Karam is dedicated to those born in the Thai Year of the Dog. You’ll see an assortment of dog figurines throughout the grounds, bordering on kitsch.

 Wally wants a pet naga

Wally wants a pet naga

The entrance of the viharn is guarded by a pair of colossal glass-inlaid naga-makaras (sea monsters disgorging snakelike dragons sprouting antler tines from their heads). Multiple roof tiers give the structure the illusion that there are five prayer halls in succession instead of just one.

 The ubosot at Ket Karam wasn’t open when we visited, but the exterior is beautiful

The ubosot at Ket Karam wasn’t open when we visited, but the exterior is beautiful

At the side of the viharn is the former abbot’s residence, which was converted into a museum by Jack Bain, son of William Bain, the last managing director of the East Borneo Trading Company. Walls and shelves are filled with ancient farm tools, pottery, antique drums and period clothing, some of which belonged to Chiang Mai royalty. We visited several times, peeking into the dusty, cluttered space, but the museum was never open.

 The entire complex of Wat Ket Karam is gorgeous and fun to explore

The entire complex of Wat Ket Karam is gorgeous and fun to explore

The compound contains an impressive large, squat, whitewashed chedi, Ket Kaew Chura Manee, erected in 1428 to house a relic of the Buddha’s hair (funny, we thought he had a shaved head). According to a plaque, the spire of the pagoda is purposely tilted “to avoid indecency in pointing it to the one in heaven.” The chedi is guarded by four chinthe, Shan leonine creatures related to the Thai singh.

Address: Chang Moi, Mueng Chiang Mai District

 

 There’s not a lot to see at Wat Kuan Kama, aside from the line of horses on the wall enclosure

There’s not a lot to see at Wat Kuan Kama, aside from the line of horses on the wall enclosure

Wat Kuan Kama

Located on Sriphoom Road, a few blocks from the Chang Phuak Gate is Wat Kuan Kama. You can’t really miss this temple due to the golden horse statues that run the entire length of its outer walls — although our tuk-tuk driver dropped us off a couple blocks away.

The temple was commissioned by a royal soldier in 1492 and dedicated to memorialize his most beloved horse. A plaque inside reads, “This temple was the garden of the horse groom who was a close royal soldier of Jaomundamtuang. After his horse died, he was very sad and he decided to donate his garden for the temple and he gave the temple the name Khunkama.”

On the inside of the walled enclosure are golden statues symbolizing the 12 animals of the zodiac.

Address: 242/6 Manee Nopparat Road

 

 Wat Rajamontean is nicknamed the Big Buddha Temple for obvious reasons

Wat Rajamontean is nicknamed the Big Buddha Temple for obvious reasons

Wat Rajamontean

This temple, next to Wat Kuan Kama, has some serious curb appeal. Elaborate tiered red and gold mini-chedi, or stupika, emerge from its exterior wall. Climb the steps to get a closer look at the giant seated Buddha overlooking the street below. Two fierce-looking bug-eyed dragons stand guard outside the viharn.

We had left our sandals at the viharn entrance and scampered quickly across the tiled surface, which gets quite hot in the midday sun. The viharn itself, with its gold details, is quite impressive.

 These balls, known as luk nimit, are usually buried under an image of the Buddha

These balls, known as luk nimit, are usually buried under an image of the Buddha

To the side of the viharn were nine luk nimit, consecrated spherical stones. These are rarely seen as they are typically buried beneath sima, leaf-shaped boundary marker stones, placed at the four cardinal points, the center of each wall and beneath the principal Buddha image of an ubosot. When a new ubosot is to be constructed, temples often put up huge banners, offering the faithful the opportunity to gain merit by contributing money and precious objects, including Buddha images and amulets to bury with the luk nimit. These were covered with gold leaf offerings by those seeking to gain kharmic bonus points.

Address: Si Phum

 

 The beautiful whitewashed chedi at Wat Saen Fang is surrounded by gold umbrellas and offeratory fires

The beautiful whitewashed chedi at Wat Saen Fang is surrounded by gold umbrellas and offeratory fires

Wat Saen Fang

Slip past a pair of tall red-painted cast iron gates and into the naga-lined passage off Tha Phae Road, and you’ll find yourself entering the peaceful 14th century compound of Wat Saen Fang.

Figurines of mythological guardian spirits known as kinaree, mythical half-bird, half human creatures, adorn the hipped roof of the ordination hall.

The original chedi was renovated during the Burmese occupation of Chiang Mai. Its whitewashed bell-shaped body is embellished with dazzling colored-glass mosaic and topped with a golden hti umbrella. As if this wasn’t stimulating enough, over 40 stupika sit atop the low wall surrounding the pedestal base.

The intricately carved and gilded panels of the viharn pediment are painted in brilliant red and gold. The structure was the former ho kham, the royal residence of Chao Kawilorot, the sixth prince of Chiang Mai. It was moved to the temple grounds in 1878 and converted into a viharn by his successor, Inthawichayanon.

 During the ceremony of sai sin, people loop strings around each other’s heads

During the ceremony of sai sin, people loop strings around each other’s heads

A blessing ceremony known as sai sin was taking place as we explored the temple grounds. A sacred white cotton thread that has been blessed was being looped around the heads of the attendees. Because the thread connects the individuals, it’s believed to help reach enlightenment and form an unbroken line of protective power. –Duke

Address: 164 Thapae Road, Soi 3


Wat Chedi Luang: A Main Chiang Mai Attraction

The ruined stupa and monk chats are worth checking out.

 It seems as if everyone traveling to Chiang Mai, Thailand puts Wat Chedi Luang on the to-do list

It seems as if everyone traveling to Chiang Mai, Thailand puts Wat Chedi Luang on the to-do list

Dating back more than 600 years old, Wat Chedi Luang is one of the most popular temples in Chiang Mai, Thailand. And while it’s worth a visit — especially to see the ruins of the namesake chedi — Duke and I find ourselves more drawn to some of the lesser-known temples, including Wat Lok Molee and Wat Buppharam.

Located at pretty much the center of the Old City, Wat Chedi Luang is about halfway down the major east-west thoroughfare Rachadamnoen Road.

Its name gets translated alternatively as the Royal Pagoda, or Great Stupa, Temple. Same same but different.

 The chedi (or pagoda, or stupa) has been cleaned up but left uncompleted — in part cuz no one can agree on what it originally looked like

The chedi (or pagoda, or stupa) has been cleaned up but left uncompleted — in part cuz no one can agree on what it originally looked like

Toward the back of the complex, you’ll find the chedi itself. What you see today is but a shadow of its former grandeur. Construction on the structure began in the late 1300s, during the Lanna Kingdom, when its ruler, King Saen Muang Ma, wanted a place to house his father’s ashes. At the time, at about 280 feet high, it was by far the tallest structure in town. Legend has it that it was built “as high as a dove could fly.”

The chedi wasn’t finished until the mid-1400s, though, during the reign of King Tilokaraj.

There are two main theories why most of the chedi is destroyed: Some blame an earthquake in 1549, while others point the finger at King Taksin, who fired cannons on Chiang Mai to regain the city from the Burmese in the 1700s.

As part of Chiang Mai’s modern renaissance, the chedi has been stabilized during a project by UNESCO and the Japanese government (though I have no idea why Japan got involved). The restorers didn’t fully rebuild the chedi, because no one could agree what it used to look like. Some locals think the chedi should have been left as it was, overgrown with vegetation — a true ruin.

 This historic photo shows what the chedi looked like prior to its restoration

This historic photo shows what the chedi looked like prior to its restoration

Elephants (one original and four reproductions) line part of one of the upper tiers, and intimidating many-headed naga line the staircases like fierce hydras.

For nearly a century, the chedi housed what is considered the most sacred object in Thailand, the legendary Emerald Buddha. It’s now in Bangkok, revered in its own temple, Wat Phra Kaew. But the king sent a replica to its former home, and it now sits in the eastern niche of the chedi here in Chiang Mai. (I’ve seen the Emerald Buddha, and while it’s pretty impressive, I suppose, it really just looks like a 2-foot jade doll.)

 This reclining Buddha fills a pavillion at the back of the chedi

This reclining Buddha fills a pavillion at the back of the chedi

Behind the chedi is an open-air pavilion with a reclining Buddha (the pose I like to call “Sleepy-time Buddha”).

 If this tree ever falls, the city of Chiang Mai is said to be in big trouble

If this tree ever falls, the city of Chiang Mai is said to be in big trouble

The City Pillar and “Why Can’t Women Entry Inthakhin Pillar Vihara”

I’m not a fan of the restrictions against women that you find at some Buddhist temples, like the Silver Temple, also in Chiang Mai — especially since it’s tied to the fact that they’re somehow unclean because of their periods.

 Giant dragon snakes called naga guard the entrance to many Thai temples

Giant dragon snakes called naga guard the entrance to many Thai temples

Near the temple entrance stands an ornately detailed shrine, where the City Pillar (Sao Inthakin or Lak Meuang, Spirit of the City of Chiang Mai) is locked away. A sign outside reads, in part:

Women are prohibited to enter because they menstrate. It is believe that it humiliates and ruins the sanctity of the city pillar. Besides, men who dress inappropriately are not allowed to walk in. It is believed that any disobeying of the rules will cause social instability.

Supposedly that means no shorts or tank tops for you gents.

 Women can go into all the buidlings on the grounds of Wat Chedi Luang, except for the one that houses the City Pillar

Women can go into all the buidlings on the grounds of Wat Chedi Luang, except for the one that houses the City Pillar

The City Pillar is believed to have been erected by King Mengrai in 1296, when the city was founded. Local legend says it was brought down from Heaven by giants or spirits to protect the city. Unless it gets too close to a vagina, that is.

In addition, a giant dipterocarp tree towers above the building. This, too, is said to protect the city — and catastrophe will follow should it ever fall.

 The immense viharn at Chedi Luang is lined with gorgeous gilded pillars

The immense viharn at Chedi Luang is lined with gorgeous gilded pillars

Stand and Deliver: the Phra Chao Attarot Viharn

The complex originally housed three temples but is now known collectively as Wat Chedi Luang. The main viharn is indeed impressive. The ceiling soars above you, the wood a highly lacquered deep burgundy, supported by tall straight columns covered with gorgeous gold floral work atop a black backdrop.

At the front of the temple are three gold figures, the tallest a standing Buddha in the center. This is known as Phra Chao Attarot (the 18-Cubit Buddha), and his hand gesture is the abhaya mudra, which dispels fear. When visiting, why not take some time to say a little prayer to overcome something you’re scared of?

 Many travelers stop by Chedi Luang to chat with young monks to learn about their way of life

Many travelers stop by Chedi Luang to chat with young monks to learn about their way of life

When we visited, a group of young monks sat in prayer, gazing up at the Enlightened One.

 Colorful banners depicting the animals of the Thai zodiac line one side of the viharn

Colorful banners depicting the animals of the Thai zodiac line one side of the viharn

Off to the left hung strings overloaded with colorful banners representing the Thai zodiac.

There are daily Monk Chats on the temple grounds between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., where you can ask questions about the Thai monastic lifestyle. Most of the monks are novices, and it’s a great way for them to practice their English while you get an opportunity to learn about their culture. Don’t be afraid! –Wally

Wat Chedi Luang
103 Road King Prajadhipok Phra Singh
Muang District
Chiang Mai, 50200
Thailand

The Thai Zodiac and Songkran, the Thai New Year

How the Thai calendar differs from the Gregorian, what Thai fortune-tellers do and the Thailand water festival that’s all wet.

 Thai stamps honor the signs of their zodiac, inspired by the animals of the Chinese zodiac

Thai stamps honor the signs of their zodiac, inspired by the animals of the Chinese zodiac

Those of us who follow the Gregorian calendar ring in the the New Year at midnight on January 1, hitting the reset button and making year-end resolutions we’ll definitely, maybe follow. While we only have ourselves to blame for our overindulgent last hurrah, Wally and I venture out to console ourselves with pho ga at our favorite local Vietnamese restaurant, which does seem to help.

The Gregorian calendar, consisting of 365 days, is off kilter with the Earth’s trip around the sun and is adjusted every four years in February with a leap day. Meanwhile, other cultures, such as Thailand, have their own complex system that aligns with the lunisolar Buddhist calendar of 354 days, which have dates that indicate the moon phase and the time of the solar year.

April 13 marks the beginning of the Thai New Year, when they partake in Songkran, the world’s largest water fight.
 The spring festival of Songkran marks the Thai New Year

The spring festival of Songkran marks the Thai New Year

Songkran: Making It Rain

April 13 marks the beginning of the Thai New Year. This is when they partake in the world’s largest water fight, known as Songkran. The festival celebrates the end of the dry season to welcome the rain needed for a successful rice harvest. The communal holiday takes place over a period of three days or more and is when the year assumes the next animal in the rotating zodiac of 12 animals.

The etymology of Songkran comes from the Sanskrit word sankranti, or the passage of the sun from one side of the zodiac to the other, and is symbolic of transformation and change. The tradition may have originated from the Hindu harvest festival Makar Sankranti, which welcomes the onset of spring with colorful soaring kites.

Songkran has always been associated with water, and according to Thai custom, a small bowl of scented water is sufficient to wash away the previous year’s troubles and start anew.

This holiday is also the time for villagers to honor their elders, give offerings of food to monks, ignite firecrackers to scare away evil spirits and ritually bathe household Buddha images.

 Songkran has turned into the world’s largest water fight

Songkran has turned into the world’s largest water fight

Over time, this tradition has evolved into water being thrown less ceremoniously, as men, women and children armed with Super Soaker water guns and buckets of dirty moat water await unsuspecting friends and tourists alike.

Although our friends David and Arnie insisted that this is fun time to visit Chiang Mai, Wally and I decided to wait until the festivities had passed. For the most part, I consider us adventurous, but the thought of experiencing this firsthand and getting drenched (not to mention having our phones and cameras ruined) while exploring the Old City was not high on either of our lists.

 Phrommachat manuscripts determine the compatabilty of Thai couples

Phrommachat manuscripts determine the compatabilty of Thai couples

Hey, Baby, What’s Your Sign?

The 12 animals of the Thai zodiac were borrowed from the Chinese zodiac, with a decidedly Thai twist and include naga iconography on the snake and dragon. Each animal has a predominant natural element that rules over them: earth, wood, fire, iron or water. For Thai people, the completion of each 12-year cycle brings them back to their birth-year animal. It should be noted that the Thai adaptation shifts by about 23 days compared to the Gregorian calendar.

 Those born in the year of the monkey are sociable but selfish

Those born in the year of the monkey are sociable but selfish

An important part of the decision-making process in traditional Thai culture is to consult a divination specialist, known as a mor doo, on the uncertainties of love and everyday challenges. These fortune-telling specialists consult divination manuscripts, known as phrommachat, matching the horoscopes of prospective couples. The mor doo possesses knowledge hidden from ordinary people, particularly on the perceived influences of stars, planets, numbers, plants, animals of the zodiac and divinities on the lives of humans.

 According to the Thai zodiac, people born in the year of the snake are deep thinkers, though they can be vain about their good looks

According to the Thai zodiac, people born in the year of the snake are deep thinkers, though they can be vain about their good looks

Phrommachat manuscripts include texts and illustrations of unlucky constellations for prospective couples, taking into consideration their character traits as well as their horoscopes. The pages are richly illustrated with four images of each of the 12 animals of the zodiac, combined with alternating male and female avatars, the material appearance or incarnation of a deity on earth, and a symbolic plant in which the khwan, multiple souls or life forces, resides.

 A mor doo, or Thai fortune-teller, lets you know if you’re a good match with the one you love

A mor doo, or Thai fortune-teller, lets you know if you’re a good match with the one you love

Personally, the closest I ever came to this type of divination manual was reading the paper placemats with animal signs of the Chinese zodiac when my family would stop in Fort Erie, Canada on our way back from visiting Toronto. –Duke

Saturday Night Market, Chiang Mai

Forget the Night Bazaar and hit this market by the Silver Temple when you’re in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

 The Saturday Walking Street Night Market has some good handicraft stalls — but we loved this mini food court most of all

The Saturday Walking Street Night Market has some good handicraft stalls — but we loved this mini food court most of all

Wualai Market, also known as the Saturday Walking Street, is a lively outdoor market with hundreds of street vendors that runs from 5-11 p.m. every Saturday evening in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Since we were visiting Wat Sri Suphan, known as the Silver Temple, on a Saturday and the market was conveniently located nearby, we both agreed that it was the perfect opportunity to check it out.

 An artist selling her charming linocut postcards

An artist selling her charming linocut postcards

You can purchase everything from a variety of traditional handicrafts, clothes, tote bags, handmade hill tribe products to local herbal remedies. A short walk from the Old City’s South (Chiang Mai) Gate, the market takes place on Wualai Street, home to silver craftsmen. The enclave was resettled in the late 18th century by Burmese Shan state refugees, and its name refers to Ban Ngua Lai, a Shan village on the Salween River.

The Saturday Walking Street Market feels more authentic and less tourist driven than the better-known Sunday Walking Street Market.

Perhaps because it’s the smaller, secluded sibling of the better-known Sunday Walking Street on Ratchadamnoen Road, the Wualai Market feels more authentic and less tourist driven. The market spans the entire length of Wualai Road, a few of the narrow lanes in between, and is closed to motorized traffic.

 Get to the market early if you want to escape the crowds

Get to the market early if you want to escape the crowds

Prices are incredibly reasonable, so you’ll be sure to find some bargains here. Many Chiang Mai University art students use this marketplace to display their wares. Wally and I discovered a young woman selling charming linocut postcard-sized art and purchased a few of them as souvenirs.

 Wash down dinner with a couple of local beers

Wash down dinner with a couple of local beers

 Just follow the flashing lights and pumping music to find your way to the booze cart at the back of the food court

Just follow the flashing lights and pumping music to find your way to the booze cart at the back of the food court

 Giant shrimp peeked out of our delicious, piping hot tom yum soup

Giant shrimp peeked out of our delicious, piping hot tom yum soup

If you get hungry while shopping, you’re in luck. Scattered along the Saturday Walking Street are food stalls to satisfy your appetite and quench your thirst. Look for the small courtyard with makeshift tables amongst a cluster of market food stalls with vendors selling a wide selection of Thai street food fare. Wally and I feasted upon a delicious bowl of spicy and sour tom yum soup, washed down with bottles of Leo beer purchased from a bar-like cart at the back.

 In the mood for a snack? This vendor sells a variety of crispy insects to fulfill any craving! (No, we did not partake)

In the mood for a snack? This vendor sells a variety of crispy insects to fulfill any craving! (No, we did not partake)

If your tired feet need some help, there are plenty of makeshift street-side massage shops to choose from.

 Street art along one of the main drags of the Saturday Night Market

Street art along one of the main drags of the Saturday Night Market

Periodically, you’ll encounter street musicians performing for donations. While the market is smaller than the Sunday Market, it becomes more crowded as the sun sets, so it’s worth turning up early. By 8:30 p.m., when we left, the streets were bustling with pedestrians, and progress through the crowds was slow.

There’s a line of tuk-tuks to take you elsewhere — just make sure to agree on the fare before you get in. They were all quoting the same price, one that was much too high for the journey back to our hotel, so Wally and I walked a block or so away and found someone who wasn’t charging an exorbitant sum. –Duke