buddhism

Candi Mendut: A Peaceful Borobudur Side Trip

Explore this ancient Buddhist temple and go for a swing on the massive banyan out back.

mendut.JPG

It may be small, but it’s an exquisite ancient temple. Located a short distance from Borobudur, the largest Buddhist shrine in the world, Candi Mendut was the third and final stop on our day’s itinerary. The clear blue sky was a stunning backdrop for the structure, composed of gray andesite volcanic rock.

We also visited the small (and rather unimpressive) Candi Pawon, where Wally and I bought a replica of the bell-shaped stupas that line Borobudur, carved of the same stone as the temple.

The southern façade of Mendut has a bas-relief of Hariti, patroness of motherhood, who was once a child-eating ogress.

The Dutch discovered this sacred structure by chance in 1836, while cutting through thick foliage to clear the plot for a coffee plantation. After careful inspection, overseen by colonial engineering officer Theodore Van Erp, the ruins were eventually uncovered. Conservation efforts began in 1897 but weren’t completed until 1925.

Candi is the word for a Hindu or Buddhist temple or shrine in Bahasa, the Indonesian language. The lone structure stands atop a stone plinth and shares a peaceful green clearing with an enormous sacred banyan tree. A remnant of the Sailendra dynasty, the temple is believed to have been built sometime around 824 CE, during the reign of King Indra.

Its roof is a succession of staggered tiers, decreasing in size, with the first and second encircled by votive stupika, small dome-shaped shrines. At the summit, the central stupa is absent, most likely due to the passage of time or, perhaps damage caused by earthquakes.

Parts of the temple have been excavated but not rebuilt, as they’re missing pieces

Parts of the temple have been excavated but not rebuilt, as they’re missing pieces

Off to the side of Mendut, a field of sculptures and fragments are laid out in the order they would fit had the missing pieces been found.

Candi Mendut is one of three temples connected along a nearly direct line, leading historians to speculate that it was part of a grand design and most likely an important pilgrimage stop en route to Borobudur. Of the three, Mendut is the oldest, having been built about 10 years before Borobudur.

On the west side, a staircase leads up to a broad terrace, designed for circumambulating or ritualistically walking clockwise around the temple. Wally and I climbed the worn stone steps, flanked by a pair of makara, mythological Buddhist sea creatures, each with lion standing within its gaping mouth. Narrative scenes from the Jataka tales, which tell of the Buddha’s previous incarnations as both humans and animals, are carved into the balustrade.

I know it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s very unusual that the Buddha’s feet are both touching the ground

I know it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s very unusual that the Buddha’s feet are both touching the ground

After we passed through the structure’s single entrance into the inner sanctuary chamber, we were greeted by three remarkably well-preserved figures. The formidable central figure is the Buddha Vairocana, depicted in a seated position, atypical for having both feet touching the ground. His hands are in Dharmachakra mudra, a gesture used by Buddha during his first sermon after enlightenment, representing the continuous flow of energy.

Inside the small temple is a statue of Buddha and two bohisattvas, including Vajrapani, a protector and guide

Inside the small temple is a statue of Buddha and two bohisattvas, including Vajrapani, a protector and guide

On either side sit two bodhisattvas, compassionate individuals who postpone nirvana to teach others enlightenment. To the left is Avalokitesvara, the One Who Hears the Cries of the World, who represents compassion and liberates devotees from the destructive power of speech. To the right is Vajrapani, the protector and guide of the Buddha, symbolizing the energy of the enlightened mind, his right leg folded and right hand raised.

Standing in the chamber among the ancient sentinels, I could almost feel the presence of the invisible dead. Make sure to look closely at the feet, which are black from being touched by devotees.

You’ll pass Mendut Monastery en route to the temple

You’ll pass Mendut Monastery en route to the temple

Apparently, the monastery is open to visitors, though the gates were closed when we passed by

Apparently, the monastery is open to visitors, though the gates were closed when we passed by

Looking out at the temple grounds from Mendut’s raised platform

Looking out at the temple grounds from Mendut’s raised platform

The Legend of Hariti: From Ogress to Protectress

The southern façade of Mendut has a bas-relief of Hariti, who, according to myth, was once a child-eating ogress. To feed herself and her 500 children, she took to cannibalism, snatching kids from the village of Rajagriha. This led to great fear among locals, who came to the Buddha and pleaded with him to save their children.

In one variation of the tale, the Buddha waited for Hariti to leave her dwelling and kidnapped her youngest and most beloved son, hiding him beneath his begging bowl. Upon her return home, Hariti found her son missing and searched for him in vain. Grief-stricken, the ogress in turn sought the Buddha’s aid in finding him.

The Buddha agreed to help, providing she give up her wicked ways. He explained how she was causing great suffering to the villagers. Hariti agreed to abstain from cannibalism and promised to consume only pomegranates from then on. The Buddha returned her son and ordained her the protector of children.

This statue is of particular importance to childless Javanese couples, who pray to Hariti as a symbol of fertility and patroness of motherhood.

You can see the banyan behind the temple, though its immense size is still hard to grasp

You can see the banyan behind the temple, though its immense size is still hard to grasp

The Sacred Banyan Tree

Like the witch Rangda’s mane of unkempt hair, multiple root streamers descend from the banyan behind the temple. After some minor coaxing from our driver, Wally was swinging from one. Our photos can't begin to relay the enormity of the banyan. It was the second-largest tree I’ve ever seen, the first being the ancient banyan at Pura Kehen on Bali.

Banyan roots grow down from branches and become as solid as trunks, forming a cave of sorts

Banyan roots grow down from branches and become as solid as trunks, forming a cave of sorts

The staff at our resort later told us that our driver had been sharing this photo of Wally swinging on the sacred banyan roots

The staff at our resort later told us that our driver had been sharing this photo of Wally swinging on the sacred banyan roots

Mendut may be less well-known and unassuming than Borobudur, but it has some beautiful bas-reliefs and stone carvings. If you are planning on visiting Borobudur, you should definitely add Candi Mendut to your visit. It’s worth walking around the complex to take in its peaceful atmosphere — and have a swing on the banyan out back. –Duke

Pair Candi Mendut with a trip to Borobudur

Pair Candi Mendut with a trip to Borobudur

Mendut Temple
Jalan Magelang Sumberrejo
Mendut
Mungkid
Magelang
Jawa Tengah 56501
Indonesia

Goa Gajah: An Easy Ubud Day Trip

The so-called Elephant Cave has an iconic and demonic gaping cave mouth.

When staying in Ubud, make a quick stop to see the monster mouth at Goa Gajah 

When staying in Ubud, make a quick stop to see the monster mouth at Goa Gajah 

Balinese words can be so fun to pronounce. You’ve got the water palaces of Klungkung and Tirta Gangga. And just outside of Ubud is a small temple complex called Goa Gajah that dates from the 9th to 11th centuries.

Turns out Goa Gajah has been mistranslated to Elephant Cave, but you won’t find even the remotest hint of a pachyderm anywhere on the small temple complex — aside from a stone statue of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh inside the cave. And, perhaps, the tusk-like fangs that adorn the demonic mouth that forms the cave entrance.

Those bulging eyes and elongated mouth are a familiar sight in Indonesian temple architecture.
Flights of stairs lead down to the Goa Gajah complex

Flights of stairs lead down to the Goa Gajah complex

The first thing you’ll come across are these ruins

The first thing you’ll come across are these ruins

Goa Gajah’s a good stopover to pair with other sites. Excavated in 1954, there are a few buildings in the complex, but it’s really all about the giant mouth cave. Wait for the tourists to clear out, snap the money shot — and you’ll be good to go.

Those bulging eyes and elongated mouth stretching into an entrance are a familiar sight in Indonesian temple architecture. As scary as they look, they’re depictions of Bhoma, a nature god who symbolically cleanses visitors as they enter the most sacred part of holy sites.

What mysteries await Duke and Wally inside the Elephant Cave?

What mysteries await Duke and Wally inside the Elephant Cave?

Inside the cave, a narrow T-shaped passageway forks to the left and right, the walls blackened from incense smoke. You can make out small niches in the darkness, some with worn-away statues, including a trio of phallic linga wearing black, white and red skirts. The adorable palm-woven square offering baskets I love so much are placed at the base of the statues.

Inside the cave are three phallic linga in honor of the Hindu deity Shiva the Destroyer

Inside the cave are three phallic linga in honor of the Hindu deity Shiva the Destroyer

The only elephant you’ll see at the Elephant Cave is this statue of Ganesha

The only elephant you’ll see at the Elephant Cave is this statue of Ganesha

Statues fill a niche. Compared to other holy sites on Bali, Goa Gajah is quite small

Statues fill a niche. Compared to other holy sites on Bali, Goa Gajah is quite small

At the back of the complex are colorfully decorated shrines

At the back of the complex are colorfully decorated shrines

It’s thought that Buddhist monks would meditate in the quiet confines of the cave.

The other notable site at Goa Gajah is the bathing pool, where water pours from the urns held by statues of busty Hindu divine spirits. The holy site was chosen because it’s the spot where two rivers converge.

Female Hindu spirits form the fountains

Female Hindu spirits form the fountains

Wally bathes in the holy water

Wally bathes in the holy water

Get to Goa Gajah as early as possible to avoid the inevitable tourist buses that show up later in the day. It’s a fun place to visit, and you can be in and out in about half an hour. –Wally

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Goa Gajah
Ubud, Bedulu
Blahbatuh
Kabupaten Gianyar
Bali, Indonesia

Beyond Prambanan: The Love Temples of Plaosan

Explore the twin temples of Candi Plaosan, built by a Hindu prince for his Buddhist bride in Central Java.

Plaosan is an often-overlooked addition to a day trip to Prambanan

Plaosan is an often-overlooked addition to a day trip to Prambanan

Our Borobudur guide, Wishnu, was showing us a few pictures that other tourists and guides had shared with him, when he paused to play us footage taken from a drone, soaring above a couple of stunning temples.

“What’s that?” I asked, and then, “Can we visit it?”

Wishnu replied that locals call these the Love Temples, and of course we could visit them — we just needed to let our driver for the Prambanan trip know that we’d like to add it to our itinerary.

The great love story began with an interfaith union between a Buddhist princess and a Hindu prince.
The northern complex is the one worth exploring

The northern complex is the one worth exploring

In the Name of Love

The site is officially called Candi Plaosan, a complex of Buddhist temples located in Klaten, Yogyakarta, a short distance north of the Hindu temples of Prambanan. What makes it truly unique is that both complexes were built by the same Javanese king.

Plaosan is a testament to the love that brought a Hindu prince and Buddhist princess together

Plaosan is a testament to the love that brought a Hindu prince and Buddhist princess together

Wally climbs over the stones at Plaosan

Wally climbs over the stones at Plaosan

Duke on the temple complex

Duke on the temple complex

Looking toward the female viharn (monastery) from the one for males

Looking toward the female viharn (monastery) from the one for males

There are piles of rubble all over Plaosan, testifying that there’s still a lot of restoration work to be done

There are piles of rubble all over Plaosan, testifying that there’s still a lot of restoration work to be done

There were once many more of these smaller shrines

There were once many more of these smaller shrines

The great love story behind Plaosan began with an interfaith union between the two ruling dynasties of Central Java during the 9th century. Pramodhawardhani, a Buddhist princess and daughter of Samaratungga, the last known king of the Sailendra Dynasty, married Prince Rakai Pikatan, from the Hindu Sanjaya family. When Pikatan ascended to the throne, Pramodhawardhani became his queen and was given the name Sri Kuhulunan. Religious differences didn’t separate the couple, and together they played a significant role in building some of the finest Hindu and Buddhist temples of Central Java.

Plaosan is a 9th century complex built at the height of the Mataram Kingdom. Once part of a single site, Plaosan Lor, the northern main temples and the smaller Plaosan Kidul to the south are now separated by a public road.

Because Plaosan isn’t too well known, you could have the temple grounds virtually to yourself

Because Plaosan isn’t too well known, you could have the temple grounds virtually to yourself

A Temple for Men, A Temple for Women

One of the first things Wally and I noticed as we entered the temple grounds of Plaosan Lor were four imposing stone ogres. Known as dwarapala, the stocky and squat semi-kneeling guardians grip a short thick club in their right hand, while the other rests upon a bent left knee.

Creatures known as dwarapala guard the entrance to the temple

Creatures known as dwarapala guard the entrance to the temple

This giant will fight to protect Plaosan

This giant will fight to protect Plaosan

Like Prambanan, the sanctuary follows a square grid system with groups of smaller ancillary shrines laid out in orderly rows. The buildings were constructed without mortar, their stones quarried and precisely cut. A small number have been reconstructed, standing amongst piles of gray andesite blocks yet to undergo restoration.

The temples are quite similar —but we’re pretty sure this is the one for men

The temples are quite similar —but we’re pretty sure this is the one for men

And this is the temple for women (actually living quarters for female monks)

And this is the temple for women (actually living quarters for female monks)

At the center of Plaosan Lor, the two nearly identical structures were viharas, meaning they were designed as Buddhist monasteries.

Above the arched gate portal leading to the temple is a Kala head whose gaping mouth symbolically swallows our mortal impediments and permits passage into the sacred inner courtyard.

Some entryways in the inner temple are shaped as the mouth of the deity Kala

Some entryways in the inner temple are shaped as the mouth of the deity Kala

Legend has it that Kala’s mouth crushes those impure of heart. Poor Duke!

Legend has it that Kala’s mouth crushes those impure of heart. Poor Duke!

Towering stalagmite-like spires crown the multistory vihara, rising like the jagged peaks of Mount Meru, the holy mountain abode of the gods, and a pair of mythical serpentine makara form the railings of the staircase leading to the monastery — a small Kewpie-doll like dwarf figure stands within the creature’s gaping jaws.

The monument sits on a high rectangular stone podium with an apron that extends several feet outward, forming a porch where visitors can circumambulate the structure. Its exterior walls feature false windows, an architectural element meant to maintain symmetry on the façade. These are embellished with distinctive Kala-makara ornamentation, but unlike the ones above the gateways, these depictions of include a lower jaw with a wide mischievous grin similar to the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Kala is a giant who was born from Shiva’s sperm

Kala is a giant who was born from Shiva’s sperm

Enshrined within the central hall are a pair of headless seated Bodhisattva statues, one that is more or less a torso, presumably plundered and decapitated by relic thieves. An empty pedestal between the pair possibility held an enthroned bronze Buddha.

There’s not a whole lot to see inside the temples — mostly seated statues of Bodhisattva, those who have reached enlightenment but remain behind to instruct others

There’s not a whole lot to see inside the temples — mostly seated statues of Bodhisattva, those who have reached enlightenment but remain behind to instruct others

Some of the statues inside the temples are now decapitated

Some of the statues inside the temples are now decapitated

Intricately detailed reliefs of various demigods and deities adorn the exterior walls. According to a theory presented by Nicholas Johannes Krom, head of the early 20th century Dutch Archeological Society, the two vihara were sponsored by influential patrons and built for male and female monastics — not as a tribute to love, as locals prefer to believe.

Bas-reliefs line the exterior of Plaosan

Bas-reliefs line the exterior of Plaosan

The south-facing vihara depicts male figures, while the north depicts female figures. The south temple was probably a monastery for Bhikkhu monks, while the north housed Bhikkhuni nuns.

You can see the construction style in action: squares of interlocking stone

You can see the construction style in action: squares of interlocking stone

Deities and demigods adorn the outer walls, which you can circumambulate on a platform

Deities and demigods adorn the outer walls, which you can circumambulate on a platform

In the distance, behind the vihara, a celebration complete with multicolored garlands made of balloons was taking place. We passed through a side gate in the low wall separating the two temples and explored the second vihara.

Whether or not Plaosan was constructed as a symbol of Pikatan’s devotion to Sri Kuhulunan or as a display of political reconciliation to placate the Buddhist Sailendra Dynasty, it certainly makes for an interesting story. –Duke

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Candi Plaosan

Jalan Candi Plaosan
Plaosan Lor
Bugisan
Kecamatan Prambanan
Kabupaten Klaten
Jawa Tengah 57454
Indonesia

The Buddhist Bas-Reliefs of Borobudur

A walk-through of the Borobudur temple carvings that depict the lives of the Buddha as told in the Jataka tales and Avadana.

The carvings on some of the levels of Borobudur tell the story of the Buddha as well as his past reincarnations

The carvings on some of the levels of Borobudur tell the story of the Buddha as well as his past reincarnations

The incomparable 9th century Mahayana Buddhist sanctuary of Borobudur in Java, Indonesia contains the largest collection of decorative panels recounting the life of the Buddha. The structure rests upon an oversized base, and the body of the monument is composed of six raised platforms, including five terraced galleries. They’re square in form and diminish in scale with height. The uppermost trio of circular terraces are plain in comparison, but are augmented by 72 magnificent stone lattice-work stupas rising to the stupa on the summit. Because Borobudur has no inner chambers, it is considered a pilgrimage site.

The builders of Borobudur recognized the need for a drainage system because of heavy rains that cause erosion

The builders of Borobudur recognized the need for a drainage system because of heavy rains that cause erosion

Pilgrims would have entered via the eastern stairs to ritually circumambulate (a fancy word for walking around) the sacred manmade mountain of chiseled gray andesite in quiet contemplation. It's here that the stories told in the narrative relief panels begin, with the birth of the future Buddha, Prince Siddhartha Gautama. According to legend, the infant stood and took seven steps. With each step, a lotus flower appeared, to prevent his tiny feet from touching the ground.

The corridors are filled with detailed murals depicting celestial beings, guardian demons, conch shells, jewel trees, durian fruit and a menagerie of animals, including elephants, deer and tree-dwelling monkeys, to name a few.

Animals are depicted in the carvings — including many that tell of the past lives of the Buddha

Animals are depicted in the carvings — including many that tell of the past lives of the Buddha

Open to the sky, the bas-reliefs adorning the 13-foot-wide passages create a broad platform and are read from left to right, moving in a clockwise direction around the monument, twisting in right angles from one terrace to another. The galleries represent the planes of existence that must be experienced before reaching the uppermost level of spiritual perfection.

Story Time: Jataka and Avadana

The first- and second-level stone reliefs depict tales from Buddhist lore, including the Jataka and Avadana. Wally and I had first seen these stories depicted in the frescoes of the Ajanta Caves in India.

The Jataka tales are about the Buddha before he was born as Prince Siddhartha. Thematically, they illustrate lessons in morality, karma and merit that distinguished the bodhisattva from all other creatures. As a bodhisattva, the Buddha was born and reborn numerous times, alternating from human to animal form, before he finally attained enlightenment.

Avadana are similar to Jataka, but the main figure is not the Buddha himself — the saintly deeds are attributed to other legendary people.

We didn’t experience the reliefs in chronological order, as our guide, Pras, led us down from the upper terraces, after we watched the sunrise.


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We paused on the stairway to admire one of the ornate archways depicting the fearsome face and open mouth of Kala.

According to folklore, Kala was created by the god Shiva to eradicate demons, though he’s sometimes identified himself as a demon named Rahu, who is said to have swallowed the universe, only to release it after being decapitated by the gods.

Be careful when crossing through arches formed by the mouth of Kala — his jaw is said to snap shut on those who have evil in their hearts

Be careful when crossing through arches formed by the mouth of Kala — his jaw is said to snap shut on those who have evil in their hearts

Locals like to joke that the stone at the top depicts the golden arches of McDonald’s

Locals like to joke that the stone at the top depicts the golden arches of McDonald’s

Why Many Buddhists Are Vegetarian

Pras pointed out a notable tale depicted in one of the panels known as The Hare’s Sacrifice. The bodhisattva was born as a hare. His closest friends were an otter, a jackal and a monkey. He continuously urged his friends to strive for right conduct and to be generous in their daily life. Wanting to put the hare to the test, the god Sakra appeared in the forest in the shape of a brahman who had lost his way and was starving. The otter brought seven fish, the jackal a lizard, and the monkey ripe fruits. The hare, however, couldn’t offer anything. The brahman lit a fire for an offering — and immediately the hare jumped in, offering himself as a meal. The king of the gods admired the saintly deed, and while resuming his own shape, he praised the hare for his self-sacrifice.

Pras explained that this was why many Buddhists are vegetarian, as they would not like to think that they are eating someone who may have been reborn as an animal. –Duke

Be sure to check out the carvings as you explore the multi-story Borobudur Temple in Java, Indonesia

Be sure to check out the carvings as you explore the multi-story Borobudur Temple in Java, Indonesia

Borobudur Temple
Jl. Badrawati
Kw. Candi Borobudur
Borobudur, Magelang
Jawa Tengah
Indonesia

Borobudur: A Stunning Sunrise at a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The largest Buddhist monument in the world, with its iconic bell-shaped stupas, is a must-visit on Java, Indonesia.

Book a sunrise tour at Borobudur to see the silhouettes of the stupas materialize from the morning mist

Book a sunrise tour at Borobudur to see the silhouettes of the stupas materialize from the morning mist

When Wally mentioned that we should visit Bali, I suggested we spend a few days on the nearby island of Java, exploring the largest Buddhist monument in the world, Borobudur. I had seen images of the magical 9th century monument rising from the jungle mist, with its countless perforated bell-shaped stone stupas and seated Buddha statues.

You have to carefully position yourself — and get there early — to frame your photos without any of the throngs of tourists

You have to carefully position yourself — and get there early — to frame your photos without any of the throngs of tourists

I purchased our tickets for the sunrise visit through the Plataran Borobudur Resort, where we were staying, for 870,000 rupiah each (about $60). On our second day, the concierge rang our villa at 4 a.m. As a precautionary measure, I also set my iPhone alarm — Wally and I never travel without earplugs, and I didn’t want to risk us sleeping through the call. We quickly got dressed and had coffee in the lobby before meeting our driver and heading out in the darkness to Borobudur.


Courtesy of www.AirPano.ru
I wasn’t expecting us to be alone, but I also wasn’t expecting to share this experience with hundreds of others.
Volcanos can be seen in the distance — in fact, violent eruptions in the past covered the entire temple in ash for 800 years

Volcanos can be seen in the distance — in fact, violent eruptions in the past covered the entire temple in ash for 800 years

Our driver’s name was Wishnu. Without missing a beat, Wally asked if he was named after the Hindu deity Vishnu. He chuckled and said, “No, it’s just a very common name.” To which Wally replied, “So you don’t ride Garuda?” Wishnu took a moment to think about this, saying, “No, I ride Yamaha,” referring to his scooter.

We passed some parked buses, where local students awaited transport to Borobudur. When I asked Wishnu about them, he explained that the temple is a popular school trip but doesn’t open to the public until 6 a.m.

Stay after the sunrise to wander the various levels of Borobudur

Stay after the sunrise to wander the various levels of Borobudur

Shortly thereafter we arrived at the Manohara Hotel, which is located on the grounds of the historic site, and where sunrise tours depart from every morning. There clearly were a lot of people waiting to gain 4:30 a.m. access. I wasn’t expecting us to be alone, but I also wasn’t expecting to share this experience with hundreds of others so early in the morning.

As we queued up to enter, we were given a small flashlight and introduced to our guide, Pras. He told us that the site draws in an average of 300 visitors for sunrise and up to 56,000 per day during the high season.

This is the real Borobudur you don’t ever see in pictures — the hundreds of tourists all vying for a prime spot to photograph sunrise

This is the real Borobudur you don’t ever see in pictures — the hundreds of tourists all vying for a prime spot to photograph sunrise

Wally and I followed Pras up a central staircase, the beams from our flashlights bobbing as we made our way up to the circular seventh terrace. We squeezed ourselves behind a group of tourists who already had their cameras set up to capture the perfect shot of the first rays of sunlight.

Even though UNESCO insists upon a 15-kilometer non-commercial zone, there are still tall lights you can see during sunrise

Even though UNESCO insists upon a 15-kilometer non-commercial zone, there are still tall lights you can see during sunrise

Sunrise Over Borodudur

As we waited, the sun slowly rose, turning the sky a blaze of ever-changing scarlets, pinks, oranges and yellows, bathing the gray stone in a hazy golden light. In the distance, Mount Merapi and its twin Mount Merabu rose from the horizon in the morning mist — two of the four volcanoes that surround Borobudur.

After sunrise, Pras invited us to wander around the upper temple. As the crowds dissipated, we were able to get some great shots.

This Buddha went too far with a nose job

This Buddha went too far with a nose job

Wally was happy he could spend his birthday at Borobudur

Wally was happy he could spend his birthday at Borobudur

Duke added an excursion to Java onto our trip to Bali

Duke added an excursion to Java onto our trip to Bali

Pras explained the origin of the temple’s name, Bara-Budhara: Bara meaning temple and Budhara hill. Since a’s are pronounced as o’s in Javanese, it morphed into Borobudur.  

Before leaving the summit, Pras stopped in front of one of the bell-shaped sculptures. “This is the lucky stupa,” he told us. He explained that it was auspicious to circumambulate the central stupa clockwise an odd number of times. Wally wanted to walk around the structure five times because it was May 5 (the fifth day of the fifth month) and also his birthday. Pras kept count, holding up fingers each time we passed him. Upon completion, you touch the stone with your right hand — and you’ll have good luck.

Wally and Duke love a good temple — and Borobudur is like no other

Wally and Duke love a good temple — and Borobudur is like no other

Knowing that Mount Agung had recently wreaked havoc on Bali, I asked Pras how regularly Merapi erupts. He told us that it’s the most active volcano in Indonesia and, far below, it sits upon a series of fault lines and grinding tectonic plates dramatically known as the Ring of Fire. He added that it blew its top most recently in 2014, blanketing Borobudur in a layer of ash that took laborers five months to remove by hand. (Incidentally, we were surprised to learn that Merapi had a minor eruption less than a week after we visited!)

Workers clean moss off the temple twice a month.

Workers clean moss off the temple twice a month.

The 9th century Buddhist temple has been impressively restored

The 9th century Buddhist temple has been impressively restored

Borobudur’s Magical Origins

According to traditional lore, the complex was designed and built in a single night by a divine giant named Gunadharma. After his task was complete, he laid down and fell asleep. Over time trees covered him, and his reclined profile is said to be visible in the peaks of the Menoreh Hills. He’s now called the Sleeping Buddha by locals.

Mythology aside, Borobudur was built by the Sailendra dynasty during the 8th and 9th centuries. It took three generations roughly 60 years to complete, and according to archeologists, was revised four times.

Seeing Borobudur from a distance doesn’t do justice to its grandeur. It’s an entirely different temple up close

Seeing Borobudur from a distance doesn’t do justice to its grandeur. It’s an entirely different temple up close

Borobudur is essentially a stepped pyramid comprised of nine concentric terraces crowned by a bell-shaped stupa dome. The monument was constructed from over a million blocks of andesite stone quarried from the banks of the Progo River and originally stood 137 feet tall. At some point, the triple-tiered stone umbrella chatra, which served as the pinnacle, was struck by lighting, shattering the central stupa and reducing the monument’s height to 113 feet. The chatra currently resides in the Karmawibhangga Museum in the Borobudur complex until it can be properly renovated and restored to its position atop the temple.

Was Wally the once-sleeping giant who created Borobudur in a single night?

Was Wally the once-sleeping giant who created Borobudur in a single night?

The terraces and the central stupa symbolize the 10 stages of development a bodhisattva must pass in order to become enlightened.

Only two of the 72 Buddha statues are uncovered on the temple’s upper terrace

Only two of the 72 Buddha statues are uncovered on the temple’s upper terrace

UNESCO World Heritage Site

The structure collapsed in 1970. Extensive restoration work initiated by the Indonesian government began three years later, in partnership with UNESCO and international contributions funded by private organizations. For nearly a decade, most of the monument was closed to the public as it was dismantled block by block, meticulously recorded and reassembled layer by layer. A complex drainage system and lead sheets were added to prevent water from trickling downward, as erosion from rainwater is the number one detriment to the site.

The sky turned numerous shades of orange and yellow during sunrise, before giving way to a gorgeous blue

The sky turned numerous shades of orange and yellow during sunrise, before giving way to a gorgeous blue

What a lucky way to spend Wally’s birthday!

What a lucky way to spend Wally’s birthday!

Borobudur makes Duke happy

Borobudur makes Duke happy

Each of the 72 perforated stupas, which locals referred to as “cages,” have a seated life-sized Buddha enthroned within. On the eighth level of Borobudur, two of these stupa are open. They weren’t able to be renovated, as 70% of the original material must be used in restoration to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site — a designation Borobudur was honored with in 1991. It’s actually pretty cool that a couple of the Buddhas aren’t covered by stupas and visitors get a chance to see what lies within. One of the Buddhas can also be found in the local museum.

Underneath each stupa hides a seated Buddha statue

Underneath each stupa hides a seated Buddha statue

There were 504 Buddha statues under the bell-shaped stupas because that’s how many times Buddha was reincarnated

There were 504 Buddha statues under the bell-shaped stupas because that’s how many times Buddha was reincarnated

UNESCO requires that all restoration work use at least 70% of the original materials

UNESCO requires that all restoration work use at least 70% of the original materials

Another requirement of the UNESCO site is that nothing commercial can be built within a 15-kilometer radius. Locals aren’t too pleased with this regulation, Pras told us, but we couldn’t help but think the site would certainly not be improved with a 7-Eleven at its base.

Borobudur, with its nine levels, was carved from the top down. In fact, parts of the base were never completed

Borobudur, with its nine levels, was carved from the top down. In fact, parts of the base were never completed

When Pras had completed the tour, he brought Wally and me to an open-air seating area near the main entrance where we returned our flashlights and enjoyed a traditional snack and coffee. As a memento, we each received a souvenir scarf.

Borobudur was a magnificent sight to behold, especially at sunrise. Its rings of galleries, terraces and sculptures were the perfect place for quiet reflection — even if it was with 200 or so strangers. –Duke

The Buddhas on each level sport different hand gestures

The Buddhas on each level sport different hand gestures

Wally and Duke admire the view

Wally and Duke admire the view

Borobudur Temple
Jl. Badrawati
Kw. Candi Borobudur
Borobudur, Magelang, Jawa Tengah
Indonesia

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

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