southeast asia

Why Elephant Trekking and Elephant Rides Are Evil

Before you participate in elephant tourism, learn about the barbaric abuse called phajaan, or “the crush.” Choose an elephant sanctuary instead.

As fun as elephant treks sound, they perpetuate a brutal practice of animal abuse

As fun as elephant treks sound, they perpetuate a brutal practice of animal abuse

At first it seemed harmless, even charming. Big, lumbering elephants doing astounding tricks. I understand how tempting it is to want to ride an elephant or see an elephant show when you’re in a part of the world that offers such experiences, like Thailand and other countries in Asia.

But there’s good reason circuses in the United States have stopped having elephant acts. The process to get elephants to obey orders involves “breaking” them — and once you learn about this barbaric, heartbreaking practice, you’ll never want to be a part of elephant tourism again.

Baby elephants are taken from their mothers and kept in small pens, where they’re beaten and starved for several weeks.

Of the 45,000 or so Asian elephants left in the world, up to 4,000 are held captive in Thailand, according to PETA Asia.

Before you book a trip to an elephant park when you’re in Chiang Mai or a similar region, do some research. Find a spot like the Elephant Nature Park that rescues abused elephants instead of inflicting intense pain upon these noble creatures.

“Behind the exotic façade of elephant tourism is a world of merciless beatings, broken spirits, and lifelong deprivation,” attests PETA Asia. “Once revered, elephants in Thailand today are treated like slaves.”

This poor baby elephant is undergoing the torture known as “the crush,” or phajaan

This poor baby elephant is undergoing the torture known as “the crush,” or phajaan

To train an elephant, it must undergo a horrific process called “the crush,” or phajaan.

Baby elephants — some still nursing — are taken from their mothers and kept in small pens or have all four legs tied up, and are beaten and starved for several weeks. The level of suffering elephants undergo is “severe,” according to World Animal Protection, which released a report about elephant tourism in 2017.

Bullhooks, long metal poles with a hook at the tip, are used to stab the elephant’s head, slash its skin and pull its ears. At an elephant show, you might notice torn ears or scarred foreheads caused during the crush.

 

The crush is a hill tribe ritual.

The practice began in the hill tribes of India and Southeast Asia, according to Thailand Elephants. During the phajaan “ritual,” the tribe’s shaman tries to separate the spirit of an elephant from its body.

“In reality, however, the phajaan has nothing to do with the separation of spirit and everything to do with torturing an elephant until it is so fearful of its human captors that it will do anything to avoid being hurt again,” the site writes.

As we learned on the ride to the Elephant Nature Park, during the crush, elephants have to be monitored around the clock because they’ll try to kill themselves by stepping on their trunk. If that doesn’t break your heart, I’d check your chest cavity — it’s probably empty.

 

The living conditions are brutal.

Elephants by nature are intelligent animals who have complex social groups. But in captivity, more than three-quarters of elephants are chained when not used for entertainment purposes, according to the World Animal Protection report. They have very little interaction with other elephants, are fed poor diets, have no access to proper veterinary care and are often exposed to loud music and throngs of tourists — stressful situations that go against their nature.

Elephant painting also involves abuse 

Elephant painting also involves abuse 

Even elephant painting involves abuse.

I always thought this was cute — and what was the harm? They just give an elephant a brush and it creates a work of art.

Turns out to get the elephants to paint, the handlers, known as mahouts, hold the elephant's ear, hiding the fact that they’re stabbing a nail or sharpened fingernail into its skin.

 

The cruel treatment of elephants has tragic repercussions.

Elephants used for entertainment live shorter lives, have behavioral problems (for which they’re surely abused even more), are more likely to come down with chronic diseases and are less likely to reproduce, The Guardian reports.

 

Elephant tourism got started because of the decline of logging.

For centuries, elephants were used to haul teak logs, but realizing how depleted the forests were becoming, the Thai government completely banned commercial logging in 1989. Those in the logging industry were desperate to find a use for their elephants — and tourism became a lucrative alternative, according to EARS Asia.

Instead of patronizing an operation that offers elephant rides or tricks, go to a sanctuary like the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand, which rescues abused elephants

Instead of patronizing an operation that offers elephant rides or tricks, go to a sanctuary like the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand, which rescues abused elephants

Elephant tourism, sadly, is growing.

There’s a huge demand for elephant tourism — a 30% increase in recent years — but you really should resist. Give your money to a place that rescues elephants; don’t be a part of the problem.

Elephant tourism remains popular because it’s “a hidden form of cruelty,” Chiara Vitali, a wildlife expert at World Animal Protection, told The Guardian. The crush “will happen before any tourist sees an elephant, so they might see an animal that’s quite chilled out — but it had that beaten into it when it was an infant,” she explained.

“Venues that offer tourists a chance to watch elephants in genuine sanctuaries are beacons of hope that can encourage the urgently needed shift in the captive elephant tourism industry,” said Jan Schmidt-Burbach, global wildlife and veterinary advisor at World Animal Protection.

Now that you’ve learned about the horrors of training elephants, we hope you’ll never forget. –Wally

During the crush, elephants have to be monitored because they’ll try to kill themselves by stepping on their trunk. If that doesn’t break your heart, I’d check your chest cavity — it’s probably empty.

The Secret Jungle Temple of Wat Palad

Hike the Monk’s Trail and explore this little-known temple near a waterfall on Doi Suthep mountain outside Chiang Mai.

Perhaps Wat Palad has seen better days — and perhaps that’s part of its charm

The promise of a magical, less-trodden temple secreted amid the folds of dense tropical flora filled my head. I often search for places that are a bit off the beaten path, and after reading about Wat Palad, I knew it was a destination Wally and I wouldn't want to miss.

The sala at Wat Palad feels less wild than much of the rest of the complex

This naga staircase sits to one side of the waterfall

Blazing the Monk’s Trail

Our driver for hire, Tommy, drove us through the Chiang Mai University campus to the temple’s back entrance and carpark, which is located a short distance off a busy highway. The more adventurous can hike the well-worn stone footpath known as the Monk’s Trail, which leads to the temple, marked by trees with saffron cloth wrapped around their trunks.

The tranquil forest setting was something for the soul, the perfect place to wander and rediscover a simplicity that our everyday lives often lack.

Follow the saffron markers as you hike the Monk’s Trail

Wat Palad must have once been a magnificent 14th century temple. It originally functioned as a refuge for devotees undertaking the pilgrimage on foot up the mountainside to worship at Wat Doi Suthep and sustained growth through regular visitation and patronage. Not long after a road was built in 1935, the temple became a monastic residence focused as a meditative retreat. Buddhism uses meditation and isolation as a way to achieve enlightenment.

Old statues are found throughout the grounds of Wat Palad

Old statues are found throughout the grounds of Wat Palad

Worshippers add squares of gold leaf to statues of the Buddha like this one at Wat Palad

Worshippers add squares of gold leaf to statues of the Buddha like this one at Wat Palad

A welcome reprieve from the more popular temples in Chiang Mai, Wat Palad has an overlooked and faded presence — nothing here is glaring or loud, there’s no central viharn, and best of all, there aren’t any crowds. The only sounds of life were our footfalls and the hum of cicadas as we took a path from the carpark. A pair of manussihas, mythological Burmese sphinxes, rested on their haunches at the temple’s entrance. I’m grateful they didn’t challenge us to a riddle before we entered.

These Burmese sphinxes, known as manussihas, guard the temple complex of Wat Palad

The jungle has reclaimed parts of Wat Palad — which makes it a fun change from most other temples in the Chiang Mai area

The temple name roughly translates as “Forest Monastery of the Sloping Rock,” named for the broad bluff the temple sits perched upon. The grounds are comprised of an impressive menagerie of statues and shrines that share an almost otherworldly relationship with the tropical jungle surrounding them. We passed a small cave with some very old-looking Buddha images within and made our way to an arched footbridge that dates back 100 years.

Jungle Temple for the Soul

A waterfall lies at the heart of the temple complex, but as it was the end of the dry season when we visited, the smooth surface of the riverbed lay exposed and the waterfall was reduced to a mere trickle.

When we visited, the waterfall at Wat Palad was almost entirely dried up

It’s believed that the white elephant of the local ruler, King Kuena, made its first stop here to rest near the waterfall while transporting the sacred relic of the Buddha’s shoulder up the slope of Doi Suthep. I took a moment to pause and imagine the mahout and elephant stopping here to get a drink of water before moving on.

The sun had already begun to peek through the canopy as a gentle breeze passed through the trees; a bead of sweat rolled down the bridge of my nose before I wiped it away with the back of my hand.

I could sense a new sort of calm. The tranquil forest setting was something for the soul, the perfect place to wander and rediscover a simplicity that our everyday lives often lack. When the time came to leave, I felt a tug and couldn’t help but wish to linger. –Duke


Wat Palad
Highway 1004
Tambon Su Thep
Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai
Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand


A Brief History of Chiang Mai

From its roots as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom to its incorporation into Siam.

Elephants have always played an important role in Chiang Mai’s history, used for transport and as beasts of burden in the teak trade

When Wally and I decided to make the city of Chiang Mai, Thailand our destination, I was eager to learn about its history and pondered what strange spell it would cast on me.

Nestled among the rolling green mountains of Northern Thailand, Nopburi Si Nakhon Ping Chiang Mai, since shortened to the much more manageable Chiang Mai, was founded by the King Mengrai in 1296. Its name translates as New Walled City. The city became the new capital, its site chosen because of the auspicious presence of herds of spotted deer, white mice and a giant fig tree.

The Three Kings Monument in Chiang Mai — that’s Mengrai in the middle

Mengrai had previously established the city of Chiang Rai and had also conquered Lamphun. Legend has it that King Mengrai, King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai and King Ngam Muang of Phayao formed an alliance and built the new city of Chiang Mai together.

Mengrai’s short-lived previous capital, Wiang Kum Kham, situated about three miles south, was abandoned due to repeated flooding during the intense monsoon rains that caused the Ping River to overflow. The settlement, since buried beneath alluvial sediment, was unearthed in 1984.

Lanna women in traditional garb (hey, it gets hot there!)

Deeper Roots: The Birth of the Lanna Kingdom

The province became known as Lanna, which translates as A Million Rice Fields. At its height, the kingdom's territories spread over an area as far southwest as Tak, the Pai Valley in the west and as far north as Luang Prabang in Laos.

Mengrai reigned from Chiang Mai for 20 years, until his unexpected death in 1317 — according to legend, he was struck dead by a bolt of lightning. For the next two centuries, rulers were chosen from Mengrai’s supposedly divine lineage.

Wat Chedi Luang as it stands today. The building was completed during the reign of King Tilokoraj

There were some greatly distinguished kings of the Mangrai Dynasty, particularly the sixth ruler, King Kuena (1355-1385) and the ninth, King Tilokoraj (1441-1487), both of whom brought about cultural, social and artistic renaissances. They turned their interests to architecture, erecting many Buddhist temples and chedis that are now referred to as classic Lanna style. The mountain temple of Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep remains the spiritual symbol of Chiang Mai today.

An old map of Chiang Mai shows the square city center

Chiang Mai, Where Its Hip to Be Square

The fortified Old City, surrounded by a moat, is square in shape. The remnants of earthen walls with ramparts designed to protect and defend against Burmese invaders still stand, although many have been restored.

The Lanna Kingdom largely functioned autonomously, but became fragile as its principalities expanded, making Chiang Mai a pawn and allowing the Burmese to seize the city in 1556. Abandoned between 1776 and 1791, the former capital was recaptured by Prince Kawila, who began a ritual circumambulation of the city at Wat Buppharam (which has since established a connection to a certain Disney character) to reoccupy it after two centuries of Burmese rule.

Kawila mobilized the diverse segments of the population from all the nearby villages — many had since moved to Lamphun — to resettle in Chiang Mai. The prince led the reconstruction, restoration and renovation of many historic buildings, especially the revered older temples that had been built during the Mengrai Dynasty. He eventually took the throne and established the Chuea Chet Ton Dynasty, meaning the Dynasty of the Seven Lords.

The ancient ramparts that surround the Old City still stand (mostly)

As king, Kawila followed tradition, dressed in full Lanna regalia like all rulers of the Mengrai Dynasty had done in the past, and he entered the Old City through the auspicious northern gate, Pratu Chang Puak, the White Elephant Gate.
 

Becoming a Part of Siam — But Escaping Colonial Rule

Although Siam (the previous name for Thailand) was never colonized, it felt the pressure from the British, who won the Anglo-Burmese War, annexing Burma in its entirety between 1824-1852. The French, meanwhile, had colonized Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

In 1885, the Bowring Treaty was negotiated and signed, allowing liberal trade between the United Kingdom and Siam. The British were at this time heavily invested in the teak trade and established the Borneo Trading Company headquarters in Chiang Mai’s Wat Gate district, the foreigners’ enclave (where we stayed at the utterly charming Hotel des Artists Ping Silhouette).

A historic shot of a Chiang Mai market. There’s a lot less mud nowadays

A historic shot of a Chiang Mai market. There’s a lot less mud nowadays

The Lanna Kingdom’s political independence ended in the late 19th century with the arrival of the railroad, and it was eventually incorporated into Siam.

Exploring the city’s streets, Wally and I could feel its storied past resonate amongst the shops, cafés, crowds and timeworn temples. –Duke

Baan Dam, the Black House Museum of Chiang Rai

This Northern Thailand museum is the polar opposite of the White Temple. You certainly don’t get to see a penis shaped like an eagle there.

The dark, weathered exterior of Baan Dam’s Main Sanctuary Hall appears a bit sinister

Baan Dam, literally the Black House, is the macabre vision of one of Thailand’s most famous artists, Thawan Duchanee. In many ways, the museum acts as a dark reflection of Wat Rong Khun, commonly referred to as the White Temple, located on the other side of the city of Chiang Rai. Where the White Temple strives for pristine perfection, the Black House Museum revels in a melancholic primitivism.

The museum, including the Sanctuary of Rama, is the vision of one of Thailand’s most famous artists, Thawan Duchanee

Baan Dam is the yin to the White Temple’s yang. The Black House was conceived over a period of 36 years and functioned as Duchanee’s residence and studio. Though the White Temple feels much more like a traditional wat (Thai for temple), neither of these are actually religious structures; they’re both essentially museums.

Where the White Temple strives for pristine perfection, the Black House Museum revels in a melancholic primitivism.
You could imagine pagan rituals taking place in front of the Xieng Thong House

You could imagine pagan rituals taking place in front of the Xieng Thong House

Black List

The museum campus struck me immediately as foreboding — especially after the pureness of the White Temple. The Main Sanctuary Hall, off to the left, looks like a temple, but it’s made of wood and is stained black and dark brown. The more you look at it, the more something seems off. Its gables are steeper, and the barge boards look like they’re coated with dried blood. The tips are made of metal pointing upward like sword blades, giving the structure a menacing demeanor. The building literally looms above you.

The doors to the main building have intricate carvings of demons with animal-headed penises like the eagle seen here

As you enter the front doors, be sure to admire the elaborate carvings. One set features contorted demons with animal-headed penises — the eagle one certainly brings a whole new meaning to the word “pecker”!

A bizarre self-portrait with a string rising up to an image of the Buddha

Inside, the soaring exposed-beam ceiling rises above, and you’re greeted by two likenesses of the artist: an abstract obsidian black figure standing within a silver offering bowl with a string tied around his waist and a larger detailed white bust elevated upon a flurry of mythic beings. The string rises high above to a likeness of the Buddha, symbolizing the yearn for enlightenment.

Duke peeks out from the grouping of pillars in this one-of-a-kind museum

Where’s Wally? Having fun in the Main Sanctuary Hall, the largest gallery space 

Within the hall are a forest of elaborately carved wooden columns, screens, thrones and long wooden tables. Crocodile skins lay splayed open atop one of the tables, while another features a runner made from a monstrously large snake. It wouldn’t surprise me if I learned the Dothraki from Game of Thrones gather here.

Light wood arches balance out the overall darkness of the space

Light wood arches balance out the overall darkness of the space

A throne made of animal skins and horns

The chairs, some evoking thrones, are constructed of leather and animal horns. They don’t particularly appear comfortable, but as Aegon the Conqueror said in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic, “A king should never sit easy.”

Supposedly, all the taxidermied animals at Baan Dam died of natural causes — which makes the place more spiritual and less sadistic, Atlas Obscura reports.

A painting of a bull by Duchanee

A painting of a bull by Duchanee

A couple of Duchanee’s large paintings hang in the middle of the hall, bright crimson canvases covered with black slashes and swoops in his signature style.

Escape the sun at the Rest House. There are skulls and horns galore at Baan Dam, giving the museum a primitive feel

Escape the sun at the Rest House. There are skulls and horns galore at Baan Dam, giving the museum a primitive feel

We exited through the back door. Most of the buildings on the grounds aren’t open to the public. But you can wander through an open-air gallery to the right that houses more bones, horns, skulls and animal skins, laid out in symmetrical rows, covering the tables and beams. Keep an eye out for the phallic sculptures sprinkled throughout.

Baan Dam’s exploration of the darkness lurking within humanity is somehow avant garde and primitive at the same time. It’s said to have the largest collection of animal remains made into furniture in the world. There’s a sense of death everywhere, the impermanence of life being a major Buddhist theme.

The white domes are modern takes on stupas (the reliquaries of Thai temples) and are covered with cool graffiti

A glimpse inside one of the stupas

The white domes off to the side are modern takes on chedis, or stupas, the spired monuments that house sacred relics that are found on every wat complex. These, though, seem like American Indian sweat lodges (Duke read a story they were designed for a hill tribe farting ritual), and they feature really cool street art graffiti on their exteriors.

This strange building called the Hornbill House was the artist’s home when he was on site

A big black submarine/sea creature-like building with round glass porthole windows, half sunken into the landscape, was said to be where Duchanee slept when on site. It wouldn’t surprise me if his ghost roamed the complex now.

Once we were finished exploring the museum, we bought ice cream at a little stand out front and some caffeinated beverages at the nearby coffeeshop before our driver Tommy took us to the crazy fun Wat Sang Kaew.

Thawan Duchanee, the man behind the Black House Museum

Portrait of the Artist: Thawan Duchanee

As mentioned, the man behind this dark museum is Thawan Duchanee. The local boy earned a Ph.D. in metaphysics and aesthetics from the Royal Academy of Visual Arts in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He first took up studies at Bangkok’s Poh Chang Academy of Arts before moving on to study under the Italian painter Corrado Feroci.

I’ve read that Duchanee was a student of Chalermchai Kositpipat, the man who created the White Temple, and that Kositpipat was a student of Duchanee. I’ve also read that both were freelance artists and never taught a day of their lives. Either way, they tend to get lumped together: One created a vision of Heaven, while the other created a version of Hell.

In 2001, Duchanee was officially lauded as a National Thai Artist, but his controversial style wasn’t always popular. “Some of his early work shocked a conservative Thai nation and accusations of disrespecting Buddhism resulted in some people physically attacking his paintings,” Thaizer reports.

Leading figures in Thai society, including the former prime minister Kukrit Pramoj, championed Duchanee’s work. This helped the artist score contracts to paint murals at a number of Thai embassies, and prominent Thai companies to commission work from him to display in their headquarters.

Duchanee combined various elements from traditional Burmese, Tibetan and local Lanna Thai art to create a singular style of his own.

At the end of his life, he was bald up top and sported a long, flowing snow white beard — evoking the stereotype of the wise old man.

He died in 2014 at the age of 74. His unique legacy lives on at Baan Dam Museum. –Wally

The White Temple is a vision of Heaven, while the Black House Museum is a version of Hell.

Baandam Museum
414 Moo 13 Nanglae, Muang
Chiang Rai, 57100 Thailand


Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Mountain Temple

Head to the mountains outside Chiang Mai, Thailand to explore a popular temple and get an aerial view of the city.

As with any Thai temple, there’s lots to explore on the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep grounds

The mountain temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is literally the stuff of legends.

Its location was predicated by a dream, a magical relic and the death of an auspicious pachyderm.

Buddha’s bone shard possesses magical properties: It can make itself invisible.

The story goes that a venerated monk named Sumana had a dream in which he was instructed to find a relic of the Gautama Buddha, whose teachings led to the founding of Buddhism. He discovered a fragment of bone from the Buddha’s shoulder among the tall grass at Ban Pang Cha in Chiang Mai Province.

The sheltered Prince Siddhartha Guatama discovers death in this mural at the temple. He went on to become the Buddha, and part of his magic shoulder bone is enshrined here

The bone shard possesses magical properties: It can make itself invisible, and at the temple of Wat Suan Dok, it miraculously split into two pieces. It was considered bad luck to enshrine both pieces at the same site, but no one knew where to put the other half. The problem was solved in an unusual manner: The larger half of the relic was placed on the back of a chang samkhan, a holy elephant, called “white” because these pinkish albino versions are thought to be especially pure.

The elephant was allowed to roam freely. It climbed to the top of Mount Doi Suthep, where it trumpeted three times before it knelt down and died.

King Kuena, the sixth ruler of the Lanna Kingdom, declared the spot a holy site, and work commenced in 1383 to erect a chedi, or domed tower, to hold the relic. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was born.

Buddhas galore at Doi Suthep

Temple on the Mountain

The 14th century Buddhist temple and pilgrimage site, known locally as Wat Doi Suthep (and pronounced “Doy Soo-tep”) is located within Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, about 40 minutes outside of Chiang Mai. To reach the wat, Wally and I hired a driver from our hotel (Tommy, whom you can reach via email: t.tommy2556@gmail.com). As he drove us along, he told us about the paved road that winds its way up the mountainside. In 1935, the road was constructed entirely by the voluntary labor of the followers of Kruba Srivichai, known as the Buddhist Saint of Northern Thailand. The project gained such exposure that it attracted donations of 20 million baht and, even though the workers used mostly primitive tools, it was completed after only six months.

The lengthy staircase at Doi Suthep has railings that slither upwards in the shape of snakelike nagas

We heard there’s a funicular that will take you up to the temple if you don’t want to deal with these stairs

We heard there’s a funicular that will take you up to the temple if you don’t want to deal with these stairs

The wat is reached via a 306-step staircase flanked by an undulating naga balustrade. The ascent is intended to help devotees attain merit, the accumulation of good deeds in Buddhism.

If you want to take pictures of the kids in traditional hill tribe garb, be prepared to pay

Sometimes you can catch the hill tribe children “off duty,” playing games instead of begging money for photographs

As you climb the stairs, you’ll encounter small groups of young kids, mostly girls, in colorful hill tribe dress. To earn money from tourists, they will ask for a tip if they catch you taking photographs of them. I can’t imagine that it’s a fun way to live, but it was nice to catch a glimpse of them playing games and just being kids when they didn’t know they were being watched.

Entry to Wat Doi Suthep is 30 baht for foreigners and free for Thais. If you wish to take the funicular cable car instead of climbing the stairs, the ride is 20฿ round trip or 10฿ one way.

Offering candles for the various poses of the Buddha, representing the different days of the week

We visited early in the morning, before the throngs of tourists arrived, giving us the freedom to explore without large crowds.

This image of the Buddha at Wat Doi Supthep is covered in gold leaf

When Wally and I reached the top of the steps, we were greeted by two giant green yaksha guardians.

A statue of the white elephant with a golden ku, a reliquary for a Buddha image resembling a miniature chedi, on its back, stands immediately to the left. There’s a plaque telling the story of the temple behind it.

A shrine to Sudeva, the hermit who was living on the site at the time when the white elephant transported the famous relic, sits to the right. The leopard-print cloth draped around his body is symbolic of the animal skins traditionally worn by hermits in India and beyond.

A shrine to Sudeva the hermit wears a leopard-print cloth and has some rather realistic-looking hair

The sun’s intense heat washed over the tiled central courtyard as we entered the plaza containing the shimmering copper-gilded chedi. Fortunately, we were able to take shelter and meander amongst the shaded arcade, which is home to a variety of different Buddha images. The murals covering the walls behind them illustrate the founding of the wat.

The structure in the middle is called a chedi. This one is covered with thin sheets of copper and houses part of the Buddha’s shoulder bone. If you don’t see it, that’s because it can turn invisible

Because the chedi contains a sacred relic, there are separate lines for men and women. The base is enclosed by a railing to guide ritual circumambulation and, supposedly to maintain its sanctity, only men are allowed inside the innermost railing. (Thais have a warped idea that women are unclean. Read more about Thai Buddhism — the good and the bad — here.)

Out back, we paused to take in the view. Seen from Doi Suthep, the horizon becomes a vast hazy line of dense foliage stretching out far into the distance like an endless sea of green briefly interrupted by the surprisingly small city of Chiang Mai. 

Several souvenir shops are located to the left of the base of the stairs, many with similar items. Don’t be afraid to compare and be prepared to bargain. We saw a wooden monk puppet we really liked and asked the first seller how much it was. She told us 200 baht, or about $6.

We moved on, and every stall we stopped at quoted a higher and higher price — 400฿, 600฿, 900฿.

So we ended up going back to the first woman. In fact, she was so reasonable, we didn’t really even have to negotiate — and we ended up spending about a hundred bucks at her stall. She even threw in some stuff for free. Good karma.

A stall where worshippers can buy flowers for offerings from a Buddhist nun (they’re much less common than monks)

As we waited at the bottom of the stairs for Tommy to get the car, the shopkeeper came running over to us. She was waving around a stick — part of a larger monk puppet we purchased from her — that she had forgotten to give us. We smiled and thanked her, sure that her good deed earned her some merit at this sacred site. –Duke

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Road
Srivijaya Suthep Mueang Chiang Mai District
Chiang Mai, Thailand


9 Tuk Tuk Tips

What is a tuk-tuk taxi? And what do you need to know about this mode of Thai transportation so you don’t get taken for a ride?

The only good part of getting scammed is that we got some funny pics of Wally driving a tuk-tuk — much to Duke’s dismay

The only good part of getting scammed is that we got some funny pics of Wally driving a tuk-tuk — much to Duke’s dismay

Most of the time during your stay in Chiang Mai, you’ll be traveling around in the cute contraptions with the adorable name: tuk-tuks. These three-wheeled vehicles are like teeny-tiny open-air motorbike chariots. The ones in Chiang Mai really only fit two passengers comfortably, though three could probably squeeze in.

If you’re in the Old City, or anywhere nearby, you should be able to flag one down and go anywhere you want for an affordable price. Here are nine tips to follow when hiring a tuk-tuk:

He stopped outside the gate and kicked us to the curb. So much for good karma.

1. Negotiate your price before getting in the tuk-tuk.

You’re exhausted from walking all day. It can be tempting to hop into the tuk-tuk and then talk prices. Resist.

In Chiang Mai, you should be able to go short distances for 100 baht. Let the driver quote a price first. If it's less than 100, score! If it's not, and you’re traveling within or just outside the Old City, try insisting upon 100‎฿.

Walk away if they won't come down in price. They'll cave — most of the time. (We didn’t have much luck playing hardball during a crowded event, like the Saturday Walking Market, for instance.) But if they don't accept your price, you should be able to find another tuk-tuk right away.

 

2. Know exactly where you’re going.

You don’t have to know the route — just the address of your destination. Most addresses in Chiang Mai will be four or five lines long and seem to include streets, districts, subdistricts and even the nearest gate in the ancient walled city.

Have your destination address ready to go on your phone to show the driver.

 

3. BYOM: Bring your own map.

Some drivers have their own maps, but play it safe and bring your own. It's easier to point on a map than to show English addresses. So just whip out your copy of Nancy Chandler’s map of Chiang Mai (it seems as if everyone’s got one). Before you head somewhere, try to find where you are currently and where you’d like to go.

A couple of fellow travelers told us about a great resource: the app Maps.me, where you can download a comprehensive map of the city that you can access offline.

Drivers like to orient themselves by gates. Look at the closest one to your destination and point to it on the map.

 

4. They treat two lanes like three.

This can be a bit nerve-racking if you focus on it too much. Granted, tuk-tuks are pretty small and two of them can almost fit abreast in a lane of traffic. But they weave in and out of traffic — some of it oncoming — so the best thing to do is just put your trust in your driver and try to enjoy the ride. And hang on tight.

 

5. They lay off the horn.

It's the polar opposite of India, where drivers never stop honking. Perhaps it's their quiet Buddhist nature. But I sure ain’t complaining.

 

6. Watch for the fake-out tuk-tuks.

When you really just want to find some nice open-air transport back to your hotel, standing on the side of the road in the blazing heat, you’ll inevitably get your hopes dashed by vehicles that look a lot like tuk-tuks but aren’t. They have a motorbike with a sidecar sort of thing, usually used to carry food.

 

7. When desperate, flag down a red taxi (song thaew).

If you go to a more remote locale (like the mostly abandoned JJ home décor market Duke wanted to try out), you might not find a tuk-tuk. In these instances, you’ll have to flag down a song thaew (literally “two rows), so named for the seating in the back of these modified trucks. They’re covered and can get quite hot inside.

You'll have to share these with other riders most of the time, and they make various stops as they go along. It’s best to know what your destination looks like, since it’s not as easy to converse with the driver as it is in a tuk-tuk.

The good thing is that these are quite cheap. It says all rides are 30฿ on the side of the vehicle — but we always paid a bit more and didn’t argue.  

 

8. If you want to go farther afield, hire a driver for the day or half-day.

We had a fantastic experience with Tommy (you can email him at t.tommy2556@gmail.com). His price was competitive — in fact, I think the drivers must all decide on a price, and everyone sticks to it. Tommy speaks fluent English and has a penchant for love songs from the ’70s. We enjoyed his company so much, we hired him three of the days we spent in Chiang Mai.

 

9. Avoid this tuk-tuk scam.

Yes, Duke and I still manage to get swindled now and then.

On our first day in Chiang Mai, we saw a tuk-tuk driver at the first temple we visited, then again later in the day. He offered to take us on a tour of the Old City as well as a handicraft market for 150‎฿. He told us his name is Chi, the first three letters of our hometown Chicago, so I felt it must be kismet. You pronounce his name “Shy,” though he's anything but.

Our “tour” turned out to be a total crock. Chi took us to tourist trap shops outside the Old City, where everything is overpriced and the desperate salespeople cling to you. We cruised through them, though, in solidarity to Chi, after he explained that he gets a stamp from each place (and one imagines some sort of commission).

After five of those shops, Chi said he'll take us to the Old City. Instead, he stopped outside Tha Phae Gate and essentially kicked us to the curb, waving across the street and dismissing us. So much for good karma.

If you see Chi (heck, he might even have a picture of me and Duke to help lure you in), don’t fall for his scam. –Wally

Wat Rong Suea Ten, the Blue Temple

No day trip to Chiang Rai is complete without a visit to this breathtaking wat, between the White Temple and Black Museum.

This newer temple can be paired with a day trip to the White Temple and Black House Museum, as well as the over-the-top Wat Sang Kaew

In October of 2005, a small village in Chiang Rai turned their attention to building a distinctive blue and gold temple inspired by tradition. Full of surprises and named for the tigers that once roamed there, Wat Rong Suea Ten is a six-acre property located in Rim Kok, a subdistrict of Chiang Rai. More commonly referred to as the Blue Temple, its monastery and pagoda were built upon the ruins of an ancient temple, abandoned 80 to 100 years prior.

This lesser-known temple is still not widely promoted, so there are less tourists compared to the White Temple and Black House Museum.
Being a Slytherin, Wally has a special fondness for naga

Being a Slytherin, Wally has a special fondness for naga

Dancing Tigers?

This lesser-known temple is still not widely promoted, so there are less tourists compared to both Wat Rong Khun (White Temple) and the Baan Dam (Black House) Museum. The monastery was designed by Phuttha Kabkaew, a protégé of Chalermchai Kositpipat, and derives its name from the inhabitants of Rong Suea Ten village. The region was once a natural habitat that teemed with wildlife, including tigers who “danced” (leapt) over the nearby Mae Kok River. The name translates as House of the Dancing Tiger: rong is the Thai word for house, suea for tiger and ten for dancing. In what may prove either to be a disappointment to some or reassurance to others, there are no real, live tigers at Wat Rong Suea Ten.

The stupa at Wat Rong Suea Ten

The stupa at Wat Rong Suea Ten

It Takes a Village

In 1996, local villagers agreed to rebuild a temple here. The purpose was to establish a devotional center for meditation, prayer and worship, as they did not have a sacred space for merit-making (earning good karma points) in their town. Construction of the viharn monastery began in October 2005 and was completed in January 2016. Other parts of the temple are still under construction today.

The interior is reminiscent of the White Temple’s artwork — and indeed, we learned that it was created by a student of Kositpipat

The interior is reminiscent of the White Temple’s artwork — and indeed, we learned that it was created by a student of Kositpipat

In Living Color

A pair of fierce and wildly colorful naga flank the balustrade, acting as guards to the monastic hall’s entrance. Both the exterior and interior walls are covered in a vivid indigo hue embellished with gold.

The celestial themes and twilight blue create a mystical feel to the temple’s interior

The celestial themes and twilight blue create a mystical feel to the temple’s interior

Unlike at the White Temple, visitors are allowed to take photographs of the viharn’s interior. Inside, at the end of the great hall, a colossal white Buddha statue in the Bhumisparsha Mudra position sits framed by towering filigreed columns. His legs are crossed and his right hand points to the ground, the gesture of touching the earth, representing the moment Buddha attained enlightenment.  

You can take pictures inside the Blue Temple — unlike in the White Temple

You can take pictures inside the Blue Temple — unlike in the White Temple

The influence of the artist Kositpipat can be seen through the trippy, kaleidoscopic imagery depicting the Lord Buddha’s spiritual journey that covers the walls and ceiling. There’s even a giant demon mouth that serves as the exit. Additional details include sculptures from Thai folklore and streaks of metallic gold, all contributing to the temple’s magnificence.

Turn back to look at the entrance, and you’ll see a representation of Hell, with the doors you came through actually a demon’s mouth

Turn back to look at the entrance, and you’ll see a representation of Hell, with the doors you came through actually a demon’s mouth

To symbolize dharma, the Buddha’s code of morals, the temple is predominantly painted blue, which is associated with wisdom, the infinite, purity and healing. Blue is also the least “material” of all hues and speaks to the limitless heights of ascension. The Virgin Mary and Christ are often shown wearing blue, as is the Hindu deity Vishnu and his blue-skinned incarnation, Krishna.

This angel-like being guards the Blue Temple

This angel-like being guards the Blue Temple

Entrance to the temple is free, and as at all Thai Buddhist temples, visitors must remove their shoes before entering, as well as ensure their shoulders and knees are covered.

Make a donation and light a floating lotus candle

Make a donation and light a floating lotus candle

You can make various donations to the temple. Wally went right over to the lotus-shaped candles, choosing a bright pink one, of course. He lit it and placed it in one of the bowls of water out front, making a wish as it bobbed along with its brethren. –Duke

The Craziest, Coolest Northern Thailand Temple Most People Have Never Heard Of

At Wat Sang Kaew in Chiang Rai, you’ll feel like Alice in Wonderland. Add this to a day trip that includes the White Temple, Blue Temple and Black Museum.

The storybook viharn at Wat Sang Kaew in Chiang Rai, Thailand

The storybook viharn at Wat Sang Kaew in Chiang Rai, Thailand

Our driver, Tommy, knew us so well. After a colorful succession of touring through the White Temple, the Blue Temple and the Black House Museum, we had some extra time on our day trip to Chiang Rai, and he suggested we make one more stop: Wat Sang Kaew.

We felt like Alice tumbling down the proverbial rabbit hole, encountering unexpected marvel after marvel the farther in we explored.  
It had recently rained when we visited, providing a misty yet vibrant feel to the temple complex

It had recently rained when we visited, providing a misty yet vibrant feel to the temple complex

The name translates to Glass Light, Tommy told us — though a local tour company insists it means “A lotus that has sprouted and emerged from the water and emits light like a sparkling gem with brilliant light.” That’s a lot to pack into a couple of words.

The front area of Wat Sang Kaew is gorgeously landscaped

The front area of Wat Sang Kaew is gorgeously landscaped

It should actually be called Wonderland, cuz we felt like Alice tumbling down the proverbial rabbit hole, encountering unexpected marvel after marvel the farther in we explored.  

Who’s going to love a visit to Wat Sang Kaew?  You  are!

Who’s going to love a visit to Wat Sang Kaew? You are!

This wat, or temple, complex is about 30 miles south of Chiang Rai city — and we both think it should be included on any itinerary to this neck of the mountains. It’s a relatively new complex; construction began in 2010, and parts of it were still being built when we visited in the spring of 2017.

All the single ladies line the side of the viharn

All the single ladies line the side of the viharn

The entire complex is bat shit crazy, giving you existential sensory overload — but in the best way possible. Your first clue are the giant statues that line the parking lot, including Upakut, the son of Buddha and a mermaid,  and one of Pra Maha Kajjana, who according to legend was a handsome monk who transformed himself to a homely, obese man so that others would stop focusing on his physical appearance.  

Pra Maha Kajjana (on the right) was so tired of people fawning over his hotness that he turned himself into a fatty

Pra Maha Kajjana (on the right) was so tired of people fawning over his hotness that he turned himself into a fatty

As you walk up the stairs, you’ll pass through a super-sized white and gold arch, or, as we liked to imagine it, the metaphorical lookingglass.

Inside the viharn is a cool metallic mural that depicts the Buddhist version of Purgatory (which sure looks a lot like our Hell)

Inside the viharn is a cool metallic mural that depicts the Buddhist version of Purgatory (which sure looks a lot like our Hell)

Deep red and gold buildings stand amongst a who’s who of deities whose hands are clasped in the wai, a gesture demonstrating respect and reverence.

We loved the temple’s appropriation of contemporary culture, including two asuras, or demons, bearing a litter holding a large bronze bell with shackles around their feet. One is sporting a pair of Converse high-top sneakers, the other a pair of flip flops with a smartphone tucked into the back of his sarong. The dais they stand upon is surrounded by 20 brass bells. The aesthetics of the temple have been shaped by its primary benefactor, Kruba Ariyachat, who Tommy told us is only in his 30s.

The good guys on the left; bad guys on the right. We loved the modern touches like the red Converses, hand gesture and cell phone in the back pocket

The good guys on the left; bad guys on the right. We loved the modern touches like the red Converses, hand gesture and cell phone in the back pocket

We figured this would be all there is to see. But really we had just begun our adventure in Wonderland.

The beautiful interior of the viharn, or worship hall

The beautiful interior of the viharn, or worship hall

We continued upward, beyond the front complex, surprised that there was more — and it’s bonkers. An open-air sala pavilion contains an assortment of shrines, Buddhas of various sizes and a creature known as See Hoo Ha Dtaa, who consumes red hot coals and defecates gold. (He’d make a great pet!)

This strange creature eats coals — and, as you can see here, poops out gold!

This strange creature eats coals — and, as you can see here, poops out gold!

We passed giant deities and mythical creatures from Buddhist and Hindu traditions.

And then! Just when we thought things couldn’t get any more bizarre, we emerged onto a turquoise blue piazza and entered what Duke and I referred to as the Hindu theme park. Towering brightly colored statues of our favorite gods loomed over us. There’s Duke’s guy, good old Ganesh, with his elephant head and fan base of rats. On the other side is my dude, four-faced Brahma, astride a green goose. In the center, a fountain is ringed by animal-headed men representing the signs of the Chinese-influenced zodiac. Piped-in music further adds to the surreal ambiance.

Ganesh and other giant Hindu deities can be found out back, in a sort of theme park

Ganesh and other giant Hindu deities can be found out back, in a sort of theme park

We wandered around barefoot, and as it had recently rained, I only slipped and almost cracked my head open once.

At the very tippy top, there’s a pot of gold, so to speak, at the end of the rainbow. You’ll find three gold statues of famous monks. The ginormous one in the center is the popular Engineer Monk, Kruba Srivichai, who lived from 1878 to 1938. He’s responsible for many local construction projects, perhaps most notably the road that leads from Chiang Mai up to Wat Doi Suthep.

Three large golden monks sit atop the back of the complex. The guy in the middle is the Engineer Monk, who’s famous around these parts

Three large golden monks sit atop the back of the complex. The guy in the middle is the Engineer Monk, who’s famous around these parts

At the base of the golden monks, you can survey the entirety of the wat grounds — but most striking is the skyline. Bright green vegetation gives way to mountains that are an ombré of blues. It’s breathtaking.

A pale blue and white Buddha in the open-aired sala

A pale blue and white Buddha in the open-aired sala

The more I think about it, and the more I look at the gorgeous (and goofy) photos, the more I realize that this was probably my favorite wat of the entire trip.

To book Tommy as a driver (which we highly recommend), email him at t.tommy2556@gmail.com. –Wally

Monkeys line the sala roof

Monkeys line the sala roof


Wat Sang Kaew Bodhiyan Chiangrai
Mae Suai
Chiang Rai, Thailand


Catmosphere Cat Cafe

Good mews! Chiang Mai has a pet cafe where you can get your cat crazies on.

If you love cats, stop in Catmosphere for a caffeine and feline fix

It’s one of the great debates of the ages: They say you’re either a cat person or you’re a dog person. Growing up, my family had both, and I don't claim to be biased towards one or the other. Oh, who am I kidding? I get dewy, giant-pupiled anime eyes when I see a basket full of kittens, and when it comes to having a pet at home, I prefer the company of a cat.

Zoey graced us with her presence, sleeping on our table for most of our visit

Wally and I have two cats with decidedly different personalities: an antisocial but beautiful calico named Caribou and a sweet gray and white one who is perpetually hungry by the name of Bowzer. If we didn't live in the city, we would probably (definitely) have more.

Our café is a tribute to all those brave cats who have dedicated their lives to space exploration.
— Ben, owner of Catmosphere

As we knew we’d be missing our beloved animal companions, Catmosphere Cat Café pawed its way onto our list of things to see and do while in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I mean, where else can you can sit and enjoy a coffee, and at the same time play with or stroke some cats?!

The latte art was enough to make us regret our decision to go with iced

The Catmosphere we visited is located on Huay Kaew Road, but it’s situated in a plaza of shops that sit a short distance from the road. We might have walked right past it had I not spotted the sign. When we got closer, we admired the fun marquee lights above the entrance.

Before entering, we were asked to wash our hands and remove our sandals. There’s a rack to stash your footwear, and they provide colorful quilted slippers to wear inside. 

This rapscallion is named Eve. She darts about the café, causing a ruckus, looking adorable all the while

The “Catstronauts,” as the space-themed café refers to its residents, are living their nine lives in style. There is pinstriped seating on the floor, low wood tables and coordinating toss cushions, for patrons and felines alike. Playful sci-fi elements, such as a retro-inspired mural with cats in space, featuring a black cat whizzing around in a rocketship wearing a bubble-style space helmet, while another kitty sticks an orange flag into a lunar surface. (As an interesting aside, on October 18, 1963, the French, eager to stake their claim in the space race, sent a black and white female cat named Félicette 130 feet into the air on a non-orbital rocket flight. She was recovered safely after the capsule parachuted to Earth.)

Wally named this one the Duchess — but later found out his name was Luke

The Cat’s Pajamas

Choosing a time to visit the café can be a gamble, as cats are unpredictable, and in those few hours each day when they aren’t sleeping, can be bundles of spastic energy. According to the Catmosphere website, it’s best to visit either early in the morning when they first open, or in the evening. After all, cats are nocturnal creatures.

On our evening visit, some slept, some were curious, and some chose to observe from afar. One of the most playful resident cats, Eve, skittered across the room in pursuit of something we couldn’t see.

Wally nicknamed a docile Scottish fold sitting on a cushion across from us “the Duchess,” who after a particularly thorough grooming session fell fast asleep, half sitting up. We found out later from one of the owners that she is actually a he named Luke.

A modern cat tower featuring different levels of rectangular white boxes faces the café window and is the perfect place for the kitties to hide, climb, take a catnap, or perch and observe the world beyond.

Elsa rules over her domain, a wall of cubby holes 

For those felines looking for a quick escape route, a tri-level wall mounted variation of the tower functions as the perfect getaway. A white cat named Elsa decided to commandeer this as her lookout point, and when another cat joined her, she chased the interloper away.

 

Coffee and Kitties

How’s the coffee, you ask? Catmosphere serves a full range of coffee drinks and desserts. Wally ordered an iced latte, which was 95 baht, or about $2.75, and I ordered a Thai iced tea (80 baht or $2.35) — I’m a cheap date and will always go for a mix of black tea, spices, sugar, sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk.

As long as you order something from their menu, entry is to the café is free. If you’re simply craving a feline fix, a fee of 100 baht (or $3 at the exchange rate at the time) per hour will be charged. All proceeds benefit the care of the resident Catstronauts.

 

Catiquette

I read the laminated list of rules sitting atop our table. One suggested keeping an eye on your food and drink. A young woman who had ordered a delicious-looking slice of cheesecake left her table to photograph a few of the cats. It was then that I noticed one of the cats balanced on the table’s edge, licking the blueberry glaze off said slice of cheesecake, until one of the young female employees noticed and shooed them away.

The café sells an assortment of souvenir items including tote bags and T-shirts. We purchased a tote with an illustrated portrait six of the resident cats.

The experience was truly unique and we met a menagerie of cats, including Apollo, Athena, Blue, Cooper, Eve, Letty, Luke and Yoda.

Nhoon and Ben, the owners of Catmosphere in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Q&A With the Owner of Catmosphere

We reached out to Ben, one of the owners of Catmosphere in Chiang Mai, to ask him some questions about the coffeeshop. Curiosity killed the cat, they say, but it hasn’t harmed Wally or me yet.

When did this location open?
In June 2014.

How did the concept come about?
Well, for one not many people know that cats have actually been to space! The credit always goes to dogs and monkeys, which is clearly unfair. Our café is a tribute to all those brave cats who have dedicated their lives to space exploration.

Seriously though, we think that it is a fun concept. We are basing it on mid-20th century space exploration and science fiction themes. There’s a lot of creative potential in that, and it allows us to do fun, tongue-in-cheek stuff. It’s cheesy, but in a good way.

Are the cats adopted from shelters or are they purchased?
It’s a mix of both. In the beginning, we purchased cats, but since we opened we have chosen to adopt cats instead, because homeless kittens are available all the time in Chiang Mai.

Are apartments and condominiums pet friendly in Chiang Mai?
Pets are forbidden in most condos. I used to rent a condo before, and we always had to smuggle the cats in and out in boxes, hoping they wouldn’t meow at the reception.

The Catstronauts of Catmosphere. How many can you spot on your visit?

Any funny stories you could share about the cats’ personalities?
Each cat has their own personal quirks! Just a few examples:

  • Yoda waits for the first batch of customers in the morning to go on each person’s lap and give them a cat massage. But he never gives one to Nhoon or me.
  • Eve loves sneaking out to the street specifically to annoy us. She is incredibly good at it — she’ll wait far away at the side of the door and pretend to be busy, then once the door opens, escape efficiently and silently, in a straight line between the customer's legs. Sometimes, nobody notices that she’s gone until she’s at the door half an hour later.
  • Letty shows her love by gently biting people on the nose.
  • Every time a new plaything or other item arrives, Apollo takes first ownership of it, usually by lying on it or rubbing his cheek on it. After a day or so, it is then made available to the other cats.
  • Athena likes to randomly jump on customers’ tables from above and spill the coffee.

I could go on indefinitely.


You’ll just have to experience this quirky cat café for yourself. –Duke


Catmosphere
Huay Kaew Road
Thesaban Nakhon Chiang Mai
Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai
Chang Wat
Chiang Mai 50300 Thailand


Wat Buppharam, the Donald Duck Temple

One of our favorite Chiang Mai temples, this complex feels a bit like a Disney theme park.

The gorgeous Dhamma Hall exterior is a highlight of Wat Bupphram in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Can you spot Donald Duck eating a bowl of noodles out front?

Chances are that wherever you happen to be in Chiang Mai, you’ll find a temple nearby. It’s like Chicago and bars. The city is a melding of cultures, where the architectural influences of Thailand’s neighbors can be seen in its many religious buildings.

Dharma wheels decorate the exterior wall of the temple complex

An example of this integration can be seen in the Buddhist temple of Wat Buppharam, situated a short distance from the Old City. Once you cross the Narawat Bridge, there’s a quick succession of temples, and if you were to simply cast a fleeting glance at this simple whitewashed outer wall topped with dharmachakra wheels that face the busy street, you'd be missing out on a very special place. You’d also be missing out on a depiction of a Disney character wearing a familiar sailor shirt, cap, and a bowtie.

The temple has appropriated the Disney cartoon character Donald Duck, standing and eating a bowl of noodles in the garden.

Duke and Wally on the steps of the Dhamma Hall at Wat Bupphrama, resplendent in deep red with elaborate gold details

An Earth-Shaking History

Once you enter through the gate on southern side of Tha Phae Road, you’ll soon discover a temple that has developed a character all its own. A reminder of King Muangkaeo’s legacy, Wat Buppharam was constructed shortly after his ordination in 1495 on the site formerly occupied by the palace of his great grandfather King Tilokarat. Royal courts sponsored artists and erected temples as an act of religious merit making (a way to gain points toward enlightenment).

In 1497, Muangkaeo dedicated the monastery to the Lord Buddha, and according to historic documents, an intense earthquake occurred at the time of donation, but the temple withstood, undamaged. Seeing this as an auspicious sign — according to legend, an earthquake occurred prior to the Buddha’s death — the king had a silver Buddha image cast and placed within the temple chapel.

Duke says this Buddha is telling you, “Talk to the hand”

Talk to the Hand

The first building you’ll likely encounter is the large two-story Ho Phra Monthiantham, or Dhamma Hall, a communal center for Buddhist teaching and meditation. In front of the hall is a Buddha statue standing beneath a golden parasol with his right hand, palm out, raised to shoulder height. My first thought was of the dismissive ’90s phrase “talk to the hand,” which isn't completely off the mark. The posture is known as the pang ham yati, or pacifying the relatives position.

More surprising however is the appropriation of the Disney cartoon character Donald Duck, standing and eating a bowl full of noodles in the library hall garden. Like Ta Phrom in Angkor, Cambodia taking on the moniker of the Tomb Raider Temple after the Lara Croft film shot there, Wat Buppharam is referred to by some locals as the Donald Duck Temple. Wally and I found that many of the temple grounds in Chiang Mai have an element of whimsy to them, most notably in the form of statuary.

 

These sluglike creatures are called moms. You know how moms are: They’re never satisfied

Viharn 1

We decided to visit the small viharn, or prayer hall, located to the east of the Ho Monthiantham, first. It’s an elaborate affair of dark teak wood, stucco and ornate inlaid glass tiles with a low-slung, double-tiered roof. At its entrance you are welcomed by the curious mythological creatures hilariously called moms, one in silver and one in gold. A message beneath the gold one reads, “Please take off your shoes.” These aquatic creatures are from the Himavanta, a legendary forest that surrounds the base of Mount Meru, the home of the gods in Hindu mythology. Looking like a blunt-faced, late-stage-development tadpole-ferret hybrid, they serve as a reminder against clinging to impermanence and materiality. Moms are unable to satisfy their cravings — they endlessly gorge themselves, and because of this, they lack the necessary self-awareness to achieve enlightenment. 

The viharn was originally erected in 1819 by Prince Thamalangka, who restored and renovated many of Chiang Mai’s temples after the Burmese had abandoned the city during the long skirmish between the two kingdoms.  

Duke in the archway that leads to the chedi courtyard

The principal Buddha image was cast around 500 years ago and is seated in the Bhumisparsha mudra, or earth witness position, a gesture that represents the moment of enlightenment. Just before the Buddha reached nirvana, the demon king Mara tried to frighten him with armies of demons and monsters, including his daughters who tried to tempt Buddha to get out of meditation beneath the bodhi tree. When the Buddha’s hand touched the earth, it bellowed, “I bear you witness!” which in turn caused Mara and his minions to disappear.

Cats aren’t that common in Chiang Mai, but we found one resting in the second viharn, or prayer hall

Viharn 2

This prayer hall, found behind the other, has a large triangular pediment featuring a detailed carved wooden relief with a floral motif. The sacred structure is believed to be over 200 years old and contains a brass Buddha image cast around 500 years ago. It contains murals depicting scenes from one of the Jataka tales about the previous lives of the Buddha. This story, called the Vessantara Jataka tells of Prince Vessantara, who gives away everything he owns, demonstrating charity, one of the virtues of a bodhisattva.

A detail from the elaborately carved viharn doors

The richly carved front door panels of the Himavanta forest were replaced in 1983. We didn’t spot any moms, but a pair of hamsas, Buddhist geese, a symbol of purity and enlightenment, can be seen in the ornamental gable niche above the entrance.

A half-lion, half-dragon creature from Burmese mythology known as a chinthe helps protect the pagoda

Chedi

As Wally and I exited the second viharn and made our way to the chedi behind it, we passed a sign calling out a makeshift museum. Below the sign, a family of chickens happily strutted around, occasionally pecking at the dirt beneath.  

This Buddha in a red niche is one of four at the base of the tower that is said to hold a sacred relic

The original chedi, or reliquary tower, was believed to have contained a sacred remnant of the Buddha. Its present form is a bulbous Burmese bell shape decorated with a combination of gold leaf and glass mosaic. The chedi was restored in 1958 and has a tiered square base supporting three rings of diminishing volume. Each side features a bright red alcove containing a golden Buddha, while the spire at the top is crowned by a hti, a finial ornament symbolic of a sacred umbrella.  

A hen sits on her eggs in a pot by the chedi

We sat on a bench in the shade of one of the temple trees for a moment to take in the monument and while doing so, we heard a rustling in a nearby potted plant. Looking over, we saw a speckled black hen sitting atop the eggs she had laid in there.

Wally has a special affinity for these snakelike creatures called nagas

Dhamma Hall

Wally and I then proceeded to the largest and most recent structure within the complex. The two-story Ho Phra Monthiantham was erected by Abbot Phra Udom Kitti Mongkun and replaced the original wooden building that occupied the site in time for the 50th anniversary of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s reign. Its entrance is guarded and flanked by makaras, creatures from Hindu mythology that possess the body of a dolphin combined with a crocodile.

The mondop style structure was influenced by the mandapa temples of Northern India and is characterized by a cruciform-shaped building, multi-tiered roof with upturned flame-like naga finials and a wraparound porch on the upper floor, topped with a spire.  

Buddhist temples are filled with various statues in all sorts of mismatched styles

We took the staircase to the second floor, which contains the largest solid teak Buddha image in Chiang Mai. Painted in white and pale yellow, it was carved after a vision by King Sanphet II in the late 16th century, when he defeated the Burmese forces near Ban Muang Ngai, Thailand. This vision is depicted in the carved wood panels on the east wall. It’s believed to be 400 years old, and like the small viharn Buddha, is seated in the Bhumisparsha mudra, with additional smaller cast metal Buddha images in this position as well.

This playful mural by the artist Pornchai Jaima shows people worshipping a sacred tree

Expressive contemporary hand-painted murals by Thai artist Pornchai Jaima cover the walls of the lower level and possess a vivid, dreamlike depiction of traditional village life rendered in richly saturated hues.

Wally at Wat Bupphram, one of his favorite temples in Chiang Mai

Wat Buppharam features a combination of traditional elements and a dash of humor, which ended up making it onto Wally’s shortlist of favorites. Part of that had to do with Donald Duck I’m sure.


Wat Buppharam
Tha Phae Road
Tambon Chang Moi
Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai
Chang Wat
Chiang Mai 50300, Thailand