At 8 am we arrived in Chiang Mai, a popular backpacker’s stop in Thailand after a nine-hour bus trip from Ayutthaya (it cost 580 baht per person buying from a travel agent, 500 if bought directly at the bus station).
We hopped off the bus, paid a truck/tuktuk 150 baht (too much, I think) to get us to our hostel, and headed toward the Old Town of Chiang Mai.
The best part of Old Town, besides the winding narrow streets and the numerous temples, is that you’ve got to cross a moat to get into it. The old city walls are mostly crumbled, though portions of the gates remain. Built in the 13th century, Chiang Mai benefits from the mountainous region with cool weather, beautiful views, and lots of ethnic diversity. In the past, this region has been pretty tribal, with lots of ethnic minorities living on hillsides around one another. Chiang Mai was the capital of the Kingdom of La Na (or Lanna) until a Burmese invasion in 1538. When Siam (of Ayutthaya) helped push the Burmese out of the Thai mountains in 1775, they took ownership of Chiang Mai, though it wasn’t repopulated until the threat of the Burmese died down a couple of decades later.
Chiang Mai has around 300 temples altogether, though only a handful of them are in the Old Town.
Wat Chedi Luang is not the oldest temple in the area, but one of the most important. Built during the 14th century, it was the center (ninth) point of the cardinal directions. According to Lanna understanding, a city wasn’t just a collection of buildings, but a living entity with a soul. Points of the city were respresented by body parts, such as the royal palace and important buildings seen as the head, and therefore in the northern part of the city. This temple was the city’s anchoring point, similar to the heart in a human body, and it was here that yearly religious ceremonies were performed.
An earthquake in the late 16th century destroyed much of the temple, but it has been partially restored for both the Thai people and visitors to enjoy.
Next to the temple is a Buddhist compound, made up of a worship area, library, museum, and local area for the monks. They have an interesting program, the “monk chat,” which encourages visitors to sit with monks and ask any question about Buddhism or monk life. We made our way to a covered table, sitting with a young monk dressed in his brown sabong and an older English man who served as translator for more difficult questions. We didn’t know about this place beforehand, otherwise I would’ve read up on Buddhism (I haven’t read anything about it since high school)! Jordan and I asked whatever questions came to mind, though the monk was shy and not very talkative.
His name was Chala, and he was 26 years old and had been a monk since he was 20. Although many boys become novices first, then later monks, he said he became a monk without going through any novice program. He wakes up at 5 am every day to meditate, then goes to distribute food. In the mornings and afternoons he spends his time at the outreach “monk chat” center, which helps him practice English, and plans to be a monk all his life.
Finer theology points were a little beyond his English comprehension and our knowledge base, so after about 10 minutes we smiled, bowed, and left.
Most museums are closed on Mondays in Chiang Mai, so we wandered around the Old Town, passing current temples and beautiful Thai artwork. They have a practice of embedding mirror shards and other reflective properties into walls to add sparkle to them–it’s very striking at night.
Jordan and I were also very impressed with the artwork and geometric designs everywhere, in the boldest and brightest reds and golds. The door below leads to a Buddhist temple, though it is decorated with designs of Thai legends and mythical creatures.
We had discussed going to see the “long neck women” tribe, a settlement of the Karen ethnic group, but decided against it after reading two articles suggesting that the Karen people (especially the women) feel pressured to invite tourists into the homes because of their refugee backgrounds the Thai government keeps reminding them of. However, this blog post is a nice rebuttal, I think. Jordan and I both dislike both of the extreme ends of the debate “it’s unauthentic and a human zoo!” and “take a picture of the exotic people!”. We thought (and still do think) that if done well, a tour can be very enlightening. I mean, we travel to learn about other cultures and people, right? So as long as a visit is done respectfully, treating the Karen people with the dignity they deserve as fellow human beings, it can be an awesome way to learn more and help them develop economically. We’ve done the tour-to-the-indigenous-village before and really enjoyed it. However, the trick is finding the right tour group. We didn’t really know how to go about finding that, so we decided to pass.
But, we said, we were definitely doing the elephants!