Chiang Mai is the capital of Northern Thailand. It is the second most important city in the country, next to Bangkok. It is home to a major university, an international airport, and about 300 wats. A wat is a Buddhist temple. Thais have their own style of Buddhist temple design that has influences from Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and China. In Chiang Mai, the wats are a bit more rustic, with more features built from teak wood and roof lines that dip farther into the walls. Here is an account of some of the notable wats we visited in Chiang Mai.
The oldest wat in Chiang Mai is Chiang Man, which was built around 1300. The "chedi" or "stupa" tower in the back of the wat rests on the backs of 13 stucco elephants. All around the wats you can find vendors selling various things you can use for offerings. They sell lots of different things, from orange monk robes to pink lotus shaped candles to live birds. Jennifer set the live birds free for good luck.
The next wat of note that we visited was Phra Singh, which is considered the main wat of Chiang Mai. Here is Craig and I in front of the main wat next to one of the guardian nagas. A naga is a sort of snake that can have from one to seven heads. If you have read our post on Cambodia, then you already know all about them. In Chiang Mai, the naga statues usually only have one head, and they are shown emerging from the mouth of another dragon. Look closely next to Craig's shoulder - those white spikes are the teeth of another dragon that the naga emerges from!
Inside we met some monks. In Thailand, most men are expected to serve for a time as a monk at the local wat. You can serve as a monk for any duration of time, from a few days to a few years. Even the King of Thailand served as a monk for a few weeks. The young monks pictured below are novice monks.
There was a lot of activity during the Songkran holiday season. One tradition is to build miniature chedis out of sand and baskets in the grounds of the wat. Here is Jennifer and Craig in front of some small sand chedis. The flags have the horoscope animals on it, plus an elephant.
Each wat actually houses multiple buildings, each with exquisite carvings and gold-leafed statues. This doorway is covered in tiny intricate carvings and then covered with gold leaf.
This next wat is Chedi Luang, which at one point was home to the famous Emerald Buddha. The Emerald Buddha is actually made out of green jade, and is now housed in Royal Palace in Bangkok. The chedi in this wat was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1500's. It was restored recently by some Japanese researchers, however they stopped before building the tower. The reason they stopped is that no one really knows what the rest of the chedi should look like, so they couldn't agree on how to finish it.
Just behind the main chedi is a small chapel made of dark-stained teak wood and decorated with inlaid stones and jewelled glass. It's something we haven't seen before in Thailand, where most wats are covered in gold leaf and the wood is painted white.
Wats typically have bells located somewhere on the grounds. Worshippers will ring each bell in succession for good luck. Craig rang them because we said it was okay - it's not often it's acceptable for a six-year-old to make noise!
The most famous wat near Chiang Mai is Phrathat Doi Suthep. Phrathat Doi Suthep is the second most important wat in Thailand, next to the wats near the Royal Palace in Bangkok. This wat is located high in the mountains just to the west of Chiang Mai. It is said that an ancient monk came into possession of one of Buddha's bone fragments. This artifact had several convenient magical powers, among them the power to be invisible or the power to replicate itself. The monk placed this fragment on an elephant and released it into the hills. Once the elephant found the spot for the wat, it trumpeted three times and died on the spot. It was definitely a long hike to the top of the mountain for the elephant. The stairs from the base of the hill where Phrathat Doi Suthep is built have over 300 steps, with a seven-headed naga lining each side.
The top of the hill offers great views of Chiang Mai, and also a nice setting to enjoy a refreshing beverage. Do you recognize this brand? There really isn't anything more American than a blue-eyed, blond-haired beauty drinking โคก, is there?
Here is Jennifer ringing the bells at Phrathat Doi Suthep. I guess adults like to make noise, too.
In the middle of the wat is this gold-clad chedi, which houses the Buddha artifact somewhere inside (it's likely in an invisible state right now). We were happy for the cloud cover and the high altitude, all of that gold reflection can be very hot in full sun!
Here is Jennifer standing near the chedi.
That night we thought we were done with wats. However, while wondering the streets of Chiang Mai, we stumbled onto this little cooking stand. We had stir-fired basil with rice, and kaw soy noodles. It was the best food we had all day - and it cost literally pennies!