Jan 172010

Chiang Mai (January 17, 2010)

We departed at 8:00am for our visit to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, located at the top of a nearby mountain where, legend has it, a white elephant chose the spot for the temple. It is said that if you didn’t visit this temple, you didn’t visit Chiang Mai. Despite the hyperbole, it’s an unusually cool temple. And there are some really good restaurants nearby.

We pulled into the parking lot at the popular Boat restaurant, and had no problem getting a table for breakfast. Tourism seems to be down a bit this year. The house specialty is a richly flavored beef bone broth with a few slices of tender beef (with tasty collagen bits) and a choice of wide or thin rice noodles. They also served up good-looking plates of fried rice noodles with Chinese broccoli and a choice of chicken or pork. The fresh squeezed tangerine juice here was somewhat tart , but still delicious. Thus fortified, we were ready to make our pilgrimage.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep has a 300-step staircase elaborately decorated with an undulating naga. Unlike the naga staircases at other temples we visited, this one is finished in colorful green and blue tiles, making the sea serpent effect much more realistic. Every 7-12 stairs (it’s bizarrely inconsistent) there is a landing to catch one’s breath and try another photo: you just can’t fit it all in one picture. Of course, before even getting to the naga staircase, there are a few flights of stairs surrounded by vendor stalls hawking everything from fruit juice to large woodcarvings. There will be plenty of time for shopping later.

The temple has an inner area with a gold-plated chedi, numerous small Buddha images, areas to light candles and burn incense, and a couple of chapels, all surrounded by wall mural panels depicting significant phases in the life of the Buddha. The signature chedi was covered with scaffolding, but the place was a beehive of activity and photography. In the chapels, monks dispensed blessings to those who requested them. In one case, the monk tied a string around each person’s wrist. In another, he used a bamboo whisk to flick holy water on the heads of a dozen people as they kneeled. Without a better grounding in local practice, these different rituals will remain a mystery to me. I escaped the cloying incense smoke, slipped on my shoes, and explored the outer temple area.

Here, too, there was some maintenance in progress, but the mood was very festive. Music students (or students with musical aptitude?) played instruments and performed traditional dances, while visitors dropped coins and small bills in their donation boxes. There also were bells to ring, gongs to bang, and shops selling books, music, and Buddha images of various sizes. Young boys in monks’ robes joked around on a side terrace, and locals and tourists alike tried their hands with the cans of wishing sticks. Of all the temples we have visited, this one best seemed to capture the mix of reverence and fun characteristic of the Thai approach to life.

Pam and Deborah at the foot of the Naga Staircase

Half way up or down the Naga Staircase

Classic Buddha Image at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Emerald Buddha at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Circling the Chedi clockwise

Cat sitting down?

Unusual image of a monk?

Ringing bells at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Ringing bells at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Music students performing

Music students performing

Student dancer

Feeding the students a donation

Lloyd makes a donation

After returning to the bottom of the hill, we visited the “ruins” at Wat Jet Yot, some of which are about 600 years old and based on designs brought back from India. We didn’t linger, as it was time for lunch.

At Kaeng-Ron Baan Suan Restaurant, we started with two Northern-style dips: one of green chillies, a bit sour and quite hot, the other made with ground pork and a little tomato, which would be fantastic on pasta. These were accompanied by fresh vegetables, including crispy long beans, cabbage, and small Thai eggplants, and a plate of deliciously crunchy pork rinds. Our salad was mixed fruit — pieces of apple, dragon fruit, pineapple, and grapes (watch for seeds!) —in a hot and sour dressing. By itself, the dressing was a bit heavy on salty fish sauce, but with the sweet fruit, it tasted right. We had two plates of sausage: sour sausage and spicy sausage, both deep fried after slicing to enhance their flavor and crispiness, served with peanuts, ginger chunks, and tiny but brutal chillies for optional heat. Two small grilled catfish were served with a variety of accompaniments: bitter neem blossoms, cilantro, and a sticky sweet sauce. You flake off a chunk or two dry catfish, stack it on your plate (or spoon) with the other ingredients and some sticky rice, and eat it all at once to blend the flavors. Nice. This restaurant’s hunglay curry of fatty pork belly has an extra-generous helping of ginger threads, but it didn’t seem too strong. (I’ve even developed a tolerance for the generous slabs of belly fat, although that probably will change when I touch down in California.) My memory of our soup with a dark leafy green is incomplete. It was pretty good. For dessert, I had to have the sesame-filled glutinous rice dumplings in hot ginger tea. Much better than back in Bangkok; this is the taste I remember.

I was dozing in my seat when we pulled off the road at the forest monastery Wat U Mong. With its collection of lost and found Buddha parts and faded tunnel paintings, nothing could be less fancy. But locals come here to feed the fish and the pigeons, and it has a bit of a park-like atmosphere. Forest monasteries were meant for meditation, and there are signs affixed to the trees with deep thoughts meant to help a monk find his path to enlightenment. The ones that have been translated into English might help us. For example, “Cut yourself some slack. Remember, One hundred years from now, All new people.”

Before we can relax, though, we have to sort out our luggage. On our short flight to Bangkok tomorrow, the weight limit is lower than for international flights, so we need to put our non-essential items into our vans. After sorting my non-essential items into an overflow duffel bag and a double-overflow box, I was ready for something essential: a haircut.

Internet research didn’t yield much guidance, so I strolled down the nearest alley and stopped at the first place where I saw someone getting a cut. This is based on the theory that if someone else was stupid enough to patronize the establishment, I am, too. It was only a few minutes before my turn in the chair. After carefully placing a towel around my shirt collar, my barber proceeded to alternately wet my hair with a spray bottle and attack rapidly with various different combs, scissors, and clips. There did not seem to be any attempt to clean equipment between customers, which may help explain why the cost is only $3. The fact that one side is (to me) noticeably longer than the other also is a detraction. I think I will try to get it fixed at another salon in Bangkok.

I noticed two members of our group in the local photo printing shop, so I stopped in to see what they were up to. They had just come back from his and hers foot massages at a local place where they had five of the ladies pose for a picture with them. Taking a page out of Kasma’s playbook, they were making prints to take back to the massage place. The response was wild excitement among the more outgoing women; the ones who hadn’t mugged for the camera might have sensed a lost opportunity, but that’s how life is: you just never know what’s going to happen.

For dinner we walked to the nearby Antique House. One of the first things we ordered was a bucket of ice to help finish off two bottles of hard alcohol that could not be carried aboard our flight tomorrow. More importantly, we ate more Thai food! We had an appetizer of tasty but a bit oily deep fried sour sausage balls in an edible taro basket; stir-fried morning glories; a delicious (if slightly mild) green curry with chicken, Thai eggplants, and bitter pea eggplants, served in a young coconut; a chopped beef salad seasoned with hot chillies and served with crunchy vegetables (reminiscent of a pork larb, but with a characteristic beefy flavor); a snake-head fish that had been boned, its meat fried and stuffed back into its skin, and then deep fried again, accompanied by a hot green chilli dipping/spooning sauce; and a red curry of mixed seafood with an eggy texture, served in a young coconut. For dessert, we cooled down with an order of very ripe mango with slightly stiff sticky rice; I’ll be enjoying this rich treat again in Bangkok during my few days between trips. Unless I go on diet.

As for the after dinner entertainment, it turns out GuitarMan is closed on Sundays, so I just crashed for the evening. Whether it was the rum drinks, or a cold coming on, my body had very definite priorities: less shopping, more sleeping.

Tomorrow we return to Bangkok for our last day together. There will be shopping and a feast. And maybe one more massage.

  One Response to “The Temple on the Hill”

Comments (1)
  1. Did you take the cat picture for me.:-)
    Sounds like you arre having a great time.
    Miss you


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