We’re in a new city and again we have no idea what to expect. But we have heard there are lots of temples to explore here in Chiang Mai so that’s what we set out to do. It’s a 3km (2 mile) walk from our apartment to the Old City so there will be a lot of walking done this afternoon. I notice the difference between Chiang Mai and the capital immediately. This city is much drier and dustier at this time of year. The roads a wider and the traffic seems to move faster, possibly because there is less off it to clog the roads up. The culture feel different already too, just in these first few kilometres. There are fewer street restaurants and fruit vendors than in the capital and more shops and undercover restaurants. It’s going to be interesting to see what this city has to offer.
We reach our first temple just near the old city wall. I had expected it to look much like those we say in the south but it’s totally different. Instead of white washed concrete walls, the temple is made of timber painted dark brown. Inside, this temple is far more elaborate than anything we have seen so far. There is more structural work in the ceiling and pillars, and the “altar” has more images and decorations on it. And the murals on the wall are spectacular. It takes a while for my mind to adjust. I had gotten so used to Bangkok’s style of temple that it didn’t even occur to me that they would be so different here.
There is a smaller temple nearby in a side street. It’s cute and the red coloured interior is more familiar to my eye. The workmanship is amazing and I am dazzled by the beauty of this peaceful place. It seems almost odd to see a group of young backpackers taking group selfies on the steps. Not bad, just odd in the context of this beautiful temple (there are signs in some temples here in Thailand that specifically state that taking of photos is acceptable in wats so long as you are respectful of the religious aspect of the place).
We keep exploring temples throughout the city as we make our way ever deeper into the old city. They really are amazing places. I love the way the temples remain peaceful despite the volume of tourism that is happening. Monks still meditate and the faithful still pray as foreigners from around the globe click their cameras and gasp in wonder at the beauty. It’s an experience of wonder.
Most of the temples have pretty gardens immaculately landscaped. Flowers blossom and the scent of incense mingles with floral notes. Signs warn of scammers and I hope this deters those who would prey on well-meaning and innocent travellers from entering these sacred places.
Eventually, we find ourselves in the middle of the city at Wat Chedi Luang. The complex is amazing and we spend an hour or more here exploring the temples, halls and museum. My favourite image is that of the fat monk Tan Pra Maha Kajjana who people mistook for Lord Buddha. One monk saw the Tan Pra Maha Kajjana and though him so beautiful that if he had been a woman he would have wanted to be with him. Tan Pra Maha Kajjana heard of this and decided he didn’t want any monks to have inappropriate thoughts about him, so he transformed himself in a fat and ugly monk. I like this story and the fat monk image always looks cheerful and kind of funny when I see it in temples.
We stop at another nearby wat that is quiet and untouristed. The only other people there are a family who are leaving as we enter. I always like these quiet lonely temples the best because they feel so special. I wonder what makes one wat a tourist attraction and another a local place of prayer. Is it the history, marketing or is the less touristed place somehow kept more secret to preserve a space for private prayer? It’s certainly not an issue of beauty because the quiet places are often as or more stunning than the popular ones.
There’s a walking street from 4pm every Sunday in Chiang Mai. A walking street here in Thailand is when cars are locked out of a street and it is turned into a market. The Sunday Walking Street is massive and takes up much more than just one street. The Sunday Walking Street is probably almost a mile long of itself with many of the side streets blocked off for at least a block in each direction to accommodate more stalls. If you want souvenirs, be it t-shirts, paintings, handicrafts or almost anything else, you can probably get it here. Many of the items have prices signed on them that seem quite fair. I actually bought a coin purse for 10 baht (40 cents) to save me holding coins loose in my pockets. It’s cute and touristy and the first souvenir I think I’ve bought myself since I started Looking For 42.
At one end of the Sunday Walking Street there is a large wat. It’s about 5pm when we arrive so the monks and novices are all sitting inside ready for their evening chanting. We don’t know this is going to happen so it comes as a pleasant surprise. The chanting is beautiful to hear and calm reverberates through the temple. Some official-looking women politely instruct tourists who are going too far with taking of photos to leave so if you want to take a photo or video, make sure you are sitting peacefully and reverently with your camera held discretely in front of you. There doesn’t seem to be a problem with the taking of photos or videos because plenty of people took them but weren’t asked to leave. It seems to be in the way you take the action that is important – the religious ceremony is paramount. We took some photos and even a short video using Paul’s phone to capture the lovely chanting. But we also just sat and listened too so the ladies sending people out decided to leave us be (we saw them watching us taking photos).
After the chanting we went back out to walk back to our apartment via the Sunday Walking Street. There was something being said over public address system. And then the national anthem or King’s song played (I don’t know which). In that moment the market went from a bustling place of commerce to total silence. Everyone stopped in their tracks and waited for the anthem to be sung. Then business resumed as usual. An hour or two later we were back at our hotel having gotten a taste of our home for the week.