Thursday, January 22, 2015

Chiang Mai: The Monk's Path

Yesterday we re-emerged into the world of internet connectivity, so this post is 13 days delayed. It's been an eventful 13 days since then, so stay posted for more updates!


Our time so far in Thailand has been fascinating. First Bangkok, then Chiang Mai. Every day you see something completely new on the streets. That being said, after a week here both Anna and I were feeling a little nature-deprived. It's so easy to get pulled in and consumed by what's going on in the city streets around you that it's easy to forget that there's a whole other kind of world out there, a world much more saturated with green.

There's a mountain that overlooks Chiang Mai, and if the light is right and the day is clear you can see a brilliant gold spire glinting on the mountain. That is Doi Suthep, home to the golden wat of Wat Prathat. It's a popular tourist spot, and it's easy enough to get on a songthaew (a converted red pick-up truck, one of the main modes of transportation here) from the city to take you up the windy road that climbs 1000 meters up to the base of the temple. But we had heard that there was another way up, a way much more suited to adventurers like ourselves: a mountain trek!

With Google Maps and a helpful blog post, we set out northwest from our hostel, The Green Tulip, to where the city becomes a little less built up and the ground starts to climb upwards. After only a little confusion (farang, or foreigners, were uncommon and most signs were in Thai), we found the trailhead.

The path up to the temple was originally used by monks as they traveled to and from the wat, and the path is marked by cloths the color of monk's robes tied around the trunks of trees. 

We were completely removed from the city. The terrain was lush green and jungle-like and the air humid. With the orange cloths guiding our way, it felt like a holy journey -- I couldn't help but immagine the pilgrimages of the monks before us, making their way up the mountain to the temples. 

Eventually we emerged at Wat Phalat (also known as Wat Phalad or Wat Palad). Wat Pha Lat was unlike any other temple I had seen so far. In both Bangkok and Chiang Mai, wats are everywhere. Sometimes it can feel like there's one on every block, and in some cases, there is! They are usually grand structures of bejewelled gold - very beautiful, but you can start to become ruffled by a sense of repitition. After a while, wat's the point? (Side note: major props to Anna for putting up with my puns thus far).

But Wat Phalat was different. It was not overclad in gold, but rather set into the mountain with beautiful stone figures of Buddhas, dragons, and other fascinating mystical creatures.


My favorite part was the staircase of white dragons that undulated down the mountain, echoing the river and waterfalls that wound their way through the temple. It was peaceful and quiet with few visitors.

The trail forward was unmarked and unclear. We climbed up and found ourselves out onto the road, confronted by the songthaews full of tourists buzzing up the mountain. We started to hike up the road in hopes of finding where the trail began again. No luck. We ended up meeting a group of 3 fellow travelers at a rest stop and flagging down a truck up to the top. We had almost 4 miles to go and if it was going to be all road we decided we'd rather go up to the top and find the right way down.

We got dropped off at the top of the mountain at the base of Doi Suthep, directly into the middle of a buzzing tourist village. Peddlers hawked wares to the throngs of foreigners carrying selfie-sticks and wallets full of Thai baht. 

The wat was beautiful and overwhelmingly gold and overwhelmingly overrun with people. 

My favorite part of Doi Suthep were the murals depicting the story of the different stages of the life of the Buddha.

It wasn't long before we started making our way back down the mountain. We walked down along the road until we saw the nearly impossible-to-find trail entrance and descended away from the throngs of tourists and back down into the green.

 We stopped again at Wat Phalat - a beautiful and refreshing contrast from the chaos we had found at the top of the mountain - to rest and refuel.

We had been walking since 8 am and returned to our hostel around 7 pm. We had managed to avoid an unexpected storm for a beautiul (albeit sticky) day, and what a day it had been! I find it's the adventures you make for yoursef that tend to be the most worthwhile....


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