On top of the highest mountain in Thailand lies a temple. Doi Sothep rises above Chiang Mai, like an older sister whose presence alone commands attention. It is said that in the 1300’s, a white elephant carrying a Buddhist relic, climbed this massive mountain, reached the top, trumpeted three times and breathed its last. Thus, followers of Buddha built a worship place at that very spot. Over the centuries, the shrine amassed into the enormous Wat Phra That, which I visited a week ago.
Upon reaching the top of the mountain, we were greeted by crowds of tourists, pilgrims, and entrepreneurs. Tour buses, taxis, and personal vehicles lined the streets. Rising above all of the human bustle, rose several Buddhist figures, still, glowing, and splendid. Vendors lined the walkways, selling goods that ranged from live birds in baskets to bells for the Buddha. At the base of the 200+ steps to the actual temple sat young hill tribe girls, repeating, “Do you want to take a photo? Any price, up to you.” Along side of them stood massive dragon heads, glinting with green scales that accompanied the tail all the way up to the temple at the top of the stairs. The climb was not bad, just breathtaking; but mostly because I am out of shape.
The visual at the top of the stairs was a loose template for the rest of my Doi Suthep experience. To my left was a emergency health station, no doubt government mandated. Straight ahead were signs, directing nationals straight onwards, and foreigners to the right, staying true to the double pricing system in Thailand. To my right was an ice cream store… they know us foreigners too well 😉
After uniting with my host family (whom had taken the lift up), we entered the temple’s courtyard. After passing the masses of footwear scrambled on the floor, we stepped betwixt two Hindu Ganesha figures, and into an open-air arena of gold and people.
Everywhere I looked, a gold or emerald face was staring blankly onto the sea of of people. These people seemed in slight awe and full delight at the scenery, like they weren’t sure where to start or to finish. At the center, rose a massive pagoda, rising above the earth, shooting into the sky. Around it, devotees walked as they chanted a Buddhist mantra, printed out for them on white sheets. Monks were present in some of the side rooms, as they blessed believers in the shadow of massive Buddhist figures.
What struck me was how commercialized and touristy it felt. I am not Buddhist or Hindu, but I still expect a certain amount of reverence when entering a place of worship, no matter the religion. To my dismay, I found very little respect in attitude (at least what I am used to). Instead, I noticed the insane amount of offerings; money, flowers, bells, candles, etc – were stacked in front of the figures. Many figures had money placed in their hands, or even gold leaf stuck to their bodies. Plastic, monetary donation boxes sat in front of several figures, filled with bills and coins. People did not seem to notice the “Please Be Quite Signs.” A very different way of worship. I suppose the core of my discomfort surrounds the idea that a personal relationship with the deities did not seem present in this place.
Another piece of my experience was how frighteningly beautiful the figures were. As an artist who has cast figures, the pure craftsmanship and creativity behind these idols made me smile with pride for fellow creators. Simultaneously, I considered my belief that real spirits resided in this place – powerful, ancient spirits, and in my own faith, any spirit that is not from God is evil – so they are not spirits I wish to worship or give devotion to. My thoughts played tag with being attracted to the beauty of the figures and reeling back at the realities they held.
Until next time,