Quaint, laid back and an absolute delight, Chiang Mai had presented me with many tranquil and soul searching moments. At times the brazen side of Thailand had made me very travel weary and I had escaped to beautiful Chiang Mai to un ruffle. It is one of the most beautiful cities in Thailand and possibly there is no better place in that country, (in my eyes) where you can soothe a troubled heart. The present day Lanna capital was the place where I learnt soul soothing meditation practices and have spent many soft twilights nursing my poor heart at its ancient wats (temples). Around 2010 a grave illness and personal tragedy had nearly clipped my wings, when the old trees and stones of Chiang Mai wats had helped me rise from the ashes, thus giving birth to maverickbird.
Lanna was one of the most significant and culturally rich kingdoms of ancient Thailand and it was called the “kingdom of million rice fields”. Under the rule of King Mengrai the empire stretched over most of northern Thailand, Laos, parts of Yunnan province in China and north of Vietnam, thus closeting in nearly million rice fields as its name suggested. Chiang Mai’s historical center was my favourite place in the city and I loved meandering within the old walls, marveling at the wats or very old wooden Lanna style houses, sampling juices from different street vendors and catching my breath under Thai cherry tree blossoms. The sublime nostalgic charm and the flower filled winding lanes of Chiang Mai have a feel of a life in vignettes, long gone and provided some very beautiful photo walks.
Still now the erst while Lanna Kingdom is surrounded by teak forests, high mountains, bio diverse dense jungles filled with wild animals, fast flowing rivers and endless stretches of terraced rice fields. In olden times because of navigability of Mae Ping River, Chiang Mai used to be a major trading town between Southern China and Burmese sea ports. This made the town flourish and the kings had enough wealth to lavish on arts and wats. Handicrafts like wood carving, painted bo san parasols and intricate silver work were much patronized and their charms can be felt even today. Most travelers and first time Chiang Mai visitors feel lost trying to choose from exciting things to do here and struggle with time. Most go back exhausted from too many rushed through group tours and way too many bags full of Chiang Mai shopping.
I had learned my CM lessons early and once spent 4 days just exploring the city’s famous wats. To make the DIY walking tour more pleasant and easier I divided it into 2 parts- Walled city and Beyond the old city. The walled city or the historic part of CM has some of Thailand’s most beautiful Buddhist religious monuments and most of them can be explored by foot. I used to amble out of my guesthouse post breakfast, walk along the moat to enter through the remnants of the ancient gates and explore CM’s tiny gem boutiques, silver filigree jewelry shops, artsy cafes, local designers’ fashion studios apart from the countless wats. While I found my peace at the wild Wat Umong, outside the city, Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Bupparam and Wat Chiang Man were also pretty impressive.
TRAVEL TIP- Chiang Mai has more than 200 wats and you can simply drown in them. While the most popular ones within the old city it is advisable to study about them a bit before exploring, create your own favourite wat list and then walk around. Afternoons can be pretty muggy and uncomfortable in CM, and you would not like to waste time seeing repetition of popular wat styles.
The first wat I stumbled upon was the Wat Bupparam, located near the Thaphae Gate. Pretty, flower filled and quiet, it was very impressive and got me going on my wat discovery of CM. Built around 15th century, Wat Bupparam contains some very beautiful statues and is heavily adorned. It boasts of 3 major Buddha images – one in painted wood, one covered with gold leaf and one made of green gemstone. After taking in my fill of its quiet beauty I walked over to the Wat Phra Singh and immediately got swallowed up by a huge crowd of tourists.
It is undoubtedly the most stunning wat within the old city and one of the most popular in the tourist circuit. It’s Lanna-style temple murals, black and gold lacquered columns and intricate gold patterns on red lacquer behind the altar are breathtakingly beautiful. There is a large chedi (stupa) with the complex which was built in 1345 by King Pha Yu to immure the remains of his father King Kam Fu. The in house wat repository has an impressive collection of the delicate sa or mulberry paper sheets which were used by monks and temple scribes for maintaining records and folklore.
TRAVEL TIP – Entrance to Wat Phra Singh is free for Thais and chargeable by 20 baht for foreigners. Respectable attire covering shoulders and legs is required for entering inside the wat and robes are available at the entrance for those wearing shorts etc.
Wat Chedi Luang, located nearly in the centre of Chiang Mai was next and in comparison to Phra Singh, was much more peaceful. Of course it was bigger, had more space and perhaps had more active monks than the other wats. Saffron robed monks moved around noiselessly busy and added more character to the atmospheric wat. It is also most historically significant among all the wats and contains the remnants of a massive ancient chedi. The chedi was badly damaged during the massive earthquake of 1545 and part of it has been painstakingly reconstructed brick by brick.
Wat Chedi Luang was commissioned by the King Saeng Muang Ma in 1401 and in 1454 the reigning King Tilo-Garaj added the massive 86 meters tall chedi. Interestingly Wat Chedi Luang also houses a totem (Pillar of the City) which was used in ancient Thai fertility rites. A black jade replica of the Emerald Buddha has recently been placed inside this wat and there is a wax statue of a much revered temple monk. However it is the Wat Chiang Man dating back to 1296 which is the oldest royal temple in the city. It is famous for the two ancient Buddha images, which according to legends are 1,800 and 2,500 years old. King Mengrai also supposedly lived here during the construction of his capital city of Chiang Mai.
My favourite was however the dazzling Wat Srisuphan. Tucked away in a quiet leafy lane it is not yet popular on the tourist or local wat circuit, and was refreshingly quiet. The original (now non existent except for bits of boundary wall) temple was built in 1502 and the wat complex includes a beaten silver workshop and monk chat facilities. The temple itself is beautifully covered with intricate hand beaten silver plates and spires. Bamboo groves covered the wat and little fountains splashed water in its well tended gardens. The Thai King smiled down from the larger than life poster and huge dancing Ganesha/Hindu elephant god threw long shadows on the grass.
Fragrance coiled from incense sticks and gold and silver prayer leaves glittered in the sun. Everything was peaceful, serene and beautiful, just what I had expected from a wat. Since being a woman, I could not enter the chapel, I walked around to explore the silver workshop within the complex. Monks and artisans worked busily creating silver panels which depicted scenes from life of Buddha. Clanging noise of their hammers and acrid smell of chemicals filled the place and it seemed like a sacrilege to the quietness of the wat.
TRAVEL TIP – The silver work on the temple began a few years ago to highlight the silver filigree home industry of Chiang Mai and there is also a silver work school inside the temple complex. Wat Srisuphan also offers a “monk chat” program, where those who are interested can talk with a monk about Buddhism or life as a monk and introduction to meditation sessions.
I took 1 day to explore the wats outside the walled city of CM and the same evening registered myself at Wat Umong for meditation classes. No CM visit is complete without going to the revered holy Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and I too paid tribute to the iconic wat. Located on a mountain, 15 kilometers away from Chiang Mai city, it is a sacred site for most Thais. The wat straddles the summit of Doi Suthep mountain in the middle of dense Doi Suthep National Park and the drive up to the complex was very pretty. In fact I found it more pleasant than the wat where huge crowds of excited camera totting tourists made it nearly impossible to enjoy its intricate beauty.
The gold plated chedi of this wat on a clear day is the most iconic sight of Chiang Mai and creates exceptionally beautiful photos. The origin of Doi Suthep is as fantastic as the wat and although there are many versions of it, the most popular one mentions that it was built in 1383 under the orders of King Nu Naone. Reportedly a monk named Sumanathera from Sukhothai in his dream was directed to a relic in Pang Cha where he found a magical bone. It was claimed to be the shoulder bone of Lord Buddha and he brought it to his king of Sukhothai. The king however was doubtful about it’s authenticity and ordered him to keep it.
King Nu Naone, the then ruling king of Lanna kingdom after hearing about the relic, requested the monk to bring it to him instead. So in 1368, Sumanathera brought the relic to Lamphun in northern Thailand and presented it to the king. King Nu Naone placed the relic on the back of a white elephant and released it in the jungle. The elephant climbed Doi Suthep where it trumpeted three times before falling dead at the site. This was interpreted as a good omen and made King Nu Naone choose Doi Suthep as the site of this incredible wat. And Wat Doi Suthep is indeed incredible. The golden chedi is the holiest part of the wat and it also has some fine pagodas, statues, bells and shrines, along with a model of the Emerald Buddha and statue of Hindu God Ganesha.
It is still a working monastery, has the intricately carved Naga Serpent staircase and inside the cloister, the Lanna style chedi is topped by an exquisite five tiered gold umbrella. Breathtaking and dazzling, it is Thailand’s one of the most holy chedi. There is an International Buddhism Center inside the complex where monk chats and prayer chanting can be experienced. It is also possible to learn and practice Vipasaana meditation here. Around 4 kilometers away is Phra Tamnak Phu Phing, the royal winter palace with impressive gardens which can be visited occasionally ( it remains closed during the royal family visits).
I took in the stunning views of Chiang Mai nestled placidly amidst the lush, green forested bowl before heading towards the 700 years old Wat Umong. Located near the Chiang Mai university it is one of the most unique temples in Thailand and definitely the wildest. Tucked away in the naturally forested slope, it is hauntingly beautiful and the green sappy freshness, buzz of crickets and prayers echoing through ancient trees made me feel at home immediately. It is also a working wat and has meditation centres tucked away in its expansive forested grounds.
Monks of Wat Umong lived among trees, birds, insects and deer with only prayers and work on their routine. The entire complex stretched across fifteen acres and had famous ancient tunnels and a large stupa. These tunnels were supposedly built under the orders of the King and painted with forest scenes to keep a famous, mentally deranged monk within the grounds of the monastery. Words of wisdom written in English and Thai hung from the trees leading to a small lake where fish and turtles were being fed. A quiet prayer filled evening kept me there till dusk and I made the wat my home by nightfall.
It had been one of the most powerful experiences I ever had. The wat soothed me, calmed me down and healed me and all the work was done by nature herself. The trees, birds, crickets, stars and sublime sunsets worked their magic and Mother Nature lavished love on her troubled child. Of course the prayers, the learnings, volunteer work and the wat also helped, and by the time I re emerged, nature had claimed me back and maverickbird, the cloud gypsy was born.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE