Friday, October 21, 2011
Laos Part 1b - Chaing Mai old city temples
One more left day in Chaing Mai (well, for this trip), so much to do. I was grateful for the early night last night to be up so early. I had arranged with the hotel staff to take part in the morning alms offerings, or tak bart, with the hotel staff. Almost next door to Ping Nakara was a local temple, Wat Chaimongkol. Every morning before dawn, like in almost every Thai town and many parts of south-east Asia where Buddhism is practised, monks wonder the streets of the local town to collect alms (food offerings). The collected food becomes their main meal of the day. It is a Buddhist tradition that dates back to the times of the Buddha. Unlike begging, monks just walk, mindfully, without any expectations, present themselves at doorways or householders’ gates asking nothing, and then move along. If an offering is made, a prayer or blessing is offered in return. It is also an opportunity for lay people (i.e. non-ordained practitioners) to ‘make merit’ or good karma.
Standing in the pre dawn darkness, I could hear the city waking up. Already, a number of motor bikes cruised the black streets, many laden with fresh produce for the markets, or from the markets. Some with whole families crammed on, getting ready for their day of work and school. Here I was, a foreigner, straight out of a luxurious, latex bed, unlike those locals around me that had probably already been up for hours, slept on a 2-inch thick foam mattress laid on the ground, now taking part of a tradition that dates back to a time before Christ.
Now a little off topic, I truly don’t believe in foreigners taking part in tak bart unless they have sincere motivation. That, to me, means in some understanding of Buddhism and the three refuges in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Or at least an understanding in cause and effect – which is the law of karma. It’s not about the action, to some extent, but the motivation behind the action that speaks volumes.
In the morning cool, three saffron clad monks appeared from the pre-dawn gloom. The hotel receptionist tried to explain how to make the offerings in the local tradition, and I followed along, keeping in mind the refuge prayers of my own temple. Placing the little plastic bags of food in the large brass bowls, along with bottles of water and fresh fruit, I tried to imagine that this food would benefit all hungry beings. Once we had placed all the food in the monks’ bowls, all three folded their hands together and chanted a blessing prayer. And within seconds, they were gone. Making a prayer of dedication with the hotel staff, I poured the water that the monks blessed into the hotel grounds’ gardens, and went back to my room. It was now just before 6am.
No time to waste, I was ready. A quick (and sumptuous) shower after a simple breakfast beside the pool, I was ready to explore to city by foot. As usual, I had a large number of places I hoped to see. The night before, I’d plotted a vague itinerary using a map I’d picked up and the notes I’d made from TripAdvisor.com. Given that I had only two days, in what may be my favourite city in SE Asia, I didn’t want to waste it sleeping.
From the markets, we navigated through some narrow alleys and lanes, to meet up with Thapae Road which leads to the old city. Coming out of the maze of streets, we were met with Wat Saen Fang. It’s a small Burmese style temple, set within a compact compound. I loved the wood carvings of the main entrance. Inside was dark and dusty. A few men were fixing the beams and re-painting the pillars, renovating the gorgeous little sanctuary. Sensing we really weren’t welcome, we quickly left and explored the grounds and gardens. Behind the temple is a large, white chedi decorated with hundreds of bright mirrored tiles. It was quite blinding in the late morning sun. To the side was another entrance guarded by two massive nagas whose serpentine bodies snaked the length of the narrow lane.
First stop was Wat Pan Tao, which is next to Wat Chedi Luang. We didn’t have a chance to see it during our tour with Paul, but I was keen to see it. It was built around the same time as Wat Chedi Luang. It’s a beautiful old teak temple with some old artefacts and a relatively simple alter. I loved that aged-wood smell mixed with the lingering scent of hundreds of years of incense smoke. Unlike many other temples, Wat Pan Tao wasn’t adorned by gold leaf paintings and patterns on every wall or pillar. It was quiet, dark, austere, and natural, and welcome refuge from the blazing sun. If it wasn’t so scorchingly hot in the sun, I would have taken more time to explore the temple grounds. Instead I ‘shade hopped’ between trees and buildings, finding every spec of shade.
The Three Kings Monument and Chiang Mai Art and Cultural Centre was a few hundred metres along Phrapokklao Road but the burning sun made the short walk feel like a mile. In the heat of the day, with the blistering sun directly overhead, a few hours wondering through the museum made sense. In fact the museum was very interesting with well kept exhibits. Much of the displays show the history of the city, from past to present, with models and exhibits of day to day life, and Buddhist traditions. We took our time exploring the large building. A very enjoyable way to learn more about this wonderful old city.
Braving the dozen or so tuk tuk drivers congregated at the temple entrance, waiting to pounce on tourists as they left for a fare, we decided to walk south along Samlam road towards the ‘Silver’ temple. The sky had become overcast, whether from cloud or pollution or a combination of both, making it bearable. Along the way, we looked in on Wat Muan Ngerrn Kong, another ancient temple. It was down a small dusty alleyway leading to the simple wooden temple. The locals didn’t seem overly keen to have us tourists wander around, and the temple was not open to visitors. From what I’ve found out, it was built around 1337-1339. The old chedi at the rear looked like it may come down in the next big wind.
A quick stop at the 7-11 for another cold drink before we came to another of the historic city walls. Up until now, there was little traffic on the road – well at least compared to most of the other roads in the old city. At the Suanprung gate, three roads met to form a major intersection. A constant stream of cars, motorbikes and song-thaews made crossing a challenge. I looked around and saw a young monk crossing just over the way. We quickly rushed toward him to copy his path through the traffic. Even so, I thought for sure I was going to be clipped by minivan or truck.
To the side was the main ordination hall, which is what gives Wat Srisuphan its name of ‘Silver Temple’. It was totally covered in silver; every tile, every gable, the walls, window frames and stairs – all coated in shiny silver. Between the main temple and the silver ordination hall was something very unusual (we to me at least), a person-sized, silver Ganesh sitting under a silver parasol adorned with gold crown and garlands of marigolds. It was really striking.
From the silver village, we made our way back to the old city wall and the busy roads around it. We hoped in a song-thaew to take us back to the hotel. After a little confusion about where the hotel was, and a quick phone call placed by the driver to someone who could help, I was soon up the stairs, in my swimmers and diving in the stunning blue pool of Ping Nakara. With all the dirt and dust on my skin from the kilometres of walking, I’m sure a little water-cloud of black soot trailed behind me as I swam a few laps. The cold water felt fantastic after the hot day; just what I needed before my last night in Chiang Mai.
By the time I showered, it was dusk, and clearly beer o’clock. We wondered up to the night market area, deciding to eat where we had beers last night in the Ansuran market, mostly because they had cheap, cold, beer on tap. The food was pretty good too.
We walked back to the hotel through the Ansuran for one last look. I don’t know why I didn’t see the stall when we had walked through before, but towards the back, there was an old man sitting beside his stall of silver pictures, diligently hammering a design into a sheet of silver. And sure enough, he had pretty much the same picture of the Chinese zodiac I’d seen in the silver village. Even though it was framed, I asked if he would take it out. We agreed on a price, and I quickly had the thin silver piece neatly wrapped in newspaper, ready to be packed into the bottom of my suitcase, ready for the journey ahead. - k