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 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.
First area to explore was the Ping River, so recently swollen and overflowing into the streets of Chiang Mai. During my last trip, I didn’t even see the Ping, so an early morning stroll along its well made paths was in order. There are many bridges over the river. The sun was still low and less punishing this early in the morning. Even so, walking in its direct light still brought a slow roasting.
After walking the wrong way for a little ways along the river (luckily, on the more shady side), I finally came to Wat Gate Karam. A beautiful temple. It roof has five gables, which is unusual. Most Thai temples have three. Another ancient, white washed, chedi stood sentinel to one side, with small golden Buddhas marking the four directions of the winds. Ornate nagas guarded its entrance. And, go figure, with all the wonderful gold-leaf paintings and statues, the one item that most impressed me inside the little the temple was a large, free-standing, grandfather clock, with ornate mother-of-pearl inlay, ticking away. Something quite unexpected.
I explored some of the side streets and shops in the area before crossing back across the river to the Wororot market area. It was bustling with activity. Beside the river, there was a small row of open-air restaurants, each with a table and a few chairs for eaters to sit. Street food vendors wondered the narrow lanes, wheeling their carts, honking their horns and calling to stall holders and shoppers alike. We walked across the pedestrian overpass to cross the busy road, busy with bikes, trucks, cars and song-thaews. Rows and rows of stalls selling brightly coloured fresh fruit and vegetables lined the main road and narrow streets. We walked around, content exploring the maze of shops. There was a small ‘mall’ area with more stalls with more food, spices and dry goods of all descriptions. I wasn’t brave enough to go through the butcher and fishmonger area (being vegetarian, the smell of meat really doesn’t agree with me). The herbs and spices smelled so fresh and fragrant. I would have bought up big, bit this was day 2 of a few week journey and I had a lot of suitcase lugging ahead of me. It took a lot of self control to not buy too much, promising myself I’d have more opportunity in Laos and Kuala Lumpur later.
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.
Almost across the road from the nagas was Wat Bap Pharam. It seemed quite new and decorated in a contemporary style. Out front, an engraved stone stated that it was built in 1496 on the site of King Tilokarat’s palace, and had a few renovations and additions over the years. (I researched King Tilokarat and turns out he brought the Lanna kingdom to the height of its power into a golden age, supporting many Buddhist works and construction, and he’s also considered one of the greatest of the Lanna kings.) The temple has two floors, downstairs is a bit of a dusty museum with upstairs heavily decorated with two large seated Buddhas. The highlight was the gardens – or should I say all the statues in the gardens. Along with traditional carvings, gold Buddhas and chedi were Disney and other cartoon characters, including a large Donald Duck eating a bowl of noodles (or maybe that delicious khao soi) standing right at the front of the main temple like a guardian. Most amusing.
The sun was high in the sky by now, and it was time for some sustenance in a cool place to rest and re-fuel. Across from Thapae gate of the old city we found the ‘Art Cafe’, with booths along the side and a few tables around the front. The painted signs on the window promised the best Mexican food in Chiang Mai. The lemon juice was so good I had two along with a very yummy toastie with avocado, tomato and cheese. It was clean, with friendly efficient staff. The menu was huge too. I definitely recommend it.
Crossing the road was hair-raising, dodging motor bikes and cars. You pretty much have to pick a gap in the traffic, which are few and far between, and cross as fast as you can. Crossing in front of bikes isn’t a problem, as they go around you. It’s the cars and mini vans you have to worry about. Safely across, we wondered around the moat under the trees before passing through the gates to the old city.
The vibe on the other side of the circa 1296 crumbling wall was lively, noisy and bustling. Dusty, busy streets, with lots of street vendors, tourists and tuk tuk drivers greeted us as we walked down one of the main roads. Every three steps, we were approached by touts offering guided tours of the city, temples and other sites. Lots of smaller cross streets had shops selling everything from wood carvings, silver works, groceries, fabrics, clothes, and even white goods. Many restaurants competed for business, each with a more tempting special than the last. You could spend days exploring all the shops and temples, and eating your way through all the eateries of the old city. I love it!
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.
After a stop for a cold drink, the next stop was the impressive Wat Prah Sing. It is perhaps the largest temple in the old city, and the most finely decorated. There are a number of buildings and an old chedi in the grounds to wonder through. I particularly liked the smaller wihram to the rear of the grounds that housed a large reclining Buddha. I can’t be sure, but seems to be a miniature replica of the giant 100 metre long reclining Buddha housed at Wat Po in Bangkok. Inside the main temple, a group of western school children were sitting in a large group in the centre of the large prayer hall, one by one approaching a monk who was seated on a small platform, who then chanted a blessing as he tied a thick white string around their wrist.
I spent much time looking at all the paintings, items, and Buddha statues around the temple, taking a few photos, stopping for a quick meditation and prayer. Once the group had left, and the monk had a chance to have a break, I humbly walked up and took a place, kneeling at his feet. Holding up my left hand, I cleared my mind to receive the simple blessing "I wish you good health, long life and happiness".
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.
Once we had successfully crossed the busy Chang Lor road, we passed the Chinese consulate before turning down a tiny side street. A little sign pointed the way to Wat Sri Suphan. Many simple houses lined the paved street, with lazy dogs dozing at the gate waiting for their owners to return. Inadvertently, I disturbed a rowdy little terrier who then yapped and barked like the sky was falling, initiating a choir of woofs and howls of all the local canines. A local man looked out, giving me a dirty look for causing such a commotion. “I didn’t mean it” I pleaded with an apologetic look.
The silver temple itself was a little hard to find. The main prayer hall was ornately decorated with gold leaf carvings and coloured glass beads. Inside, the walls were lined with framed plaques of silver, hand-made pictures depicting a famous Thai story. The beautiful alter had four main Buddhas, with smaller status on either sides. Every wall was covered with elaborate gold paintings and patterns. This is a truly stunning temple. Sitting at the entrance were two large seated Buddhas, one gold, the other silver. I’d never seen a silver Buddha like it anywhere.
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.
We left the temple making our way to Wualai road. The neighbourhood around there is known as the silver village, due to its numerous silver shops. Down most side streets and lane ways were silversmith workshops, with the silversmiths manually banging out sheets of silver into plates, bowls and other items. It was amazing to watch them patiently work with a little hammer and nail-like implement to knock out the intricate designs. I zig-zagged my way down the road, crossing to look into each shop, sporadically spaced along each side of the road. As well as all the serving wear, there was a myriad of rings, earrings, necklaces and bracelets, many with coloured stones, others with elaborate patterns. Though I liked a few with indigo-blue lapis stones, they were all too small for my thick, western fingers. Not to mention the prices weren’t that cheap. In one of the small shops, I fell in love with a framed, glass enclosed, silver picture depicting the 12 signs of Chinese astrology. With my limited Thai, I tried to ask whether they had another unframed picture, or be willing to take it out of its frame. With three weeks traipsing through Laos ahead, I didn’t want to lug anything more than I had to. It was not to be.
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.
With hunger satisfied and thirst quenched, it was time to do a spot of shopping. I had cased out the things and stalls I wanted. Now to find them again. My list was pretty small; some lovely little notebooks for the girls at work, some cheap thongs (flip-flops), a Tibetan painting, and something small for my daughter. A quick lap of the stalls, and I had all the items on my list, plus a random pair of short fisherman’s pants. Last stop before bed, another beer at the ‘Chang’ bar. I’m not sure that’s what it’s called. But it’s set in a little courtyard right in the middle of the market area with little white marble-effect tables and wrought-iron chairs. Last time I was in Chiang Mai, the group I was travelling with had way too many beers at this bar. Once plied full of alcohol, we had dared each other to go out and buy ‘stuff’ and make sure we got a bargain. This time, we just had a beer (which may have been the most expensive beer we had in our whole trip), while watching the antics of the stall holders and tourists. Some people are just so rude. It’s one thing to barter friendlily, but another to be demanding and disrespectful. But then again, some stall holders are a bit too pushy 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

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