Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Travel Notes: Doi Suthep, Chiangmai, Thailand

Wat Phra Doi Suthep is one of the great holy sites of Northern Thailand. Legend has it that centuries ago, a king placed relics of the Buddha on the back of a white elephant, and set the elephant to wander on the Doi Suthep mountain. Where the elephant stopped, there the temple would be built. And it was.

My ears pop and pop again as we ascend the mountain in the back of a pick-up truck taxi. That elephant didn’t mess around. The road terminates, but three hundred more stairs up the mountain lie between us and the temple.

The stairs to Wat Phra Doi Suthep are worn stone. Where western stairs would have railings, these stairs have dragons. Carved, painted green and gold, running the full three-hundred-stair length. At the landings, vendors sell bottles of fresh-squeezed orange juice, small carved buddhas, little snacks of half a dozen tiny fried eggs (quail? Pigeon?). On the steps, Hmong girls in traditional costume will pose in a picture with you for twenty baht, wrapping their chubby toddler arms around you and planting a kiss on your cheek, before they prompt you to put money in the pouches hanging from their necks. I wonder what their lives will be like.

In the temple courtyard, we watch Thai dancers, take in beautiful views of Chiangmai, ring big brass bells. Then we remove our shoes, wondering how we’ll find them in the pile of hundreds, and enter the temple pavilion.

The temple is a riot of color, sound, and smell. Carvings of elephants, dragons, buddhas, boddhisatvas. Incense and oil lamps. Doors are elaborately carved and painted in vivid hues of red and gold. Barefoot, we roam the temple pavilion, a courtyard within the courtyard. In the center, worshippers process around a golden structure, murmuring Thai prayers. Around the periphery, people slip in and out of chapels, kneeling to hear monks pray or teach, bowing their heads as they are sprinkled with holy water, sitting in silent contemplation of lovely Buddhas in shades of green and gold.

It is hard to know what to do, tourists in a place of worship, unwilling to kneel or bow towards statues or monks. (Is that an act of faithfulness, or is it arrogance? Integrity or disrespect?) We take it all in, the people lighting incense and pouring oil into lamps, praying and meditating. We are spectators in a place of prayer, trying not to gawp at the unfamiliar practices, entranced by the daily life of a working temple. It all feels so foreign.

Suddenly, my perception shifts, like those pictures that slide from portraying a vase to two faces, and everything looks different. This is what I see: flowers, flames, images – simple human ways of recognizing and honoring a divine One too huge and too ineffable for words. People with hopes and dreams, needs and desires, fears, anxieties, and pain. Prayers for health, for harmony, for daily bread. Prayers for loved ones and for our world. Suddenly, it doesn’t feel so foreign after all.

Holy One, hear our prayers. Amen.

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