March 6, 2013
When we got to Chiang Mai yesterday, Christof asked me to check my emails for the hotel confirmation. Although I looked, I couldn’t find one. Thinking it hadn’t gone through we checked into another guest house. This morning after breakfast Christof looks through my emails, finds the confirmation and goes round the corner to speak to the owners of the room he reserved for three nights. They waited all day for us to come and when we didn’t arrive, positioned a boy to sleep outside in case we came in after midnight! Feeling a bit guilty, we throw our stuff into our new backpacks – luckily we only took this room for a night – and walk around the corner to the modest but clean guesthouse.
Visiting the two temples located across the street from our first pension, we discover a monk sitting inside a locked glass box. Why is he meditating inside a box? Who locked him in?How long will he stay there? The odd breathless feeling I had looking at the monks yesterday evening returns with an incommodious intensity. Sitting still for hours on end is creepy enough, but allowing oneself to be locked inside a box as a tourist attraction?
The second temple has a monk locked inside a wooden box. I simply have to get to the bottom of this monk-boxing business.
– Excuse me, I say, addressing an English couple touring the temple with a guide, may I ask your guide a question?
– Certainly, they answer politely turning their eyes – in which I read some annoyance at being disturbed – towards me, not a problem.
– Why are the monks locked inside those boxes?
– You mean the wax figures? the guide asks.
– Oh, I burst out laughing, they’re made of wax?
– Look very real, the guide answers, but only wax.
– My wife had a long conversation with one of them last night, the English man adds joining the fun.
Perhaps the odd breathless feeling I had was an indication that although I thought they were real, I clearly felt something was off.
The temple houses a school where young boys in burgundy and saffron colored robes receive an elementary education in exchange for doing menial chores while their peers, who wear crisp English navy and white uniforms, go to the co-ed school around the corner. Until recently boys from poor families were delivered to the monastery for educational purposes when they had reached the age of 8, often staying on to become novice monks. Ordination doesn’t necessarily preclude marriage, and because a monastic education is still highly valued, it actually increases their marriage prospects. The time boys and young men spend in monasteries can lead to a vocation as a monk or become an excellent preparation for life.
School attendance became mandatory in 1921, and was extended to seven years of elementary education in the 1960’s. Gradually as the pace of modern life increased, the practice of Buddhistic meditation and a traditional monastic training – which needs peace and quiet – was supplanted by modern conveniences: public education, instant foods, fast cars, high speed internet, computers and cell phones. People no longer come to the monks when they have problems, preferring to pick up their phones and call their friends instead.
Because I’m under the weather I take a nap before we set off to see the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a temple complex adorning a mountain top some kilometers outside the city. We flag down a songthaew, an open-backed taxi-truck accessed by an outdoor step and containing two long benches that can comfortably seat 8-10 people. The taxi stops whenever it is waved down and travels in a zig-zag according to its customers’ wishes. Although our goal is to follow the road near our guest house straight up the mountain, we end up driving in the opposite direction, through heavy rush hour traffic, into the city center, because the woman who entered the taxi before us asked to be dropped off at a central shopping center.
Chiang Mai, which literally means new city, built – surrounded by a moat and city walls – in the 13th century, is a clean, dynamic university town full of students on mopeds and bicycles. What I love most about being here is the fact that although five million tourists visit Chang Mai annually, the locals totally ignore us. In pleasant contrast to poorer Asian countries, the Thais have had many decades to acclimatize to their growing tourist industry, which began in the 1970’s when American servicemen came here from Viet Nam for R & R, so they don’t prey on visitors like vultures starved for a meal. Because of the detour, the sun is sinking as we wind our way up the mountainous hairpin curves towards the monastery of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. The site of the temple, so the legend goes, was found by binding a relic(Buddha’s shoulder bone) onto a white elephant’s back and setting it loose to wander. Wherever it stopped a shrine would be built to house the relic. The elephant fell down and died on top of this mountain, where in 1383 the temple was built.
The sun has already set when the taxi lets us out in front of a long flight of steep stairs, and conveniently a cable car waits to whisk us up to the foot of a wide plateau covered with temples, stupas, golden plated Buddhas and Hindu Gods, all set afire by the orange-pink flames of the setting sun. Family groups have laid offerings of fresh flower chains in front of their chosen shrines and are praying fervently on their knees. A group of monks in the main temple have drawn a crowd who are swaying and chanting with them in a large prayer circle. Thankfully there are still some ‘real’ monks to preside over religious ceremonies.
Catching another taxi-truck back to the city, we wind our way through the mountainous serpentines, stopping occasionally to admire the view of hundreds and thousands of city lights sparkling and glittering like jewels in the wide dark valley.
The driver drops us off at the Chang Mai night market renowned for the unbelievable variety of its sellable articles: hand-carved soaps, perfumes, lanterns, hippie-style cotton and linen clothing, baby clothes and shoes, silk and Pashmina scarves of every color and pattern, bags, suitcases, sunglasses, footwear, baskets, food, freshly pressed juices, Thai food, Western food, sea food, ice cream and even exotically decked out (transgender) women putting on shows to entertain its visitors. It is almost impossible to walk through such a wonderful market without buying one single thing, but thanks to Christof we manage!