Last week I decided I would hike up Doi Suthep, the mountain outside Chiang Mai, to visit the temple on top. I planned to cut off-road to make the walk shorter. In total, I would cover nearly 12 miles of terrain and 1400 meters of elevation change.
Aside from testing out my rehabilitated ankle (more on that Monday), I wanted to see the statue of Ganesha and make offerings. Buddhism is okay, but I’m a polytheist, and these gods are the cousins of my gods. You gotta meet the family.
Anyway, I started out with 3 liters of water, my camera, and not much else, grazing on street food to store calories as I crossed the city. I saw my destination high above me:
It took about 90 minutes to get to the edge of Chiang Mai. I had scouted a possible footpath to cut off-road using Google Maps, which as usual has pants on fire. The proposed footpath is actually within the confines of the Chiang Mai zoo. I wasn’t daunted, I had a map:
Continuing onward, I found a back gate to the zoo and briefly considered sneaking in sneaked in. Then I thought about my life decisions. Wouldn’t there be a wall blocking my chosen route? Or maybe a lion pit? I didn’t want to detour to find out.
(If you ever make this walk, I’m talking about the red route from last week. Past the zoo it should take you up the mountain to a scenic overlook on Highway 1004. Let me know if you get through.)
Forsaking the zoo, I found out that there was a park farther up the road, sprawling around a beautiful mountain waterfall. This seemed promising. The waterfall zone was full of Thai people. It made me happy to see them on a holiday of their own and not just catering to Western tourists. I didn’t get a picture of them though, because I was tired.
Trusting to my sense of direction I plunged off the main trail and up the mountainside. It was a steep, difficult walk but enjoyable. I found a hidden mountain shrine where I offered incense.
At last I rejoined the main road. Songthaews and motorbikes whipped past me. Occasionally I’d see a bicycle, but no other walkers.
On the lower part of the mountain, people beeped or laughed at me. A Thai family pulled over to see if I needed help. But higher up, things changed. The people going by could guess that I was hiking the whole way up. In America, they call that crazy. In Thailand they cheered me on. One Thai guy practiced his English: “You can make it! You can make it!” His girlfriend smiled from behind him on the motorbike.
It was actually pretty awesome.
The last two kilometers (mile) were rough. I stumbled up a steep, hairpin ramp of a road. At the top is a tall swift waterfall and the temple grounds. I sat down next to an old Thai worker. I gulped water. He looked me up and down.
“You walk all that way?”
“Yeah. The whole way.”
He broke out into a huge grin and told his friends in Thai. They grinned too. They were really happy for me.
I put a coin in the waterfall for the mountain spirits and picked myself up. I wasn’t done yet. I had reached the parking area. Beyond that is a strip of vendors, some steps, a small bazaar, and the final staircase to the temple.
I don’t hold anything against the tourism industry. The Thai people didn’t seem bothered at all that there was this strip of capitalism on the temple steps, so it must be okay. But I did find it disconcerting that lots of grilled and fried meats were served on the threshold of a Buddhist temple. Most Thai are not vegetarians but their Buddhist monks are. I kept waiting to cross an invisible line past which the only street food would be vegetarian, but I hope you like sausages.
On the other hand, this is a great place to buy holy items. There were merchants with bells, vajras, statuary, prayer beads, incense, and all the other trappings of Buddhist ritual. I’m sure it costs more to buy them here than it does in town, but it felt really special seeing people pick them out at this mountaintop shrine.
I didn’t need any Buddha kit but I bought a simple walking stick. It’s nice knowing that my walking stick for future adventures came from a pilgrimage up Doi Suthep.
(Of course, that stick isn’t likely to stay with me long.)
Once past the bazaar, there is a final staircase of 300 steps guarded by seven-headed-dragons and single-headed Hmong girls:
Those last 300 steps are a killer, so the kindly monks have installed a tram you can take instead. But if you have two working legs and take that tram, I disown you. Instead, follow the 70 year old Thai grandmas up the steps. There is an awe and a joy that comes with the final ascent.
(Also, it costs 30 baht to enter—US $.95—if you’re farang.)
The layout of the temple is simple, but quite large. I won’t describe it here because exploring it was my favorite part of the whole trip. It was like unlocking a new area in a video game. You know there’s a treasure or a secret there, you just need to go find it.
In my case, the statue of Ganesha was the treasure to seek. I picked my way around the temple grounds, barefoot. I left my shoes and my entire backpack unattended for about two hours at the temple entrance—I have a hard time imagining theft at a temple in rural Thailand.
I purchased three candles, two incense sticks and a lotus (these come bundled altogether for about 20 baht—I recommend purchasing inside the temple so you know the money supports the monks). I perambulated about the chedi three times saying my prayers, observing careful etiquette. Then I went before one of many oblatories and made my offerings.
I’m not a big fan of asking for stuff in prayer, least of all from Buddha who would’ve discouraged the practice. But I figure my sister, who is in a monastery becoming a lama, has worked pretty darn hard for this Buddha fellow. I told him to look out for her. I offered the second candle for my late friend Jinpa, a Kagyu/Nyingma monk who traded practices with me. The third one was for Ganesha.
The Thai seemed surprised that I knew proper etiquette in how to make these offerings, but if you just observe it’s easy to pick up. There are going to be a hundred people or more around the chedi at any given time, so just watch for a few minutes and you’ll understand the procedure. (What you say in your heart when you pray is up to you, but I think it’s rude not to follow the physical gestures of respect in a place like this.)
After all that I still hadn’t found the Ganesha statue anywhere. I had been through every nook of the main temple, but no elephant-headed deities to be seen.
I went back out of the main temple and circled the temple grounds. In an amphitheater, about 150 Thai people listened to some jokester monks putting on a show. They drew names to give away presents. Better yet, just like at every church raffle in America, the monks could not figure out how to pronounce any of the names they drew.
It took some looking but eventually I did find Ganesha. He is outside the main temple, in a garden behind the building.
He’s so hard to find he only got in this picture by accident:
There’s another, stone statue of him a little deeper in the garden. That one has a place to leave offerings, though no place to kneel. There were signs of a few offerings left there but they seemed like an afterthought. Compared to the 108 Buddha statues inside the temple, each teaming with a trove of gifts, Ganesha looked neglected and forgotten.
It gave me a bad feeling. The fact that Ganesha has a statue here at all means it was likely a Hindu sanctuary long before the Buddha even lived. In the West, we know that Christianity often destroyed or took over the sanctuaries of older religions. People seem to think Buddhism is all peace and flowers, but it has done the same thing. Many Buddhists in Thailand worship the gods along with the Buddha, but Buddhism takes pains to make sure it’s on top.
I made my offering to Ganesha and, with a heavy heart, I finished my exploration.
Eventually it was time to go. It was nearly dark, so walking back to town was out. I had a chance to hitch a ride, but I didn’t like the feeling of the person. Instead I joined a songthaew and, for the low price of 70 baht, got a ride all the way back to the Old City.
I didn’t know it then, but even as I snapped pictures and frowned with Ganesh, someone I’d soon meet was less than a hundred yards away—someone who would later become very important to me.
But that’s a story for a different time.
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