Tantrums and temples in Chang Mai, Thailand's captivating northern city

High on a mountain above Chiang Mai, the temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep proves a welcome break from reality, once you finally get there, that is.

By Charlotte Wigram-Evans
Published 12 Jun 2018, 09:00 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 14:53 BST
Photograph by Getty Images

Sitting in never-ending traffic, my legs sticking to the plastic-covered, pea-green seat of a songathew (communal taxi) as its spluttering engine expels an astonishing amount of black smoke, I wonder if I'll ever reach the temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

I've already encountered one hiccup: a Chinese couple needing urgently to get to the station suddenly realise that they're, in fact, heading in the wrong direction. Chaos ensues. "STOOOOPPPPPPP," they scream, banging on the partition separating us from the driver.

Exaggerated arm waves, watch taps and finger wags follow, their map held so close to the Thai man's face I wonder how he can possibly see what they mean. I watch in vaguely concerned amusement until it becomes clear — I'll be the loser here.

A minute later, I'm standing on the pavement in a cloud of exhaust fumes watching the rickety red truck drive away. Right, temple expedition take two.

“Enormous gold Buddha statues look down on me knowingly, their faces frozen in everlasting smiles.”

Founded in 1383, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of northern Thailand's most revered monasteries. Every child in Chiang Mai learns its legend. The site, it's said, was chosen by a sacred elephant, carrying on its back a fragment of bone from the Buddha's shoulder. After wandering in the jungle for some time, the animal trumpeted three times, lay down, and died. And it was there the temple was built, high above the city on a mountain throne.

Two hours later and I'm contemplating the 306 steps I must ascend to reach the monastery's entrance. I can't face the climb at the moment, so turn around, buy a coconut, and return to stare up at them again. I'm surrounded by Thai families practically skipping to the top, lulling me into a false sense of security — perhaps it's easier than it looks?

It isn't. By the time I stumble through the gates I'm a violent shade of puce and it takes me a few wheezing breaths to place the aroma lingering in the air. Feet. Crowds, a sweaty climb and a strict shoes-off policy combine to produce a smell akin to week-old socks.

As I look around me, however, I feel ashamed of my inner grumblings. The temple is a riot of colour: loud, brash and brilliant. Everywhere, enormous gold Buddha statues, surrounded by wreaths of flowers, look down on me knowingly, their faces frozen in everlasting smiles.

The views from the terraces are incredible, stretching out across Chaing Mai, and as dusk falls tiny specs of light flare across the city, so far below they could be fireflies.

Unwittingly, my earlier delay means I've arrived at a good time. The monks begin their evening chant, a low hum, rhythmic and hypnotic, and I take my place to watch, cross-legged on the temple floor.

To my right sits an elderly monk, his face a wonderful patchwork of wrinkles that weave and criss-cross to cover every inch of face apart from the very tip of his nose. Beside him, a boy no older than eight chants tentatively, perhaps self-conscious of his high-pitched voice rising above everyone else's.

I'm struck by this timeless scene; one that transcends age and is so completely outside my complaint-filled reality. Lulled by the melodic hum I close my eyes, and am almost asleep when the chanting ends. And it's in this strange state between sleep and waking, as I'm pulled back into the present, that I find myself wondering: did that Chinese couple ever make their train?

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