Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Get Thai'd! You're talking to a tourist

Thomas and his waffle-wrapped hotdog on a stick at the Doi Suthep market

There were so many temples in Chiang Mai, and later in Bangkok, that by the end of of our second week in Thailand the kids were literally begging us: No more buddhas, Mommy and Daddy! Please, no more buddhas, no!

It cannot be denied that we dragged them to plenty of temples. When you go to Thailand you go to temples and that's that. Our kids got quite good at removing their shoes, carefully stepping over, rather than upon, the temple thresholds, and finding spare change to place in the donation boxes.

Built high over the city of Chiang Mai on a mountain to the west is a temple, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, one of North Thailand's most sacred Wats. The site was chosen by an elephant, carrying one of the bones of Buddha. The elephant wandered the hillside until it collapsed and died. That spot was then deemed lucky.

I guess it's a Buddhist thing.

We took a taxi up the steep mountain in a more prosaic sort of way. It seemed that our driver, along with all the rest on the road, had a good deal of faith in reincarnation. The double yellow lines on the twisting road were interpreted as guidelines rather than rules, and were easily disregarded as such. Did I mention that they drive on the left side of the road in Thailand? That alone is enough to jumble the brain. I was very pleased not to be the one driving.

Motorcycles bearing two, three people, once a mother with her tiny baby wrapped in a towel on her lap behind her husband, flowed around us like fish in a stream coming either direction, and helmets were accessories exclusively to be donned in the presence or likelihood of policemen. Otherwise, the helmet dangled off the back of the bike, bobbing along uselessly.

In town we'd already tried out the darling and surprisingly comfy three-wheeled tuk-tuks, which was just about the most fun one can have, though those of a nervous disposition might need to borrow some of the Arabs' fatalism and calm we've acquired driving in the Middle East. The kids, ignorant of silly things like physics, begged us to hire one every chance we got. We liked them too: they're flat-out cute!

Bethy and a pink tuk-tuk

However, I don't think a tuk-tuk could have made it up to Doi Suthep. A taxi it was, and we negotiated a round trip, "lending" the driver 200 baht at the beginning of the trip to fill the gas tank. We left behind the city with its ancient wall and survived the ride all the way up to the base of a long series of stairs flanked on either side by beautfully rendered and quite fierce looking Nagas, large snakes, the protectors of Buddha. Here enthusisatic hawkers held a market. For us, an extra few baht let us avoid prodding the kids up the the stairs and we rode a nearby tram up to the temple.

As foreigners we paid more than a Thai to enter. This is a pretty good insight into the Thai mentality; we have more money, the place belongs to them, therefore we pay more. It makes sense, actually. (We do it too: look at hotel and restaurant surtaxes in metropolitan areas in the US.)

The Wat itself was full of tourists, the orange robes, shaved heads, and bare feet of monks, young and old, and worshipers bearing long-stemmed lotus blossoms of pink or white and paper cones of candles and fragrant incense sticks they'd purchased for 20 Baht ($0.60) as offerings.

lotus blossoms

According to legend, immediately after he was born, Buddha took 7 steps. Lotus blossoms sprung up from each place where his feet had touched the ground.

We stopped a moment to admire the holy Bo tree, grown from a clipping of the tree Buddha was born beneath back in India. Young monks worked with their brooms, older monks walked or prayed with purpose or in quiet reflection.

These photographs hardly demonstrate the extent of the grandeur of Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. Tiny bells tinking, larger gongs and bells being rung, and everything bright and shiny with so much gold and much elaborate detail. Worshippers made their circuits (vien tien) around the huge golden dome at the heart of the temple with their prayers and incense sticks. Even the scaffolding around the dome had been painted gold. Worshippers apply thin sheets of gold foil to the umbrella-shaped objects as offerings.

Bethy and a gong, which the signs said we could ring softly, to let heaven know we'd been by.

In the photos you can see us erring in leaving our hats on...we figured out later that, like uncovered limbs, that was a no-no. I had gone in to be blessed by a monk, who was sprinking heads with holy water and tying a blessed cord around the wrists of the male recipients. I had to go to his assistant to get mine tied on, as a monk is not allowed to touch or even hand something to or receive anything directly from a woman. There were furious gestures made before the sprinking for Bethy and me to remove our hats. Whoops.

This smaller Wat along the outside was my favorite there. I'm sure you can guess why. MOM. I felt a certain kinship with that dragon. Such an expressive beastie.


Tanya said...

I like your posts for the same reason you read mine- the respectful informed insight- it must be the anthropologist in us :) I cant help it I love the research almost as much as the trip itself and I am insatiably facinated by the beliefs and ideas of everyone else (the eternal student!). I cant wait for the tiger post!! Somewhere I havent been yet...Im dying to know what you thought...

Jill said...

Looks like you had a great trip to Thailand as well... though you did FAR more things than we did. :)