The Secret Trail to Wat Doi Suthep Temple, Chiang Mai
The Adventures of The Roving Route #19
The last Thai city of our journey has finally come. Thailand's "second city" is the heart of tourism in the North. Historically it has also been a hotbed for Buddhism. The city was officially formed in 1296 and a temple was immediately erected to commemorate the king's arrival. The original temple is long gone but several more have been built on the site as well as over 300 major temples in the city. You literally can't go more than a block or two without passing one, each having its own local claim to fame. In the city, we checked out 5 of them: the largest, the oldest, the tallest, the biggest Teak one, and the most sacred. While each was unique and interesting to wander through, two stood out to us the most.
As mentioned, Chiang Mai's oldest temple is no longer around but Wat Chiang Man is important and has numerous temples that stand today. The one that really stood out to us was hidden behind a rather simple exterior. The interior had dozens of massive murals that told the life of Buddha. Leading from his miraculous birth through his decision to leave his royal family, extreme fasting, enlightenment and his life after being enlightened. Luckily the temple had a sheet that walked us through each mural and helped us to understand the formation of the 4th largest religion in the world. With just a few exceptions, painted interiors like this are not that common in Thai Buddhism rather temples are often decorated with geometric shapes, architectural designs, or stone/shell inlays.
The second that stood out is the most sacred one, Wat Doi Suthep, and is set on a hill overlooking the city. Legend has it that in the 1300s a relic of Buddha magically replicated itself to the amazement of the people in Chiang Mai. Believing it was an act of Buddha, they put the clone on top of an elephant and followed it. For 3 days it wondered through the mountains until it came to a stop, let out three mighty trumpets, and died. A temple was built on this spot and became one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Thailand. The temple has been rebuilt many times with today's version being a series of smaller temples forming a square around a massive gold chedi. Thousands visit the site daily to pay their respects and pray. While the temple is nice, it was not our favourite.
Luckily not all was lost. Reading about it online we noticed references to "the Monks Trail" a path taking you up through the bamboo forest to the temple that monks still actively use. Thinking it would be a little challenging to do the 6 KM climb in 30+ weather, we went for the easier journey by taking a shared jeep up and then walking down. The descent was extremely steep and terrifying, so we can't imagine how a monk could climb up it barefoot! About halfway down we passed Pha Lat Temple, a popular resting spot for monks that slowly became a series of temples. This was probably our second favourite temple in Thailand as it had incredible and unique sculptures, new and old temple buildings and best of all a waterfall running through it. The waterfall and river cut an opening through the forest revealing a magnificent view down the valley to the city below. Instead of the thousands we shared Wat Dui Suthep with, there were only a handful of others each claiming their own rock along the edge of the river. It was an amazing final temple for our Thai journey!
After getting to the bottom, we were surprised to find an awesome daily street food market with some of the best food we have had in Thailand! After a few pad thais, pork soups, and of course smoothies, we were on the search for dessert and found the jackpot; a small roti stand with a crowd around it. Roti stands are very popular around the country and are pretty much just their version of crepes but this one was different. It offered a roti croissant- a layered roti that is fried with lots of oil so that it puffs up and then twisted into the shape of a French croissant. Adding oreo crumbs and a condensed milk sauce to it made for a perfect dessert and a great way to end a long day!
After a much too short visit in Thailand, we jumped onto a plane heading east to the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi. With its 16+ million people it's all the craziness of Bangkok but with even more motorcycles and narrower streets. We arrived in town just a few days before the start of Tet- the Vietnamese version of the Chinese Lunar New Year. We have read this 6-day celebration is one of the largest of the year full of fireworks, burning altars, lion dancing, and festivities.
January 25th marked the start of the New Year and just like December 31st, there was a massive fireworks display over the city's central lake. We had no idea where the fireworks were going to be fired from so, unfortunately, chose a spot on the same side as the display. The fireworks were all launched directly from our right side so we walked closer to see if we could get a better view. Our view didn't get that much better but we got an awful lot closer! Safety seemed to be way less of a concern with massive fireworks being shot off just beside the road protected by a thin fence. We got to within 50 feet of them before the sound waves of the large mortar shells hitting us in the chest got to be too intense! Not only that but large chunks of shells the size of coconuts started to rain down on us! Even without a clear view, the fireworks were so much larger than back home and the amount at one time made it feel like the finale for the entire 20 minutes! The display was great and was a nice way to start the year... again.
On our walk down to the fireworks display, almost every store or home had set up an altar outside with candles, food, gifts and almost always an uncooked duck with a rose in its mouth. On our walk home, the smoke had become thick as each family had started to burn their altar piece by piece either in small ovens or just on the ground. This is an offering to those who have passed away in their family and is done to start the new year off fresh. It was an interesting mix of celebrating the New Year and remembering those who passed.
The next morning, we woke up and were invited to have breakfast with the lady who runs the hotel we were staying at. Pho (similar to chicken noodle soup) was the option of the day an all too common breakfast food in Vietnam. We had a fantastic morning talking all about the city, where she is from, and what Tet is all about. While she, unfortunately, had to work, her husband and three kids had gone out to visit his family in his home town. Visiting family over this period is a common tradition. She also gave us a Vietnamese Pomelo, their version of a grapefruit but way less bitter with an extremely thick skin that she picked from her own tree. She was a really lovely person to talk to, and it was a great introduction to Vietnamese hospitality!
With a few more days of Tet celebrations, we have extended our stay in Hanoi. Our plan is to then head to what people call Vietnam's inland Halong Bay.
Cheers from Hanoi, The Roving Route