In the dark cool nights in Chiang Mai, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep glows silently above the city as if suspended in air, the mountain and the sky melding and disappearing in the darkness. At first glance it appears to be an airplane, but its size and stillness reflect otherwise. It’s truly as if the spirituality and intentions of this Therevada Buddhist (the oldest surviving branch of Buddhism) temple is constantly watching over and blessing the city.
After noticing its perpetual presence over the city for our first week, our program brought us up the mountain Doi Suthep as part of our introductory city tour and we climbed the 300+ stairs to enter the grounds.
On first impression, it was a clash of traditional sacred religion and opportunistic stalls eager to cater to the tourists. After months of seeming the same discord all over Europe, I have begun to accept this (bitterly). It is what is it (how very Buddhist of me). Where there are tourists, there is money and where there is money, life is easier and why shouldn’t Thais take advantage of this.
Even with acceptance I can’t help but feel guilty, wondering in sympathy what it must feel like for Thais, who welcome the chance to make money, but must grudgingly consent to the deculturization and gradual chipping away at the tradition and uniqueness of these places in order to do so. Appreciating the influx of money while simultaneously forced to watch as their once special landmarks, beaches, etc… become overrun with obnoxious, culturally-insensitive, sloppy tourists until they lose any semblance of charm and become just the next Spring Break destination. Especially in the case of these ancient temples, how does one reconcile the immateriality and sacredity of religion with the overwhelming consumerism and hedonism of the tourism industry?
That aside, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep in its genuine form is glorious and ethereal. Innumerable Buddhas big and small decorate the grounds. Red and Gold is accented with all the brights across the spectrum. Monks sit in lotus pose blessing both worshiping Buddhists and visitors by sprinkling water from a bouquet of flowers onto the bowing audience’s heads while reciting haunting mantras or tying a simple white string around one’s wrist to be taken off in three days to bring good luck.
Worshippers circle the grounds, hands together in prayer at their chest, heads bowed. Candles are lit as offerings, oil is poured on votives corresponding to which day of the week one is born, donations are collected, small bells are sold and hung around the grounds. Tourists (myself included) snap pictures willy-nilly while residents are in the middle of worship only just trying to engage uninterrupted in prayer. Seemingly rude, still tolerated.
Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is a strange confluence of interests and intentions. Days after my visit, I am still grappling with the meaning and essence of this place. I will be back, though, up to the temple perpetually watching over me in this city unarmed – no camera, no wallet. And perhaps without those distractions, I’ll experience a different version of this place and see it for what it is more clearly.