“A willful man will have his way . . .”
-sign on the path up Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep
So it probably wasn’t the smartest idea to rent and ride a motorbike up a mountainside when I have never ridden one before. The one time I tried riding a dirt bike at my cousin’s house in the Upper Peninsula (this year no less), it turned out pretty disastrously with me essentially falling over in a field. And the dirt bike then falling on top of me.
I was lucky enough to have a few deserted alleys to practice the basics first before going out on the road. But very quickly, I needed gas. This meant going out onto the parkway which surrounds the center city. This did more than give me a crash course in how it works, I got the added thrill of weaving in and out of traffic in the busiest part of town in a country that has no regard for lanes or traffic rules.
Once filled up, I continued on to the northwest toward Doi Suthep Mountain. The street leading out there is highly commercialized with many lanes of traffic. Luckily it wasn’t too busy at this time of day. It also went past the Chiang Mai University and the city zoo.
Much of the road up the slope consisted of zigzags to the left and right. And left turns are not easy to make to begin with. Combine that with driving on the left side of the road, as you are turning left, past oncoming traffic that will many times come from out of sight. It can sometimes be an intimidating experience.
About a quarter the way up, there is a small park with a trail along a small series of waterfalls. These face right down the mountain toward Chiang Mai, giving a nice look of the whole city itself. The waterfalls, though, are something to see, as they are so shallow and running over the sides, oftentimes just glazing the rocks rather than seeming like an actual river.
A little ways farther was a section of the mountain-side which the edge had given way, taking a piece of the road and railing along with it. It seemed too close to the edge to pose any danger to drivers, but it was still a long way down.
Once at the top, where the entrance to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is, I was very surprised to actually find a functioning village. It made sense, as there were so many stands and small tourist shops, that they would settle here rather than commute from somewhere else. Still, seeing an actual village stuffed into what was essentially a parking lot for the tourist attraction was unexpected.
The first third of the stairway is stuffed with stand selling food and drinks to temple offerings to baseball hats made out of old beer cans. Aside from getting a freshly squeezed passion fruit juice there, this is mostly unremarkable.
The rest of the stairs are bordered by a fantastically ornate naga handrail. At the bottom are several nagas exploding out of the of the main naga’s mouth. This main naga’s body then makes up the whole rail in exquisitely detailed texture and colors.
The stairs are many, but the temple at the top is certainly worth the climb. Doi Suthep is the first temple that I had been to with a mandatory “donation” before you could enter.
The grounds of the temple are made of lustrous tiles which must need a good amount of maintenance to shay as pristine as they are. I did come across a monk and 2 nuns throughout the complex who were actually mopping the wat floor.
As had quickly become my habit, I walked around the outside of the main shrine rather than heading straight in from the entrance. The first thing you immediately come to on the right is an open area leading to a railed ledge looking over the side of the mountain. This was the most crowded area of the temple, with people posing for pictures at every free spot, taking up space that people who actually wanted to enjoy the view could be using.
The sun was beginning to set at this point, giving the city below a very pink hue. Off to the right of the ledge was a large pillar of smoke coming from what had to be a significantly sized flame.
Working further around the central shrine were a series of bells and a building of some sort that was still being constructed.
Finally coming back to the entrance, I removed my shoes at the stairs to the main shrine and went in. Inside were dozens, maybe upward of 100, idols of the Buddha. It’s curious that, for a religion in which doing away with material possessions is one of the founding tenants, so many of these temples are filled with some of the most ornate architecture and treasures in the country. Of course all of these sculptures and items certainly add to the beauty of the temples, though at times it seems a bit in excess given that aspect of Buddhism.
In the middle of the central temple was a large, angular, golden colored stupa (chedi in Thai) surrounded by many different forms of Buddhas. Reclining, meditating, and standing with a cautionary gesture among them.
Unfortunately, in my brilliant planning to be atop Wat Doi Suthep for sunset, I overlooked that I would have to drive back in the dark. Down a mountain. This proved a much less enjoyable experience than riding up. And much slower experience, as well, as I was rarely using the engine at all, and was certainly wearing down the breaks.