There is a saying in Thailand that if you have not seen the view from Doi Suthep, you have not been to Chiang Mai.
Doi Suthep is a mountain in the Chiang Mai Province of Thailand and holds a dominating presence on the horizon. While immersed in the loveliness of Chiang Mai, I drew comfort knowing that if I turned toward the hazy grandeur of the mountain, I would always locate the direction of home.
I made my way up the mountain twice. The first excursion began with a directionally challenged ride on a broken bike, which later turned into a drive up the mountain on a sorng-taa-ou (aka little red truck that fits a large Thai family inside). And the second expedition happened by way of a five hour hike. Both journeys into the mountain were powerful and shook me up, testing my will power and exposing the truths about who I have become in the last few years.
Sitting at the top of Doi Suthep is Wat Phrathat, one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Thailand. The temple of Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is thought to be founded sometime between the years 1383-1386. According to legend, a monk had a dream that he must go to Pang Cha and find a relic of some kind. When the monk arose from his dream, he set off in search of the relic and found a bone. This bone, some believe belonged to the shoulder of Buddha and contained magical powers for it glowed, could disappear, move itself and replicate itself. The monk took the bone to the king, but the bone did not display any of its magic and so the king sent the monk and the bone away. Another king heard the story and asked to see the bone. Upon arrival, the bone split in two, with one bone being smaller than the other. The small bone is enshrined at Wat Suan Dok and the other bone was placed by the king on the back of a white elephant. The elephant was then released into the jungle and climbed up Doi Suthep, trumpeted three times, turned around three times and then promptly died. The events and actions of the elephant were considered to be a sacred sign and so the king ordered that the temple be built there.
Already wiped out from the bike ride and the emotional roller coaster ride I had been on that morning, I gazed up in amazement at the 309 steps to the wat. I thought to myself, this must be the stairway to heaven. And suddenly, I felt a surge of energy enter my body and I began climbing my way up in synchronized step meditation. When I reached the top and stepped over the threshold, this tiny, sparkling city of gold and crimson opened up before me. The energy and vitality was magnificent. Miniature temples lined up, one after another with people kneeling before Buddha in prayer. They all bowed with a traditional offering of a lotus flower and three sticks of incense held between the palms of their hands.
I walked around in slow motion snapping photos of every beautiful sighting. Little girls dressed in traditional Thai costume, performing a dance to music played by little boys on ancient instruments; monks in their orange robes walking by in silence; white marble paving the path for my feet; yellow candles burning, leaving their melted wax in pools; Buddhist temple bells hanging in wait to be rung by visitors; and incense infused smoke casting a haze around the hundreds of statues of Buddha sitting tall, waiting for an offering.
As I continued walking around the wat, my friend found me, grabbed my arm and lead me to one of the temple entrances. With sweetness in her eyes and love in her heart, she told me to go inside and let the monk bless me with holy water and then have the other monk put a white corded bracelet on my wrist for luck. I removed my shoes, stepped into the temple and knelt down in front of the monk while he said prayers and splashed holy water on me with a brush. Another seemingly powerful moment that once again brought me to tears, I felt a tremendous sense of gratitude and fortune to be sitting there. Possibly, I also felt hope that the blessing of a monk would settle my restlessness and provide guidance so I might see clearly on this clouded path I am walking on.
Be not the slave of your own past – plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep, and swim far, so you shall come back with self-respect, with new power and with an advanced experience that shall explain and overlook the old. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
After we made our way back down the mountain, I felt a need to go off by myself and wash the day’s filth off of me, but once again, my friend was at my side. She wanted me to ride to Wat Umong with her. I thought I wanted to be alone, but it turned out that exploring the holiness and serenity of the temple was exactly what I needed. As I followed on my bike, I continued to breathe in all that I could – the sights, sounds and landcape, everything in all of its magical splendor. When we arrived at Wat Umong, peace and ease, quiet and serenity set in. Historic and archaeological in the thick of the woods, Wat Umong is buiilt in the foothills of the Suthep mountain. In Thai, the word Umong means tunnel and the Wat is given its name by all of the tunnels running through it.
We walked, mostly in silence, taking in all of the activity and life surrounding the Wat. As we made our way toward the lake, it began to rain. After hearing about the torrential down pours that frequent the summer months in Thailand, this was actually the first rain I experienced. I stood under a tree for awhile listening and watching the streams of rain hit the water. I did not seem to mind being soaked for it felt somewhat cathartic.
Along a pathway, there were various covered areas, each containing a different statue of Buddha. I made my way to the end of the path where I discovered a fat and happy Buddha draped in sunkist and gold threaded silk. I removed my shoes and invited myself in for shelter. As I sat in front of Mr. Happy Buddha, I closed my eyes to listen and meditate on the beautiful sound of the rain. And when the rain subsided, I went off in search of my friend.
We made our way to the entrance of the tunnels and began our exploration into the dark and cold, clay colored caves. On occasion, a monk would glide by in such silence, he could have been a ghost. Whenever I happen upon an old and historic site, my mind always wanders to the time of its origination and peak of its life. I place myself in the middle of it and my imagination can feel what life might have looked like and felt like then. Sometimes, I wonder if my fascination with archaeology is borne out of my curiosity for my past lives. There is always a deep sense of connection and an energetic surge surrounding these places I visit.
Somewhere lost in the tunnels, we happened upon two statues of Buddha. One Buddha enshrined behind a glass partition and the other sitting in front surrounded by lotus flowers, candles and a bowl of incense. This particular assemblage of Buddhist symbolism seemed to call to both of us, as we found ourselves kneeling side by side in front of them. We lit our incense and sat offering intention, prayer and quietude. We were both on our own separate, transitional pilgrimages and feeling a wellspring of sensitivity. In that moment, I became so mindful of the enormity of the encounter I happened to be sharing with my friend. It did not matter whether she noticed or not, but for me it was profound and sublime. It was in this stillness that I felt the reciprocity of abundant support in friendship.
A week later, I managed to get myself talked into hiking up Doi Suthep with the Chiang Mai Hiking Club. My friend told me it would be a “modest” hike. I am not sure what language “modest” was being translated from, but the hike felt like someone had put me on a combination treadmill-stairmaster contraption raised to its highest level and thrown me out into the jungle with swarming mosquitos and slimy, cold leeches. We came unprepared. And by unprepared I mean, no food or water. But, we had our cameras and our mozzie spray. What else could we possibly need?!
The thick heaviness of the jungle was somewhat disorienting for there was nothing to guide my way. The paths had not been maintained well and had it not been for our elder leader, I would have had to put into use all of the survival skills I learned from watching episodes of Man vs Wild with Bear Grylls. The jungle, as I call it also felt like I was lost in an episode of Lost. At any moment, the smoke monster could have swooped through and taken me down.
As we made our way on this seemlingly neverending trek, we were able to stop so that we could scrounge for some food. I bought a cucumber and some water from a street vendor and my friend bought a bunch of bananas freshly picked from some tree. Anyone who knows me knows that I have a strong aversion to bananas. I do not know the root cause of this disgust, but it has been steeped in me since I can remember. I recall thinking, as we continued on, that if I was lost in the mountain with nothing to eat but those bananas, I would rather starve to death. It sounds completely ridiculous, which my friend was quick to confirm. So, I contemplated on it for about a minute and decided to change my thought pattern. I told said friend that the only way I might be able to eat a banana is if I hold my nose so I can’t smell the taste of it. She egged me on and basically double dog dared me to eat the banana. Once again, my first reaction was hell no. I heard myself say no and then knew I needed a different response. This whole event happened in slow motion. I took a piece of the banana, completely repulsed that I even touched it. I tried really hard not to smell it, smelled it, then tried really hard not to open my mouth, opened my mouth while making one of my scrunchy faces and chewed it up. I will have you know, I am still alive, but I did not in any way, enjoy the taste of that banana. Said friend has photographic evidence of this event, scrunchy face and all.
At this point, we had made our way to our resting stop where we could sit for awhile. The air was damp and because we were soaked through, we were actually cold. But, there was an aura of tranquility as though something significant had happened here in this space. Somewhere in my illogical brain, as I began to make my way back down the mountain, I thought we could cut the descent time in half. Umm, wrong. Steep, muddy hills with no footing as well as barbed wire and construction workers made the hike down a wee bit tricky.
Overall, the hike was quiet. There were no cackling jungle birds, no snakes or weird looking creatures and no monkeys. The jungle was a ghost town. However, there was a feeling of ancient wisdom looming.
Multiple experiences on the mountain requested that I peel back layers of myself so that I could see who I used to be, where I have traveled and who I have become. It particularly asked that I bring awareness to old reactionary patterns in comparison to how I handle discomfort today. And through this, I discovered that my threshold tolerance for life’s annoyances has increased significantly. There is a certain mellowness to me now that takes much in stride. Sabai-Sabai, mai pen rai. No worries, it’s all good the Thai will say. I have a tendency to drown in feeling everything to the highest level. So when I can move with the flow of things and not react, it feels like shelter to breathe and it is a welcome cover. Weeks later, I still feel the power of the mountain residing in me and I look forward to the day I can return.