Have I mentioned the chaos of life in Thailand yet? Of course I have. It’s hard not to reflect on the level of busyness that permeates every aspect of life, even when the monsoon rains flood the streets. Everyone just gets their feet wet and carries on in the hum of survival. We were busy taking pictures of the madness, trying to figure out how to get home without drowning, and the Thai’s on the street were acting like it was a light drizzle. Times like that call for drastic action, and we holed up in our house watching cheap pirated DVD’s purchased at the market.
It never ceased to amaze us how we could get full quality copies of movies before they even came out in the theatres in North America. We had amassed quite a collection, and weren’t sure how we were going to deal with crossing borders in possession of the contraband material. There was a trade war on between Thailand and the U.S., where the American Film association was pressuring Washington to crack down on International movie piracy. The secretary of state had declared that if Thailand wouldn’t crack down on the illicit films, then the U.S. would cease to negotiate trade deals with multinational pharmaceuticals, which would result in skyrocketing prices for medicines in Thailand. Hardly a fair deal, cheap entertainment for life saving medicines, but the authorities had taken notice, and the vendors of pirated movies had become more discreet about displaying their wares, showing only the covers of the movies, which they would then burn for you while you waited. Serious spy vs. spy stuff going on there, let me tell you.
Once the rain let up a bit, I decided to venture out on a solo motorcycle mission intent on rising above the flooded streets. I call it a motorcycle, although in reality, it was a scooter, but scooter doesn’t sound very sexy, and I was intent on showing off my manliness, even if in name only. I set out heading west along Huai Keao Road, which runs west from the north-west corner of the Moat to the base of the mountain, Doi Suthep. It was only a few kilometers from our house to the base of the mountain, and the treacherous winding road that leads to the summit. I had no aspirations of reaching the top, but had my sights set on Wat Pra That Doi Suthep, the Buddhist temple which lay halfway to the top, some 700 meters above the city. The spires of the temple were visible on a clear day, and had been calling to me for some time.
Navigating the zig-zag contours of the road were difficult on a scooter, despite my relative adeptness on two wheels at this point, and I stopped frequently for breaks, generally at every decent view spot, channeling my inner tourist and busting out my camera for some quick shots of the valley below. Although it was only 10 kilometers to the Wat, I was quickly feeling the intensity of my trip, venturing further than I had yet dared on my scoot…er, motorcycle, but had my heart set on the goal, the famed Jade Buddha that lay deep within the temple.
Although there is a cable car that can assist the last leg of the journey to the temple, you would be a fool not to take the stairs, guarded by many the headed stone dragons at the entrance, whose tails guide you up the ever-inclining steps to the temple grounds. The temple itself is a place of pure awe, gilded and adorned with Buddha’s and dragons, inspiring the reverence and wonder the permeates Thai culture. The green Buddha seems like something out of science fiction, an otherworldly being briefly taking up residence on our earthly plane.
Coasting back down the mountain, I had a clearer understanding of what makes Thailand such a special place. Their deities are not abstract beings inhabiting some lofty realm, described only through the words in a book. They are beings of consciousness like ours who have attained grace and enlightenment through devotion to the pursuit of personal betterment, something we can all attain to in this lifetime, or failing that, in the next.
Resolving to share some of this inspiration with Cyrus, I opted to avoid repeating the harrowing journey up the mountain with a passenger, and instead decided upon Wat Umong, located just west of the airport, and still within familiar and comfortable territory. Navigation in Thailand can be an adventure unto itself, and we soon discovered that outside of the city proper, street signs were only in Thai, leaving us to consult with our trusty map of Chiang Mai attractions and hope that we were heading vaguely in the right direction. Fortunately for us, the area was very scenic, and getting lost only added to the charm of the adventure.
Finally happening upon a sign which clearly indicated the road to the temple, we gave thanks, as by this point we were getting tired and hungry. Wat Umong contrasted greatly to Wat Pra That, lacking the opulence and splendor of the mountain temple, but also lacking the throngs of tourists. It felt far more ancient, and of this earthly plane. Set in a forest, beside a small lake, with only one worn Stupa, a circular spire, it had catacombs set into the hill, and an air of ancient mystery, like some fabled Jedi temple. Perfect for an eleven-year-old boy, who would have been appreciative but bored by the flash and pizazz of the lofty shrine upon the mountain. Exploring what looked more like ruins than an active temple, we felt more like we were on an Indiana Jones mission than a holy pilgrimage, and that suited us just fine.
The terrain lent to us having an impromptu game of hide and seek, amongst the trees and catacombs, which drew some annoyed glances from the few other visitors to the temple, and smiles from the few monks who were around. Despite the perception that Buddhism is a serious religion, I have always found the devout practitioners to be mirthful, and ready to embrace joy as a serious part of existence on this planet. After all, it’s never too late to have a happy childhood, especially when that is where you will start your next life.