In Southeast Asia, we’re trying to travel overland as much as possible. To that end, we took a train all the way from Butterworth (in Malaysia) to Chiang Mai, Thailand, which took 36 hours, with a change of train in Bangkok. The train ride was a lot of fun: we chatted with the people sitting nearby, ate the Thai train food (surprisingly good) and were actually able to get some sleep! It was both of our first time on a sleeper train. The beds were really comfortable- maybe even more comfortable than some guesthouse beds.
Chiang Mai is a city that I had skipped on my last trip to Thailand, and I was really excited to go. I was not disappointed. Chiang Mai is like the Kyoto of Thailand: it has a long history, plenty of religious sites to visit, and best of all, Thai culture is very accessible there. It’s possible to take classes in Thai language, massage, cooking, etc. I signed up for a four-day Thai cooking course, but before my classes began, Bob and I had a few days to explore the city. We wandered around the old, walled city; called in to several temples, and gorged ourselves on cheap Thai food.
I’m pretty familiar with Buddhism, having lived in Japan, but the Buddhism practiced in East Asia is different from the Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia. Theravada Buddhism, which is the type practiced in Thailand, emphasizes only the Buddha’s teachings and is an older form of Buddhism than Mahayana Buddhism, which includes other teachings and doctrines that did not come directly from the Buddha. Also, in Theravada Buddhism, making merit is very important. Ways to make merit for yourself (thus ensuring a better rebirth) are to build temples or stupas, donate Buddha statues to a temple, become a monk for a short period of time, give alms to a monk… there must be more, but those are the only ones I know. The first thing I noticed in the Thai temples were that they were much more ornate than the Japanese ones. The altars, in particular, were chock-full of Buddha statues. In Japan, you typically find just one.
Stupas are also a lot more important in Thai Buddhism, it seems.One temple complex usually contains a main temple buildings, some smaller subtemples, and a stupa. They’re usually to enshrine something inside; in Southeast Asia, many temples claim to have a strand of the Buddha’s hair inside. A dead ancestor’s ashes might also be put inside, to make merit for the deceased person. At Doi Suthep (right,) there is supposedly a broken piece of one of the Buddha’s bones inside. On the other hand, the stupa at Wat Chedi Luang (below,) was built by a 14th-century king who intended to inter the ashes of his father.
One of the cool things you can do in Chiang Mai is take part in a “monk chat.” Different temples hold these at different times; we chatted with a monk at Wat Chedi Luang, which is drop-in style. It’s one of the more popular temples among tourists due to its gigantic, crumbling brick stupa (it was damaged in an earthquake 600 years ago.)
So many foreigners visit the temples in Chiang Mai but probably don’t know much about Buddhism, so English-speaking monks are on hand to answer questions. We ended up talking for an hour. The monk we spoke with was 24 years old and has been a monk for the past 11 years. It’s very common for boys in Thailand to become a monk for a few months, but not many stay for that long. He didn’t say so directly, but I got the impression that he was from a poor family, so attending a temple school was the only way for him to continue his education. Temples in Thailand don’t just focus on religious education, they also teach the usual school subjects like history and foreign languages. He was really good at English; he said he’s studying to be an English teacher. He said he gets a lot of respect in the classroom because he’s a monk.
Another interesting thing that we learned is that in Chiang Mai, there are twelve temples devoted to the animals of the Chinese zodiac. They believe that when you die, your soul goes to rest in the temple of that animal. I didn’t find the ox temple, but Bob found his temple (he’s year of the dog.)
The outsides of the temple buildings are pretty fabulous as well. They’re extremely colorful and ornate. The eaves are the most unique aspect. I have heard (though I haven’t had confirmation on this) that the reason the eaves always point upwards is so that they’re pointing towards heaven.