Our Month in Northern Thailand: the Buddhas

Wat Rong Khun otherwise known as the "White Temple," near the city of  Chiang Rai

Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple, near the city of Chiang Rai

The primary religion in Thailand is Buddhism, which is practiced by approximately 95% of the population. Thais practice Theravada Buddhism, thought to be the oldest branch of the religion, and is most common throughout SE Asia. A tradition which continues, most Thai men spend at least a week to several months at some time in their life at a monastery, where they shave their heads, don the striking orange robes and simplify. Of course, while spending time in such a predominately Buddhist region of the world, we have come to know the basics. Some tenets were actually spelled out for us along an uphill climb of 500 steps to a monastery in Chiang Dao called Wat Tham Pha Plong. Along the way, we read these out loud for the kids. Some travelled up over their heads to the misty mountaintop, but others Merle seemed to truly understand. One in particular stuck for him which he sometimes repeats: when you hurt others, you are only hurting yourself. ¬†Kindergarten of the world…. let’s see if it sticks. Here are a few that particularly resonated with me.

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Enveloped in mist and jungle greenery, the view of the monastery from the steps was sublime. Once inside its grotto-like temple, the kids paid their respects and Mathilda did her best rendition of a reclining Buddha.

We timed our trip to coincide with two major Northern Thai festivals, Loy Krathong and Yi Peng. Though not specifically Buddhist, they happen to intersect each year on the Thai lunar calendar, transforming Chiang Mai into a spectacle of light (in all forms) at night. Krathong’s are actually naturally made decorative floats, quite small in size, which carry incense sticks and a candle. On the night of the full moon, Thais light them and send them afloat on nearby rivers and ponds to make a wish. According to Wikipedia, the festival may originate from an ancient ritual paying respect to the water spirits. The kids loved picking out their carefully handmade Krathongs–Merle, a turtle and Mathilda, a flower, both made of bread. Ours were lovely, made of sculptured banana leaf and orchids. We then launched them down the Ping River, which flows right through the center of Chiang Mai. Lighting things and making wishes, what could be more fun?!

There was much more wish making with fire to be had since the Yi Peng festival involves sending huge rice paper lanterns up to the sky. I will never forget the sky that night literally filled with these lanterns floating to the heavens as far as one could see, in every direction.

With fireworks going off, the flickering Krathongs meandering down the river, trees lit up like Christmas with strings of lights and paper lanterns, and sky alive with golden fire balls, Chiang Mai was truly the most spectacular place to be in the world at that moment. Lighting our own lanterns made us feel really a part of the action, of the wonder of it all.

Being blessed by a monk at the temple became a favorite of Merle’s and Mathilda’s. As the monk chanted a string of blessings, sometimes even in English, he would shake some twigs soaked in holy water over them and then tie string bracelets on their little wrists. A month later, Merle and I still have our still on!

While in Chiang Rai, most visit the spectacle that is the White Temple or Wat Rong Khun. Designed in 1997 by a Thai visual artist, it is still a work in progress, reminding me of the ornate, unfinished Gaudi cathedral in Barcelona. The artist believes this project, when finished, will give him immortality so you can imagine how hard he has worked on it and thus how fantastic it has become. It sparkles with millions of mirrored tiles on pristine white ceramic and concrete, with blindingly bright silver bells and charms flickering everywhere. One can write a wish on these charms and hang them on the many wishing trees throughout the vast temple grounds. We wished Grandma a happy birthday! With the thousands of visitors who come each year to the White Temple, you can imagine how many silver wish charms now fill the air with a faint yet sweet metallic tinkling sound. Prior to entering the temple, one must cross a bridge over the artist’s rendition of the 9 gates of hell. Merle heard it was bad luck to stop along the way, so you can see him with his head down, hurrying along.

Spotting Buddha in Thailand, whether in a cave, outside or in a temple, is always fun, and since it commands a bit of reverence from the kids, it quiets things down, at least for one minute or so.

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