Chiang Mai, Rose of the north

“I’m not going to make it to the top without slipping and feeling breathless,” my chum, Jos, said while we were hiking up to the temple, Wat Doi Suthep. It took almost 2 hours to get up there and having the mosquitoes buzzing around was not helping. In addition, there were another 309 steps leading up to the temple when we reached the temple grounds.

“You better try; take one breath at a time” I encouraged. “We have to make it up there in time for the sunset and evening prayers.” Although there was an option to take the red car (Songthaew) and a cable-car up to the top, I thought it would be more of an accomplishment if we hiked. I have always been fascinated by Buddhist temples before coming to Thailand. The golden striking architecture, the peaceful environment, the monks in strange attire, and the enormous Buddha statues truly amazed me. You might be thinking, “All Buddhist Temples look the same – once you have seen one, you have seen them all!” Sadly, I was wrong and ashamed of my ignorance.

Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second-largest city, but the pace here is more laid-back. That’s why Chiang Mai is the best place to explore Thai Buddhism.

There are over 300 “Lanna” style temples, and each temple style is different from the others. They can be found scattered throughout the city and its surroundings. The one we were going to visit was one of the most revered temples in Chiang Mai.

At last, we reached the mountaintop. The breathlessness we felt was overtaken when we saw the view. We took pictures from the top with 360-degree views before going off to find where the evening prayer was being held.

Then we heard the bells. The chanting sounded strangely beautiful. Following the voices, we found where all the monks had gathered and quietly entered the room. The chanting was in Pali, a language widely spoken by the Buddha himself in the past.

Jos and I knelt, making sure to tuck our feet under ourselves (pointing your feet in the direction of a Buddha is considered disrespectful). I soaked up the peaceful ambiance from the space and décor — embellished Buddha statues of all sizes and colors surrounded by the offerings of flowers and fruits. I closed my eyes and put my hands together on my chest, letting the chanting wash over me.

In Buddhism, we are taught to find a way to overcome the suffering caused by our desires, ego, and go beyond material gains by cultivating wisdom and compassion. Everything is impermanent and we are all interconnected.

The next day, we waited by the roadside at the monastery. Nearby, a few Thais were already waiting to make offerings. Just then, you could see the monks walking barefoot in a row, begging for alms. The sight was something to behold, so sacred and noble. Only the best food was given, as the monks were very well-respected in Buddhist culture and they required energy to study and practice so they could share the Dhamma (Buddhist Teachings) with the community.

It didn’t matter how much and what you offered. It was vital to give from your heart with the right intention, wishing the monks could be liberated and hopefully guide us out of samsara (cycle of existence). It is also a way to support the monks by learning how to let go and dedicate these merits you have gained for others who are still suffering.

Immersing myself into the Thai culture, learning about their outlook on life, and seeing their sense of community helped me realize how to have a more peaceful mind and experience genuine happiness.

Thailand is known for practicing meditation. Visitors come from all over the world to learn meditation or study Buddhism. There are even Thai temples that serve as rehab centers for addicts. Theravada Buddhism is relatively stricter and generally considered closest to the form of early Buddhism. It is considered a way of life that every Thai man has to ordain as a monk once in their life, even for a short period.

While traveling, no matter how great it felt at first, every satisfaction and excitement ultimately wouldn’t last for long unless it had a more meaningful foundation to back it up.

If not, everything I saw will be gone one day, no matter how grand and beautiful, but if we take time to cultivate our hearts and minds, this contentment will transcend and last for eternity.