Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Wats of Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai is Thailand's second city.  Generally, when people visit Thailand, they usually frollow one of three paths: visiting the capital city of Bangkok, going south to enjoy the beaches and various water activities found on the Gulf of Thailand in cities such as Phuket or Koh Samui, or head north to the jungles of Chiang Mai.

As I'm not much of a beach person, on my recent trip to Thailand, I elected to go the northern route and spend a couple of days in Chiang Mai to explore the former capital of the Kingdom of Lanna (1296-1768).  As a kid, I'd been to Chiang Mai once before, but all I remembered of it was the elephants in the jungle.  Beyond that, I didn't really know much about Chiang Mai, and I certainly had no knowledge of the history of the city and the strategic importance of it in the Lanna Kingdom.

Chiang Mai was founded in 1296 by King Mengrai and was quickly established as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, taking that honor away from the nearby city of Chiang Rai.  Due to a constant threat from neighboring Burma, the city was surrounded by a defensive wall and moat.  The moat still exists today and small sections of the wall still stand as well.  The old city within the city wall still thrives, but over time, especially in recent history, Chiang Mai has rapidly grown and the majority of the city now exists well beyond the old city walls.  Chiang Mai officially became a part of the Kingdom of Siam in 1774, and these days is only second to Bangkok in terms of importance as a cultural, historical and economic center of Thailand.

Chiang Mai has often been associated with its terrific handcrafted goods and as a center for art and culture.  Part of that culture can be seen all over the city in the more than 300 wats that exist within the city limits.  A wat is a Thai word for temple.  As Thailand is overwhelmingly Buddhist, a wat generally refers to a Buddhist temple.

The first day we were in Chiang Mai, we got an up close view of 7 of the 300+ wats in Chiang Mai.  It's difficult to visit the city and not visit at least 1 wat as there seems to be at least 1 or 2 on every street in Chiang Mai.  Having flown to Chiang Mai from Bangkok, and having spent the previous day at some of Bangkok's grandest wats, it was quite a contrast to see the wats of Chiang Mai.  Architecturally and historically they are radically different from what you'll find in the more modern day Bangkok.  These wats in Chiang Mai were built during a period of time when Chaing Mai was not yet a part of Thailand and ruled by a people and a government whose culture was very much set apart from the Thai Buddhist culture for which wats in Bangkok were constructed.

The minute we exited our little tour van at the first wat we visited that day, we were just blown away by the beauty of it.  Really, the beauty in the simplicity of it all.  And how it was just so different from what we had seen previously.  The first wat we visited while we were in Chiang Mai is a little known, not often visited wat on the outskirts of town called Wat Thon Kwain.  Unbeknownst to me, thon kwain is actually the name of a particular kind of tree in Thai.  The wat is so old that it is essentially built almost entirely of wood on a dirt tract.  It's the architecture and the details that went into construction of that wat that was most remarkable to me.  It was so so gorgeously handcrafted, with such intricate detailing in the woodwork and the design.  Standing alone, looking simple and old, it was beautiful.  Perhaps the appeal and beauty of the wat comes from the fact that it is in a more rural part of town and it's obvious that the wat doesn't get many visitors, so therefore it seems a little more quaint and somehow just set aside from all the other wats in Chiang Mai.

The second wat we visited while we were in Chiang Mai was Wat Chiang Man.  Unlike the somewhat remote location of Wat Thon Kwain, Wat Chiang Man is actually located right in the heart of the old city surrounded by the city walls and the moat.  The original wat was built in 1297 and was the first temple of Chiang Mai.  The wat was constructed on the site of the old campgrounds used by King Mengrai when he was constructing his new capital city of Chiang Mai.  This wat is obviously a contrast of 2 different eras.  The front, street-facing side of the wat is a newer structure that was renovated in the 1920s by a famous monk.  The outside of this structure is decorated in very intricate filigree gilded gold designs and each roof eave forms a serpent that protects the building.  Once you walk inside, at the far end of the temple is a large grouping of Buddha statues, with one of the statues housed behind gates.  One of the Buddha statues has an engraving on it that dates it back to 1465, which makes it the oldest surviving statue of the Lanna Kingdom.  The inside walls of the main temple are lined with painted descriptions depicting Buddhist history.

As you walk the grounds of the wat, there are some smaller structures as well as some beautifully maintained grounds.  As you walk to the back side of the main structure, you see that there is an even more amazing structure known as the "Elephant Chedi".  This was the original site of construction of the wat.  The base of the structure is square shaped upon which sit 15 life-sized elephants made of stucco which appear to carry the weight of the upper level of the structure on their backs.  I thought this was really neat, but then again, I really love elephants and elephant figures.  The uppermost part of the structure is a gilded dome, inside which there is a bell shaped carved out relic chamber.  From the relic chamber there was a long piece of string which ran back to the main structure of the wat and was attached on the other end to the hand of a Buddha statue that sat on the back side of the main structure.  This was a monk-blessed piece of string to symbolize the connection between the main structure and the Elephant Chedi.  The last unique part of this wat was that it featured a lotus pond, something not normally found at most Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai; in fact of the often visted wats of Chiang Mai, only Wat Chiang Man and Wat Phra Singh (which we visted later) feature lotus ponds.

Come back for subsequent blog posts regarding the other 5 wats that we visited during the first day of our trip to Chiang Mai...

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