What's Wat in Chiang Mai   (04/11/04)

Last updated 04/19/04                                                                                                                               

Chiang Mai enriched our lexicon with a new set of bad alliteration jokes based on similar sounds of the English word "what" and Thai word "wat" (Buddhist temple). Indeed, the question "What's there to see in Chiang Mai?" should in all honesty be answered with "Wats!" because this city is famous for them. You will see at least one wat per block as you walk around in the walled city -- the old town area, in the olden days surrounded by a moat and a city wall. The wall has by now crumbled into oblivion, with the exception of a few bricks along the south side plus several town gates which still stand, while the moat is present and alive with fountains, and plays an important role as the water reservoir for swimming (surprisingly, not prohibited) and Songkran festivities. Songkran in Chiang Mai is a separate story already posted here.

Back to our wats: they are a truly beatiful sight to behold, and I hope some of their lovely architecture got reflected in our amateur pictures (see below). Wats are open to non-Buddhists as well as believers, as long as you take off your shoes and do not point your feet at the Buddha images (feet are considered to be unclean in this culture). Some areas of the wats are closed off for everyone but monks, because wats often double as Buddhist monasteries. We saw many wats in our walks around Chiang Mai, and also visited a wat perched on top of the nearby Doi Suthep mountain. You must walk 306 steps up the steep staircase, or else cheat and take the elevator, to approach the temple grounds. The temple is guarded against evil spirits by two enormously long nagas (mythical dragon-snakes with multiple heads) whose bodies run the entire length of the staircase. The curious story of this wat's establishment, proudly related in the leaflets distributed to the visitors, goes like so: once upon a time (15th century I believe), holy relics were being trasported from one location to another wat on a white elephant, revered as a holy good-luck animal in Thailand. Having climbed Doi Suthep, which was not the destination, the elephant died from fatigue, which was taken as a sign to construct a temple on that spot and inter the relics in a golden chedi on the new wat's grounds. I fail to see how any place of worship could be proud of such a history, but apparently the Thais prefer to stick with the truth rather than embellish their past... The golden chedi with four lacework umbrellas around it shines so brightly under noon sun that you have to squint just as you hurry across the courtyard because your bare feet are burning on the hot stones of the pavement. Surrounding the praying areas of the temple are the wat grounds which include large sets of bells (ring them for good luck) and such unexpected attractions as coffee shop and viewpoint which (on a clear day) provides a birds-eye view of Chiang Mai city down below. I fully agree with the concept expressed by this setup: even visiting a temple has to be fun, or "sanuk" as Thais say.

For more fun in Chiang Mai, especially if you have a kid along, visit the city Zoo. Situated on a large, green territory with many paths (enough to give you a several-mile workout before you decide to take mercy on your feet and hop on the shuttle), it displays a variety of animal species, including such large mammals as lions, tigers, elephants, camels, rhinos and hippos, and the big-ticket item: Giant Pandas. The pair of pandas is a recent acquisition, given to the Zoo by China as a gift for Queen's 60th birthday (otherwise giant pandas only live in China), and there's much hype around it. Before we learned about the existence of these pandas, we used to be surprised at the disproportionate number of toy pandas and t-shirts with panda images in souvenier shops... the oddest token of affection for the animal has to be the wind-up stuffed panda jerking around on all fours to the beat of lambada. Now we realize that "the Thai-Chinese friendship ambassadors" have entered the psyche of Thai people, and why not? They are so very cute.


Wat Phra Singh                Chedi at Wat Mahawan                Puneet with a mythical lion on temple grounds                Another wat building

  Above: many wats of Chiang Mai. Below: Wat Doi Suthep on top of the mountain.

  The entrance gate to Doi Suthep area                306 steps to the top                Guardian Naga                

                  Rooftops of temple buildings                Chedi with lace umbrellas                

 Below: our encounters with the animal kingdom in Chiang Mai, in the zoo and outside it. The lovely white rabbit is Miss Julia, the more courageous pet of Nice Apartment Guesthouse (very nice place indeed!). We were unable to get a picture of Mr. Robert, Julia's gray friend, because he would get scared and run away when we approached him with the camera. The pandas proved to be more photogenic.

  Entrance to Chiang Mai Zoo                The home to giant pandas                On the large, leafy zoo grounds                Miss Julie, pet rabbit at Nice Apartment Guesthouse

  What do these signs say? To me it's all SAME-SAME                Common variety of flowerbeds in Thailand: clay pots with water lilies and goldfish                Buak Hat City Park                

Above: splashes of greenery in the heat of Chiang Mai in April. The arrow signs in Thai (left) didn't help us much in finding our way around Huay Kaew waterfall (dried to a trickle in the hot season) at the base of Doi Suthep mountain, but we got a nice hike anyway.

Below: images that didn't fit in any other category. The "ISO 9002" sign above the police station in Chiang Mai (yes, the police is ISO certified!) was deemed worthy of a picture because we have seen a lot of hotels, restaurants and other establishments in Thailand that advertise their ISO 9000-series compliance -- a virtually unknown phenomenon in the United States. Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice used to say... And the dragon was so plain cute that it had to be on this page.

 ISO certification is very important to Thais                 Cute dragon at some wat