The number one tourist attraction in Chiang Mai, Thailand is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the temple on the mountain above the city. For tourists, it is colloquially referred to as Doi Suthep.
Doi Suthep is a Theravada Buddhist temple, built in 1383. The temple is located atop Doi Suthep, the mountain just outside Chiang Mai. As legend has it, the site was chosen by a white elephant. The elephant was released into the wild carrying a sacred relic. Eventually the elephant wandered to the spot of Doi Suthep, trumpted three times, and then died. The king of Lan Na (Northern Thailand) took it as an omen, and ordered a temple built upon the spot.
Over the years the temple has been expanded and embellished, resulting in an ornate complex plated in gold and adorned with hand-painted murals from the life of the Buddha.
It’s an astonishing sight.
If you can see past the thousands of tourists.
Thailand, as a country, depends heavily on tourism. Quick Googling tells me international tourism alone comprises 7 percent of their GDP; a figure I wouldn’t be surprised to learn is low. Tourists are everywhere in Chaing Mai, and by all accounts Northern Thailand is sleepy, compared to the beach-party atmosphere of southern Thailand.
Not to mention, this week was Chinese Golden Week. Golden Week is a Chinese national holiday, marking the birth of the People’s Republic. CNN reported that half the nation was expected to celebrate the holiday by taking a trip.
Many of them seem to have ended up at Doi Suthep.
Initially, this tourist crush was very distressing to me. Setting aside the hypocritical aspect of a tourist being annoyed with other tourists, it just didn’t seem right to see such a place overrun with loud, disrespectful people; people who often seemed more interested in taking selfies to prove they were there, rather than considering what the place represented.
I couldn’t help but picturing the temple in my head, “as it should be”— quiet, shady, a wind rustling through the trees while monks softly pad around without shoes. A whispered word, morning devotionals, a weaver in the corner while others sat in zazen.
In my mind, that’s the image of a Buddhist temple. That’s “proper.” What we saw felt incongruous. It made me sad. We spent an hour or so walking around, then caught a ride back to town in the back of a red songthaew. The driver blasted around the corners as fast as she could, and greedily collected a huge fee from us at the end.
The whole experience felt distressingly commercialized.
As we sat down at a local Thai restaurant for a bite of “django” crispy pork, I kept turning the experience over in my head. The temple may not have felt right to me, but that didn’t mean I could simply forget about it.
Buddhism, as a grossly simplified philosophy, is about finding peace and contentment amidst the chaos and struggle of everyday life. Buddhism, and zen in particular, has always been a philosophy which speaks to me on an intuitive level. (Look at the rotating banners on this site, and you might catch a quick glimpse of some zen).
And as I sat over lunch, I realized that the holy temple overflowing with Chinese tourists was also speaking to me on an intuitive level.
It’s absolutely ridiculous to expect to come to a country where you don’t speak the language, and be intimated to enlightenment. This wasn’t what I was consciously expecting, but, maybe some part of me subconsciously expected it.
The temple teaches more with the Chinese tourists, than without them.
Faced with a 30 baht entrance fee and an interminable flow of foreigners at the temple, I was forced to consider my place in all of this. I was, after all, part of that flow of foreigners. Nothing, really, separated me, from them. We were one and the same. Ultimately, as I sat on the steps of a holy and ancient site whose history and significance I could barely comprehend, I was frustrated with myself.
That’s life. And you just have to learn to live within that frustration.
After some reflection, I’m not so sure the temple is corrupted at all.
Thailand is growing fast as a nation, and that means big challenges to our preconceptions. Chiang Mai is packed to the gills with cars, motorbikes, and more wifi than I have seen in any American city, including New York and San Francisco. The place is not what it once was. But that doesn’t mean its spirit is gone.
It still has a lot of lessons to teach.