One of the things I was looking forward to about Thailand was visiting lots and lots of wats, also known as temples. Buddhist temples are not something you get to see everyday, and that’s what this trip was about, seeing and experiencing new things. Now, some of the people we met while in Asia said “once you see one wat, you’ve seen them all,” but I have to disagree. Sure, there are of course similarities between them all, the intricate decorations, the gold EVERYWHERE, the Buddhas, but each of the following wats was definitely worth their own visit, and here’s why:
The first wat that Katie and I went to our first day in Chiang Mai, we encountered a monk inside who spoke Thai to us, held out strands of cotton, and motioned toward our wrists so he could tie them around like bracelets. He went for me first and as I knelt in front of him, he started to chant and rub the strand of cotton on the back of my wrist. Without even thinking, I awkwardly took my wrist back and quickly took my hair tie off, as if that would make some sort of difference in the blessing, and put my arm back. He started over and took a minute to finish his blessing of happiness and long life, as we found out later. Of course, he really could have been saying anything, including talking about how annoying we were as Americans, but I’d like to think he was doing the right thing.
This temple in Chiang Mai was where I finally got to experience the celebrity life that I dream of every day. When we approached, there was a group of adorable schoolchildren and they freaked out when they saw us. They appeared to be asking their teacher something and she nodded, so they came up to me and started asking me questions. “Do you speak English?” one asked. “I do,” I answered. They became really excited and said “Can we ask you some questions?” and I of course said they could. Six of them lined up in a row and took turns asking me questions like “What is your name?” “Where are you from?” “Do you like Thailand?” “What is your favorite Thai food?” Each time it was a student’s turn to ask a question, he or she would step out of line, smile, and bow his or her head to me. Then when they were finished, they asked me to write down the answers to their questions and to provide a comment on their English. The teacher took a picture of us with the students and all of them said “Thank you! Bye!” repeatedly as they walked away. It was awesome.
Wat Chiang Man
Wat Chiang Man was where Katie and I released caged birds, like we were bosses. This is supposed to be a way to “make merit,” freeing something that has been captured. I had read about this in my guidebook and starred it about thirty times for some reason. Maybe it’s because I was obsessed with animals while in Asia. For about $3 US, you get a little hinged basket of three or four birds to free. The birds were so excited to be released and flew out without even waiting for you to open the basket completely. I felt bad of course, that the birds were in the baskets, and maybe it wasn’t right that we were contributing money for these women to continue capturing birds, but if they are all released eventually, then it’s okay, right? I needed to make merit somehow and I couldn’t just become a monk right then and there, so this was my best shot.
It was also at Chiang Man where I became obsessed with all the stray dogs hanging out. I wanted to play with them badly, but I figured that probably wasn’t a good idea. There was also a huge building on the wat “campus” if you will, with tons of huge elephant statues. Katie and I spent a lot of time checking these out since we were less than 24 hours from our day-long elephant excursion.
Wat Chedi Luang
This is the most sacred wat in Chiang Mai and when Katie and I got there, prayer was in session. We had to don long cotton robes in order to enter this one, but they were pretty great, so no complaints here fashion-wise. It was pretty sweltering after a while though in the temple, so we didn’t stay inside too long.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Katie and I spent half a day on an excursion to Doi Suthep, because this temple is on top of the mountain that overlooks Chiang Mai. The story goes that an elephant was sent up the mountain carrying relics that would go in this temple, and whereever the elephant stopped, that was where the temple was to be built. According to legend though, instead of just stopping, the elephant stopped and died, and a temple was built on that spot. We took a van there and drove up for thirty minutes rather than try the trek ourselves. If the elephant couldn’t do it, we sure couldn’t.
At the base of the temple, there is a 304-step stairway which wasn’t really an issue for me, since I’m on a 5th-floor walkup and it feels like there are that many stairs to get up to my apartment every night. It was here where we also walked around the temple three times while chanting something in Thai, rang bells for good luck, rang gongs, and got a foggy view of Chiang Mai from the sky. We were also blessed with bracelets by yet another monk for double the happiness and longevity.
Wat Phra Kaew
Wat Phra Kaew, also known as The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which happens to be Thailand’s most revered idol. This temple is in The Grand Palace and surrounded by what seems like hundreds of other beautiful decorated buildings. It is more conservative than other wats we encountered, probably all because of the Emerald Buddha. We were told ahead of time that we had to wear closed toed shoes on temple grounds (but of course would have to be barefoot in the actual temple). I wore a scarf around my shoulders most of the days in Thailand, but so many people kept running up to me on this particular day making sure I was also wearing a shirt and not just a scarf.
The reclining Buddha at Wat Po is quite famous for its size, but I was taken aback when I actually saw *how* large it was. I can’t even begin to imagine how much gold is on this puppy. It’s actually impossible to get the entire thing in a photo. It is also almost impossible to take a photo without someone creeping in on you.
Wat Arun was a good last wat to visit because it turned into an adventure when we decided to climb it. It was ridiculously steep and after climbing up, people were generally nervous to climb back down. This was the second out of three times on the trip where I realized I am actually a little scared of heights, or at least of falling to my death. But the trek up, as all treks up, or all things that are a little nervewracking, was worth it. We got to see the detail on the temple up close and got a pretty sweet view of Bangkok.
At this point, the bracelets I got from the monks are really dirty, probably just from being on my wrists for three weeks, but also since I fell in the river with the elephants and because I’ve been working out a lot. They look pretty bad. But I’m not ready to take them off, because I’m not ready to not be in Thailand yet. I’m also not looking forward to losing my blessing for happiness – because I’ve been pretty darn happy lately.