Last October, we were heading off on a much-anticipated short trip to Thailand’s North. Ask any Thai about the northern cities of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, and they will tell you that they are: “very beautiful! There are many temples.” A non-Thai friend of ours in Bangkok asked what we would see at our first stop: Chiang Rai. “Temples!” I replied with a wink, knowing the groan that my comment would be met with.
A lot of non-Thais, even those who have lived in the country a long time, think that temples are all the same. They are not.
Of course, temples, which essentially comprise a collection of buildings for religious ceremonies, study and worship, have common elements. But, as with anything else, the more you look, the more you notice.
We had plenty of opportunity to notice the small – and larger – differences between temples as we walked around Chiang Rai, visiting five complexes on foot, and another by car (Wat Rong Khun, which I’ve talked about before), essentially in the space of a day. This little provincial city has the odd church and mosque as well, but it is the Buddhist temples on every corner that stand out.
Our first stop was at the 750-year-old Wat Ming Muang. During the reign of King Mengrai The Great when the temple was constructed, there was a significant Burmese (Shan/Tai Yai) population in this area – hence the Burmese influence in the architecture and sculptures.
Like any temple, especially an old one, Wat Ming Muang (The Auspicious Temple of the City) is continually expanding and undergoing renovation. I find it fascinating to watch how the back-bones of the elements are constructed, before they become the ornately finished products we are used to seeing.
Our second stop was at Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), which was named for the the green gemstone (jade rather than emerald) buddha image which was found there when lightning struck the chedi and cracked it open in 1434. That Emerald Buddha is now in the Grand Palace in Bangkok where, amid great ceremony, the King changes it’s golden coat three times a year to mark the formal change of seasons.
The replacement Chiang Rai Buddha is not an exact copy, but a ‘replica’ commissioned in 1991 to honor the Princess Mother’s 90th birthday. It was carved in Beijing from Canadian jadeite donated by a rich Chinese businessman.
From Wat Phra Kaew, it was a short walk to our lodgings, via two more local temples: Wat Phra Singh and Wat Klang Wiang.
The next morning, after our trip by car to The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun), we visited Wat Phra That Doi Chom Thong. The ancient sacred stone representing the city pillar; the “navel” or centre of the city; was moved here in 1992. Unlike most Thai cities, which house their city pillars, their Lak Mueang, in a shrine, Chiang Rai displays its pillar in an open area. I leave it to you – but I don’t think they look like navels!
Yes, there is a temple on every corner in Chiang Rai, and they are all lovely.
To my mind, at least, they are also all very different!
Photos: 28-29 October 2011.