Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is visible from all over Chiang Mai, perched high on Doi Suthep mountain, glittering in the sunshine. The temple with the golden chedi was built in 1388, its site had been designated by an auspicious elephant: treasured Buddha relics were placed on its back, and the animal was set free to choose the perfect spot. I can only imagine the reactions of monks and townspeople when the elephant, obviously, headed for the mountains and the jungle. The temple has become one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Northern Thailand over the centuries.
Just a hundred years ago, climbing the mountain was indeed pilgrimage in the real sense of the word – a treacherous trek into the jungle where tigers and elephants roam freely. In 1935, Khru Ba Sriwichai, a revered monk whose photos are seen in every temple and many homes in Chiang Mai, received inspiration to embark on a major engineering project: build a paved road to the temple and open the route for thousands of pilgrims. Miraculously, the construction was completed in just 5 months and 22 days, as tens of thousands of devotees flocked to the site to help with the back-breaking work. It is attributed to the spiritual intervention of Khru Ba Sriwichai that though the workers constantly heard tigers in the distance during the night, there were no attacks or fatalities. Today, a photograph is displayed at the top, right next to the Naga staircase leading up to the temple, commemorating the moment that the first distinguished guests drove up to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep in an automobile.
Also, a brand new huge statue of Khru Ba Sriwichai greets the crowds near the Naga staircase.
These days, tens of thousands of people make the same journey in cars, vans, buses and taxis every day, and the temple is teeming with life at all hours of the day. However, on the day of Wisakha Bucha, the most important day in the Buddhist calendar, tens of thousands of people, young and old, set out on foot again to climb the mountain, a 12-kilometre walk, to commemorate the birth, enlightenment and death of the Lord Buddha, just as their ancestors did in olden times, walking well into the small hours of the morning.
In the past two years, there were heavy thunderstorms on Wisakha Bucha day, and although the procession did go ahead (as I saw broadcast on tv), I did not feel like joining. The almost clear skies and the bright full moon promised a different experience this year when I left home. I had never seen such a horrible traffic jam in Chiang Mai: tens of thousands of motorcycles were trying to find a parking spot in the huge parking lot (and spacious lawns!) of Chiang Mai University. Only taxis and vans carrying musicians, monks and the elderly were allowed to drive on.
Before starting the climb, the pilgrims offer flowers, incense and a short prayer at the statue of Khru Ba Sriwichai, flanked by tigers, at the bottom of the mountain, and monks bless the crowd.
I didn’t intend to walk, I am not even wearing sandals, just battered flipflops. I can hardly manage the 306 steps of the Naga staircase on the top on a good day! But somehow the crowd carries me on. The road is not as steep as I remembered, I can walk easily without running out of breath. There is a steady flow of people as far as the eye can see, mostly teenagers, students, young families, singing pop songs, chatting away on their mobiles, running races, walking dogs, fooling around. I had expected something different, older people, a different atmosphere, even though I know religion is alive and well in Thailand. Great to see the young continuing the tradition of walking up the mountain, great to know the religious ceremonies are not from some dry school course but a relevant part of their lives that they can make their own. I like the atmosphere a lot, even if it is far from solemn religious devotion. Just a couple of thousand people walking up the mountain and having a great time with their friends or families.
Vendors selling food and water line the road, clustered around generators, and yes, the crowd is walking ankle-deep in plastic bags and food boxes. Volunteers are already trying to clean the mess, refill water bottles for free, offer huge rubbish bags – but clearly not enough.
There are also “stations” with monks, Buddha images and mats to sit and relax on, offerings and donations pour in, the tired catch their breath, and go on.
Nurses keep an eye on people and hand out water and snacks. I am kind of losing my mind. It is dark and weird and a little creepy and if I wasn’t sweating, I would be cold. It is a chilly night. The moon is in and out the cloud cover. I am carrying a raincoat, just in case. But it never rains.
I walk on past Monthatan waterfall, and finally get into a taxi halfway up – hundreds of songthaews are heading up the mountain, picking up people who are too tired to walk on. (only 30 baht!) We drive past another ten thousand people, and the “official” procession of monks, candles, women in traditional costumes carrying flags and offerings, musicians with giant drums, and of course Buddha images. They started the ascent at seven or maybe a little earlier.
I don’t expect to get anywhere near the temple because the crowd on the road appears simply overwhelming, but to my surprise, when the taxi drops me off at the bottom of the staircase, I realise that I arrived just at the right time, before the walking crowd – it is around 10:30. I manage to walk up the Naga staircase (pushed from behind, without stopping, gasping for air, it is indeed worse than the walk up the mountain), enter the temple, and even circle the golden chedi three times, along with thousands, slowly, but without total gridlock.
I have never been up to the chedi at night. The golden chedi and buildings glitter in the strong lights, the temple yard is flooded with golden light, golden faces, golden flowers, golden smoke. The people are too tightly packed for lighting candles. I manage to snap a few pictures and short movies.
The crowd almost freaks me out, there is always a fine line between uplifting and shocking. But I cannot think of the Buddha or the Dhamma, not in this atmosphere, not today, I will need to find another moment for that later on, a quiet one. Monks are chanting and then there is traditional music and drums. Elderly pilgrims dressed in white are lying or asleep in every square inch under the porch around the chedi, waiting for chanting and almsgiving before daybreak. The air is thick with smoke from candles and incense, and the constant toll of the bells is almost menacing. I have never been in such a huge crowd and that mentioned fine line between inspiring and scary is closing down on me. I need to escape.
I manage to get down the Naga staircase just before the crowd comes to a halt both ways. As I am climbing onto the roof of a waiting songthaew to get me back to the city, the procession of monks and pilgrims we passed by finally arrive at the top – it is exactly midnight. And then everything just stops completely for a long, long time. Nobody can move, only the music reaches everywhere. I am watching on from the relative safety of the songthaew. An angry policeman comes and shouts for us to get off the top of the vehicles. A group of university students dressed in uniforms are celebrating a birthday with cakes and candles – presumably, not Buddha’s birthday! People are sitting and lying bundled up in blankets beside the parking lot, on the road, everywhere, I think most will stay on until dawn for chanting and almsgiving. And then slowly, after an eternity waiting, the fifty or maybe more songthaews that have gathered up get moving downhill, back to the city. There is a line of taxis coming uphill. And pilgrims everywhere. Gridlock, people choking on the fumes, some even throwing up in the ditch. But that might not be the fumes after all. Some desperate people walking downhill try to shove their way onto or into taxis – how many people can a songthaew take? On this day, about 22. It is a long way downhill. The stream of people walking uphill slowly subsides. The food vendors are packing up, cleaning crews move in, the monks fold bamboo mats and load their leather sofas to the back of trucks. I am trying to hold on to the bars at the back of the songthaew in the sharp turns, the driver was slow and gentle, but I am exhausted, my legs are trembling, all I have is a square feet of space to stand on. I get bruises all over my arms as I hold on. It is chilly, almost cold, and the wind is hitting me in the face. The sort of journey I will never forget.
The taxi drops people off at the police station, still a 20-minute walk away from the parking lot. But at least it is downhill. Some people are walking barefoot. The crowds slowly scatter at the parking lot. A girl is praying at the elephant statue in front of the university’s Dhamma hall, and takes out two small elephants from a plastic bag, to be placed alongside the thousands of carved elephants surrounding the Buddha. It is past 2:30 in the morning – time to go home. The streets are quiet, deserted – and there are absolutely no taxis in sight.