After four years of travelling and living in Thailand, I often find it hard to take a step back and try to imagine what it is like to experience it all for the first time. When I write, words like chedi, tuktuk or maipenrai tend to creep into my sentences without thinking about them – and then I get taken aback when an innocent reader asks me, “what’s a chedi, after all”?
Surprisingly, I couldn’t answer immediately. Of course, I have seen maybe hundreds of chedis, I walk around the chedi behind my local temple three times with a candle and flower in hand during Buddhist holidays, I know the stories behind some of the chedis – but what are they, how could I summarise them in a few words?
Sand chedi behind Wat Phan Tao temple at Thai new year
Sometimes chedis serve as burial sites for royals or revered monks: the first chedis, or stupas, were erected over the remains of the Lord Buddha. Other chedis protect powerful amulets or relics. Having been built of stone, they withstand the raging elements for centuries, and are the oldest buildings to be seen in Thailand. Each and every detail of the design is regulated by ancient symbolism and marks different stages in the Lord Buddha’s life, the five elements, and Buddhist teachings.
As I am not quite prepared to write a dissertation on chedis, I will just share some of my favourites around Chiang Mai. They come in different shapes and sizes, with surprising small details if you look closely. Besides the big and famous ones, there are hidden gems around town. After all, this is a city of over 300 temples, which means about 300 chedis as well!
I used to live just a few metres away from Wat Chiang Man for three years and I often came to this quiet temple yard after work for some peace and quiet. It is the oldest temple in the city, dating back to the founder of the city, King Mengrai himself. I especially love the fragrant frangipani trees but I am not a fan of the dozens of fierce dogs around. Behind the temple, fifteen elephants around the base of Chang Lom chedi carry the entire weight of the universe on their backs, rising out of chaos. I vaguely remember a similar elephant design in Sukhothai.
Wat Umong is a forest temple on the outskirts of the city, just below the mountains. It also dates back to the 14th century. Little is known about the chedi itself, which is built over a tunnel of caves that are used for meditation by the monks. This bell-shaped structure strikes me as amazingly light and graceful every time I visit, I always expect it will float away.
Wat Suan Dok temple is also near the foot of the mountains, which give a stunning backdrop to the small whitewashed chedis found behind the main temple hall. The temple was founded over 600 years ago; however, the chedis containing the ashes of Lanna royals were erected at this spot only a hundred years ago. Arrive here just before the sun disappears behind the mountain for the best photos capturing lights and shade. As you can see from the picture, on this occasion, I missed that, but it is still a favourite photo of mine.
Chedi Kiu is right in front of the US consulate, in the middle of a roundabout, by the Ping river. According to legends, it marks the spot where a Thai man defended his family’s or his nation’s honour in a contest with a Burmese man. In ancient times, it was customary to settle arguments or disputes by water trial: the party who could stay under water longer walked away as the winner. The Thai men tied himself to the bottom and never emerged, sacrificing himself to win the contest.
There are more chedis to come. If you have a favourite in Chiang Mai, please leave a comment – it may be a chedi I haven’t seen yet.