Wat Doi Saket

A Visionary Temple

 

Not sure how that happened, but Esso and I have been living in Chiang Mai for two years, and only last week our friend Rafi mentioned that he enjoys going to nearby Doi Saket, where there is an extraordinary temple. This same Rafi had never been to the better-known, and closer, attractions on Doi Suthep, where we are frequent visitors. So we can be mutually informative.

It’s only about a 45-minute drive to the town of Doi Saket, at the foot of the eponymous mountain. There is a magnificent staircase going up to the temple, so I ask, can we walk up? No, too far, it seems. I’ve climbed higher temple-staircases, but none of us are up to the challenge today (I’m still using a cane to support my knee), so we take the looping drive instead.

The outside of the temple speaks for itself. This first view is the south side.

Approaching from the east, where the main entrance is, there is a courtyard surrounded by interesting features. We don’t go inside yet… too many things to study!

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Including, tucked away in its own little nook, a pool inhabited by… well, see for yourself.

Away from the temple, the courtyard opens onto an overlook—here is the top of the stairs I saw from the foot of the hill. And then, relatively undisturbed forest. The whole area is beautifully landscaped, the wild on one side contrasting with the meticulously-tended gardens on the other.

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And here at the edge of the forest, a Buddha teaching the animals. A sweet, life-sized (well, except for the elephant) diorama. But in contrast to the more developed end of the temple complex, where everything is bright and polished, these statues are completely neglected. I gently brush old forest debris from the animals and from Buddha as I greet them.

At Buddha’s feet, fallen leaves mix with an old offering of flowers. I wonder why this one spot is so neglected. Are the monks so deferential to Nature, by design, or do they just not pay attention?

 

 

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Finally, into the main temple. Rafi told us there was fantastic art here, and yet I’m still surprised. The walls are filled with intricate paintings, like an Italian Renaissance church, but in the style of 1980’s psychedelia. The Italian Renaissance influence is repeated in the intricate designs on the spaces between paintings, columns, and flooring. Watch the video to get the whole view.

In one corner, a senior monk is dispensing blessings. Normally I don’t partake of these rituals, as it’s not my tradition. But here, it feels different. The spiritual guardian of a temple filled with such magnificent artwork, I reason, must have a great relationship with the Muse whom I would honor. So, from a stand conveniently located just a few steps away, I “donate” in exchange for an offering of food to donate to the monk (you can give monks food, but not money). Then I get in the queue behind Esso.

The old monk, who is seated on a cushioned dais where the supplicant can kneel before him, glances in our direction and murmurs something to Esso. Esso grabs a chair from nearby and tells me to sit while we are waiting. Well, that’s nice. I sit and watch, with no comprehension of the ritual. This monk probably does the same ritual all day, mostly for people he will never see again, so he’s probably bored with it. So I think.

I figure nothing would happen until people in front of us left so we could move to the front. So I am surprised when the monk, chanting a blessing, flings a sprinkling of holy water over us. He then ties a special string onto the wrist of each supplicant, with another chanted blessing. After he finishes with Esso’s, I start to rise to go kneel at the dais, but the monk waves me back, stands up and walks over to me to tie the string on, standing in front of me while I sit. I’m amazed at this variation of the protocol. Do I look so frail? (Oh, the cane!) The monk is scarcely younger than me. So he is showing great compassion by saving me the trouble of kneeling to complete the ritual. Maybe “boredom” is not his condition, after all.


Back outside, I see some young monks (just boys, really) carefully renewing the paint on the figures along the front steps. No wonder it looks so bright and fresh!

Apparently, we’re finished here. I tell Rafi, that was great, thanks for telling us about this place. And he says, but there’s more, higher up the mountain!


The twisty little road becomes dirt before reaching the top of the hill. A small path leads southeastward into the forest; Esso reads the sign, which she translates as “Big Foot Print.” I make a joke about Bigfoot, but it’s a “Buddha footprint,” one of hundreds in Thailand (and thousands in Asia). When we go that way, we find a new temple under construction. (Perhaps it’s a recent footprint?). Contrary to what Westerners expect at a hard-hat site, there is no barrier to entry. We duck under the scaffolding to see the big footprint etched into native rock. Quite impressive.

Most of the development, however, is on the other side of the parking area. A lovely little pavilion temple, and then a great marble patio with the big golden Buddha statue.

Whereas the main temple below is carefully oriented to face east, the Buddha is oriented along the spine of the hill, facing northwest, as if to affirm the intention of the earth itself. Little woven mandalas dangle from the statue’s skirt, with shapes representing a great variety of cultures. Beautiful colored tiles, suggestive of parquet flooring, line the edge of the patio. Another Renaissance touch.

And the most stunning artistic device: the pedestal is finished with mirrored tiles, reflecting the light of the sky and the white marble to give the feeling that the whole statue is floating on air. Inspired!

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