After Songkran was over, and the city of Chiang Mai had settled into its normal routine again, Tony informed me that he was taking my newly made friends Becky and Dave and I to Doi Suthep the following day. Now technically the name of the temple he wanted us to see is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, but to the locals in Chiang Mai its referred to as Doi Suthep which is a lot easier to remember, let alone say in conversation. Now Tony is the owner of the hostel where I was staying, named the Chiangmai Backpack House, and is by far one of the most inviting and welcoming hostel owners I have come across during my trip. When he told me the four of us would leave around 10 the next morning, and that we couldn’t come to Chiang Mai without visiting this temple, I knew he was serious and made sure to set my alarm far in advance so he wouldn’t have to come wake me up. I was still sick from Songkran, so agreeing to be up early wasn’t something I liked doing, but sometimes there are more important things while traveling than nursing a cold.
Thanks to my alarm I woke up with enough time to shower and eat before 10 am rolled around. I met Becky and Dave downstairs and over breakfast they told me all about how Tony had informed them last yesterday evening that he was taking them to the temple the following morning. Since they couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go to Doi Suthep, they agreed and like me woke up early. Tony had given all of us a speech about waking up in time, so we had a good laugh at how we ended up sitting around waiting on him to get ready. Once he had everything he needed, we were off!
The drive up to Doi Suthep takes you on a narrow winding road full of vehicles zooming by in both directions. I asked Tony about the story of the temples location, and he very graciously shared everything he knew with us. In my guidebook there is a story about an elephant carrying a Buddha image on its back up to the top and dying, but the version Tony gave us didn’t sound nearly as mythical. Apparently there was a monk in Chiang Mai who decided to make the climb up the mountain to create a home for himself there. Since it was located so far out-of-town, every day he would have to walk back down for food, only to turn around and walk right back up again. He repeated this journey for many years and eventually he had worn a path into the mountain side. After some time had passed a temple was built at the top, and the people of Chiang Mai would walk up to the top to pray, following the path the monk had created. In the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s, some westernized people came and built a road on top of the path created by the monk. It was only one lane but made the journey both by foot and car much easier for anyone who wanted to visit the temple. As the temple grew in popularity, and time went on, the size of the road increased to what is now 3 lanes. To this day the path you drive on to get to Doi Suthep still follows the same path that first monk walked every day.
Once we had reached the top, Tony herded the three of us like school children to the ticket counter, and instantly became appalled at all the coffee shops and souvenir stands that had sprung up at the base since his last visit. While I understood the reason behind his reaction, to me the sight of coffee shops and souvenir stands was nothing new while visiting temples in Thailand. In fact it was downright normal. After he finished telling us about what it used to be like, we headed up towards the temple where Tony, Becky and Dave gave me a crash course in the process of praying and paying your respects to Buddha at a temple. It was the first time anyone had ever explained the meaning behind the things I had been seeing for the past month, and as they pointed towards one thing or another I felt that I somehow had a better understanding of Buddhism… if only just a little.
After spending a good amount of time at the temple, taking photos and listening to Tony tell us about his time spent in the Monastery as a young man, we made our way back to the place where you deposit your shoes on the outside of the main structure. As Tony and Dave put on their shoes, Becky and I found ourselves swept away with the sights and performances happening around us and soon wandered off. There were little girls dancing on a bed of flower petals, a man dancing with a winged costume on, and lines of people ringing bells. Eventually we met up with Dave and Tony, who looked exactly like my father and brothers do after my mom and I wander off in a department store. Sensing their chance to leave we all took off towards the large stairwell that leads up to Doi Suthep and began our decent. Apparently you’re supposed to count the steps in both directions, but it’s easy to lose count even after the first few as you find yourself watching all the tourists snapping photos and little children playing in their traditional clothing.
Once we were back in the car, Tony drove us farther up the mountain towards a Mong village for lunch. If I had any sort of memory at all I’d be able to tell you the delicious chili noodle soup we ate, but since names have never been my thing I can only image the glorious taste of it in my mouth as I type. It was by far the best meal I had eaten in Thailand with its perfect balance of flavor and spice topped off with a stack of crispy noodles. Since I was too busy enjoying my delectable meal to take a photo of it, you’re just going to have to take my word … or lack there of … as gospel regarding this meal.
Once we were done eating, and had taken a short stroll through the village, we were off towards our next destination. This time Tony was taking us to have coffee at a small cafe in the mountains that sells the resulting beans grown on the University of Chiang Mai’s plantation. This leg of our journey took us on a one lane road hugging the edge of the mountain on its course through the surrounding jungle. On more than one occasion a parrot swooped down in front of the truck in a glorious display of colorful feathers and grace. The lane we were driving on is so narrow that 2 cars can’t pass at the same time. Each time we would reach a turn, someone would have to honk their horn in order to gauge if they could proceed. There was never a lack of excitement while driving as we encountered quite a few motorbikes and cars along the way, but the journey to the end was more than worth it.
As we found a place to sit, Becky, Dave and I couldn’t help but marvel at the beautiful place we have been brought to. There were rows of coffee trees in front of us, green everywhere you turned, and a large assortment of flowers growing on the grounds. To make the day even better, we were all handed on of the best cups of coffee I’ve had the pleasure of drinking. To be fair, coffee in the states isn’t gourmet, so I”m not experienced in the world of coffee. With that being said I do know what I like, and this was one good cup of coffee. I barely put the glass down until it was empty, at which point I ventured around the grounds using on my favorite features on my camera: the close-up setting which optimizes my zoom, allowing me to take beautiful photos of things I can barely make out with my human eyes.
Soon it was time to leave, so we all piled into the truck and drove back down to Chiang Mai. The three of us tried paying Tony for the temple, food, and coffee, but he adamantly refused. When I checked out a few days later I asked his wife Oi how much I owed them for the trip to Doi Suthep, and she told me not to worry about it and wouldn’t accept any money. Not only was this possibly one of the most amazing days out of my trip, I also discovered that Thai hospitality goes beyond politeness and the occasional free meal/drink. Tony spent the entire day away from his business to give us a tour he thought we’d both enjoy and couldn’t miss during our time in Chiang Mai, and he did it all out of the kindness of his heart.