Travel as Metaphor

The blog of novelist Sue Swift.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Doi Suthep

The other day, my friend Brett took me up to the top of a mountain overlooking Chiang Mai, where on a clear day one can see a spire glittering golden atop the hill. This is Doi Suthep, one of the oldest shrines in Thailand. It was built in about 1373, as we reckon time (The Thais count from the birth of the Buddha, 2550 years ago).

This was a fascinating place…if you want the photos, email me. To describe it: we went on his scooter up a twisting, two lane road to the top of the hill. We left early enough so there was little traffic, just the occasional tour bus or one of the red trucks the locals call song-taos, that are fitted inside with thinly padded bench seats running up the length of the truck. Strangely enough, the top of the hill was crowded. Booths selling everything from jade Buddhas to food to clothing line the road to the temple. They jam the square in front of the stairs leading to the shrines topping the hill, and once we struggled up the many steps, found that there were even more stalls, many selling flowers and incense as well. I couldn’t help being reminded of Christ and the moneychangers in the temple.

But the shrine itself is marvelous. Two enormous nagas—water dragons which live in the rivers—line the stairs. They are gorgeous, finely modeled in ceramic, each scale perfectly shaped and glazed in bright green, with fierce teeth that really feel sharp to the touch.

The temple complex at the top of the stairs consists of several small buildings, some enclosed, some like gazebos. Leafy trees, palms and bougainvillea festoon everything. Sculptured mythic animals abound along with Buddhas, most gold-leafed, tucked into niches.

At the top we remove our shoes and buy incense, flowers and candles before lighting the candles and the incense in front of the shrine. The shrine, which looks like it’s three stories high and leafed in gold, is enclosed by a fence on which tiny bells hang. The bells are inscribed with people’s names, and as we walk three times around the spire, we brush each one with our hands, a prayer for the person whose name is written on the bell, leaving a graceful tinkling music in our wake.

We enter another shrine, kneeling, make an offering. A monk prays over us, shaking some unknown liquid on us…I hope it’s water. Then a string is tied around the right wrist, also an act which is supposed to be auspicious, as is ringing the gong in the tiny museum.

There should be a view of Chiang Mai., below, but the inversion layer shrouds the city. When I arrived I had been misinformed that there were but a quarter of a million people in the city, but that’s wrong. There are at least 2 million in greater Chiang Mai, and with the loose enforcement of the environmental laws, the air is not clean, leaving streaks of dark soot on the stucco buildings. Thailand is a fascinating mixture of the pure and the profane, the free and the trammeled. The word Thai means free, yet, since the September coup d’etat, the country has been under martial law. On the other hand—this place has more “other hands” than a Shiva Nataraja—the soldiers are unobtrusive, smiling and helpful when encountered, which is rarely. The air is dirty and the tapwater clean; the canals and rivers appearing to be so filthy that I always order sea fish not river fish when given a choice.

This is a remarkably interesting place and I am very glad to be here.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

5 December 2006: Today was the King’s 79th birthday…he has been on the throne for 60 years and the entire country is celebrating him. With good reason. King Bhumibol is an amazing man. He is the world’s longest reigning monarch and one of history’s most successful. Because Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, he rarely intervenes directly in affairs, but uses his tremendous influence and wealth to advance the both freedom and environmentally conscious economic advancement for Thailand.

When he wants to make a point about politics, he speaks in clever parables and tells witty stories instead of criticizing anyone directly or giving advice. He speaks often of the need for balance, for compassion, and about the interrelatedness of all things.

More materially, he is quite scientifically minded and has a lab on the palace grounds and several more scattered around the country in different climate zones. He has emphasized sustainable, environmentally aware techniques that allow people to help themselves. He created a double seeding process that literally brought rain to his people during drought. He destroyed the opium business in northern Thailand by introducing cash crops that paid the hill tribesmen more than did opium. He’s into reforestation, fish farming, watershed development; created initiatives regarding medical schools and treatment, transportation, education…his influence has been felt in every area of Thai life.

If all that weren’t enough, the King, who was born in the USA and educated largely in Europe, is an accomplished jazz musician. The celebrations in my neighborhood focused on the King’s music, with a five-day-long jazz and crafts festival, which culminated in a candle-lighting ceremony at 7 p.m. which was replicated throughout Thailand at exactly the same time. Everyone had a candle and each candle was lit from someone else’s, symbolizing unity and mutual helpfulness… very Thai. There was Thai dancing and fireworks, with a dozen of the marvelous fire-balloons that Thais love floating overhead. Everyone wore yellow, which in Thailand is the color associated with Monday...the king was born on Monday.Therefore, yellow is the color of the King.

It was fantastic and I bless my lucky stars that I happened to visit Thailand in time to celebrate the King.