Up With the Gods: An Evening at Doi Suthep

Soon the moon would start emerging in the sky, and that was bad news for us. Every hurried glance out of the sorngtaaou window merely emphasised the fact we were late. All this time and effort, and the whole exercise had become utterly futile.

The road refused to end, stretching its legs up into the mountainside. The thin strip of potholed tarmac crept surreptitiously around each blind corner, declining to proffer a glimpse of our destination. Every rounded bend titillated expectation, but merely brought disappointment. At times the asphalt spread itself too thin, giving way to fine gravel and dust, the kind that sticks in the lungs and lingers, rearing its ugly head with a malignant cackle in later years. When tarmac did return the vehicle smashed against its crusted lip with a violent impact, sending Amy and myself flying up into the roll cage: dented, buckled, bearing the scars of many a careering cranium. The gearbox wasn’t faring much better, grinding wearily, exhaling the noxious smell of burnt clutch back into the hold. The going was sluggish; it appeared the sorngtaaou wasn’t inclined towards inclinations. This ride would be the death of us both, and a protracted one at that.

Chang Mai lay out beneath us, sprawling across the plateau. Snapshots of the panorama flitted between the trees, their silhouettes like corrupted frames in a hastily developed film reel. The geography meant the city was a heat trap, and now, at the end of another stifling day, it was preparing to sleep underneath a thick duvet of smog. The energy within its ancient walls, the neon lights, the blare of innumerable horns; all life was muted, suffocated by the blanket of pollution. High above on the mountain pass the once vibrant city now seemed a half-formed memory, floating on the edge of one’s consciousness: aware of its presence, yes, but from this distance its clarity became intangible. Despite the harsh rasp of the sorngtaaou engine, this isolated road offered a moment of tranquillity.

Or at least it would have if we weren’t so bloody late.

The situation was becoming embarrassing too, because if the ride lasted much longer then the driver would have criminally undercharged us, and we had no change for a tip – a tip that he was no doubt expecting.

The driver threw the front of the sorngtaaou into a hairpin left – narrowly avoiding a group of freewheeling cyclists – then turned a sharp right. No more road. The bunting overhead and a row of cars indicated we’d arrived, but, beyond a car park and some half-shredded flags, nothing hinted at what we’d come for.

We alighted feeling rather perplexed. The driver tapped his watch then signed one hour, repeating the action thrice to make sure we got the message. It would seem impolite to point out once would have sufficed. He directed us towards a set of stairs cut into the hillside. We found a ticket booth at the top, and soon we were climbing upwards on a funicular railway, the windowless cabin only heightening the suspense.

The doors opened, and what met our eyes was dazzling golden light, emanating from the east. The central stupa, grand, imposing, burst forth, bringing warmth and life to all it touched. Legend states it entombed a shoulder bone of the Buddha, and was thus worshipped accordingly. Now gilded, it had once been covered in centuries of 24 carat leaf, represented the combined wealth of millions of Thai people. Generations of toil in the fields, centuries of pious, impoverished living, melded seamlessly with offerings from the kings, illuminating the temple. Over the years each square of donated leaf had been pasted on, their beliefs made physical, and in the twilight the stupa sat radiant, their beliefs undimmed, resisting the darkening sky.

The light reflected off casts of monks from years gone by, their faces passive, calm in their metallic petrifaction. It illuminated images of the Buddha, a proliferation of iconography shoehorned into any crevice, statues telling whole chapters of His tale in a single gesture. It bounced off rows of suspended bells, their carved scripture dazzling as they swung back and forth at the strike of each worshipper. It shone on the gleaming tiles and the beds of orchids, trailing up ancient knotted trees. It revealed sculptures; the mythical elephant – the temple’s spiritual founder – and intriguingly Ganesha, an island of Hinduism floating upon a sea of Buddhism. Even the walls emitted a pale golden hue despite the whitewash, and the rose marble pillars turned a deeper shade of rouge.

All this was built around, all protecting, all revering that life guarding and life giving stupa. We had entered Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, jewel of the North.

Walking up those final steps into the inner sanctum, the quiet tread of bare soles against marble ushered in a sense of calm. Not fear, the kind of I find in churches, built cold, dark and imposing, but a calm. There were no echoes or cold draughts, nor the smell of incontinence in the pews. Instead the warm breeze brought the flags to life, and ended those of the petals that fell from the frangipani. They spiralled around the quad, caressing the tiles, before flying under the balcony railings and down the mountainside, tumbling towards the city far below. The temple was open, welcoming; life flowed through it, quintessentially Buddhist in its transience.

A gong rang through the Wat, echoing off the walls. The note was deep, its length long, and, as it trailed off into the wind, was replaced by the deep earthy tones of monks. Filing out across the temple floor, they chanted as they made their way toward the stupa, heads bowed, hands clasped in front, before silently kneeling in order of seniority. The scripture started to flow from their mouths once more, prostrating themselves between verses. Saffron cloth spilled across the polished marble, its frayed edges and oft-faded dye falling in contrast with the grandeur of its surrounds. The grey matter started ruminating…

…Doi Suthep was a juxtaposition of pauper and palace; I couldn’t quite make sense of it. The monks led an austere life devoid of materialism, but they worshipped in the grandest of confines. Moreover, the confines were paid for by the people of Thailand. As is so often the case, the poorest were habitually the most devout: proportionately, temples such as this one were impoverishing them further. The little money they could scrimp and save would go to their place of worship, gifts given in the hope of garnering a better life once they’d left this one. (I saw this later on in my travels, in the streets of Luang Prabang, Hanoi, Phnom Penh… it was always the poor who sat out at dawn with bowls of alms, offering what they could). It all felt like spiritual blackmail…

…Monks are supposed to demonstrate that faith transcends capital, but the means to facilitate their display of devotion contradicted that. Without donations they could not function as monks, nor the temples survive…

The chanting had stopped. To the untrained ear it finished rather abruptly. They rose, a few giving a wry smile to the handful of cameras trained in their direction, before making their way inside.

A month later in Laos I read of a young monk who was honest enough to tell an NGO worker he’d only pledged himself to a monastery in order to escape rural poverty. In moving to the urban temple he had not only guaranteed sustenance, but better opportunity of education. He used the system as a means to train himself in computer science at an evening college. He was no more ardent a Buddhist than the average layman, but donning the saffron robes opened up his prospects. It’s cynical of me, but in retrospect I wonder if any of the monks at Doi Suthep had done similarly.

Nonetheless, on that breezy summers evening the service felt like a private, sincere moment I’d intruded on; a moment of prayer prised open, made public by the watchful eye of an ignorant – albeit curious – foreigner.

The monks were prostrating themselves once more, this time in front of a Buddha in the Ubosot. A mixture of deep reds and golden filigree, the hall itself was quaint, even homely. The domestic touches were completed with a calendar baring the King, his perpetually surprised eyes catching the camera lens, surveying the evening prayers with a look of utter bafflement.

Perhaps it was because the Sangha now had accompanying them that most rare of specimens: a white monk. Head unshaven – and so supposedly of the more casual variety – he knelt in the corner of the room, bedecked in undyed cloth, mumbling the mantras like a karaoke singer wrestling with an only half-acquainted song. Not surprisingly, he never did get his turn to lead the chant.

The monks looked like they were settling in for the evening – it was our cue to leave. The sorngtaaou would be expecting us soon anyhow.

The last of the twilight had slipped down from the sky, and the first stars were beginning to pierce through the deepening shades of indigo. They roamed freely up on the mountain; down below the city would claim them, the effluence of industry blotting out the heavens. The stupa firmly rebuffed the impending night, using the energy of those suns, light-years away, to emit the faintest of shimmers.

A tailwind caught us, and a trail of frangipani petals ushered us down the steps leading out of the Wat. As I descended I caught sight of a solitary nun in white robes, books clenched firmly under her arm. She moved silently, shaved head bowed. She glided across the floor, entering a humble chamber on the temple’s periphery, gently closing the door behind her. How curious… Why had she not been with the men, reciting mantras in the Ordination Hall? Did she not have a place amongst them? Indeed, was she even allowed to enter the Ubosot? Curious…  The petals nipped at my ankles, hurrying us on our way. They did not want to entertain my questions.

Minutes later and the sorngtaaou engine spluttered into life, wheezing as it removed from its exhaust the remnants of its last journey. Luckily this one would be less taxing. The driver removed the handbrake and we were away, like the cyclists before, freewheeling down the mountain road with reckless abandon.

Soon enough we lost the stars, then later, as we hit the flats, Doi Suthep disappeared entirely. Yet unlike the city that had earlier stood at our feet, muted, obscure, the image of the stupa remained with me, crystalline, each golden facet burnt clearly onto the mind’s eye.

The noise levels increased as we passed into Chang Mai, flooding the ears with horns and shouts and endless muffled chatter from behind surgical masks. The stupa still lingered, unmoved, silent. A paradoxical symbol of both wealth and poverty, its contradiction refused to leave me.

The car stopped at the lights and I saw the beggars crowded in shop doorways, as much a part of the furniture as the bottles and plastic bags with which they made their nests. They sat hopeless, eyes turned upwards in a plea for salvation, in this life or the next. Their unwashed faces bore the hardship of a destitute existence, their jaws fixed in a grimace, an expression so very different from that of the smiling monks earlier. The other side of the same coin, they were cast aside, swept under society’s carpet to fester in the dirt.

Far away, the stupa remained unflinching, impassive to their plight. What mattered more: the bones of someone long dead, or the frail bodies of those that still lived?

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