Monday, March 12, 2012

The Buddhist wonders of Doi Suthep

Aidan McRae Thomson; Wisdom Quarterly edit of Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

Mural, Doi Suthep mountain temple (Aidan McRae Thomson/

CHIANG MAI, Thailand - The hilltop temple complex of Doi Suthep is one of northern Thailand's most popular attractions and one of ancient Siam's most beautiful temples.

It is officially known as Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep (Doi Suthep being the name of the mountain next to Thailand's second largest city, but now more commonly used to refer to the temple). Legend says it was founded in 1383 on a site chosen by a regal white elephant transporting a relic of the Buddha.

The buildings today are mostly of more recent date. Yet, they cannot fail to impress by the richness of their ornamentation and gilding. The heart of the temple is the magnificent chedi (the Thai word for stupa or pagoda) of gilded copper that shimmers like pure gold.

The mural is surrounded by buddhas of the remote past (AMThomson/

It is surrounded by statues and contemplation halls and is usually buzzing with the activities of as many Thai pilgrims as foreign tourists.

Access to the temple is either by the scenic 309 step dragon (naga) staircase ascending to the top of the hill or by the more recent funicular railway. (Traveler's advice: Go up the railway and down the stairs). The top there offers a dramatic panoramic view of Chiang Mai.

There are many extraordinary temple complexes, statues, and works of Theravada Buddhist art, but this one remains one of the most dazzling and memorable.

These splendors are not limited to Thailand. There were former neighboring Buddhist kingdoms and empires that rivaled it -- the Khmer (centered in Angkor Wat, Cambodia), Burma, central and southern Thailand (once quite different from the north), Laos, the Golden Triangle, China, and all along the Mekong river. They influenced each other and attempted to outdo one another, leaving a memorable impression of Buddhism flourishing throughout Asia and moving west through Persia into ancient Greece.

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