Doi Suthep

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Stairway to heaven

Wat Doi Suthep

It’s 304 steps up a staircase flanked by nagas to reach the Thoughtful Buddha at the top of Wat Doi Suthep. Photos by David Lansing.

After feeding the monks, Ketsara suggests we should continue up the forested mountain road to Wat Doi Suthep, one of the most revered Buddhist shrines in Northern Thailand. Frankly, I’m starting to feel a little templed-out. But Ketsara, saying she has something to show me, insists.

It rains on the winding drive up. We pass by trekkers and bicyclists and small waterfalls. Everything seems cool and quiet here, particularly compared to the temples in Bangkok. There is a little village with shuttered souvenir shops below the wat. And then a long sweeping staircase, flanked by nagas, that could have been inspiration for Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

“Where does that go?” I ask Ketsara.

“To wat,” she says. “Let’s go.”

I can’t believe she’s making me do this. We stop after the first hundred steps so I can catch my breath, then continue on, up, up, in to the forest, the air getting cooler, thiner. Another painful hundred steps, and then a hundred more. By the time we reach the 304th step, I can barely breathe. Ketsara hasn’t even broken a sweat. She looks at me serenely and smiles.

Parami number five,” she says.

“Which is?”

“Effort. Now you will appreciate wat more.”

Ketsara leads me to a building where an old monk, wearing a heavy saffron shawl and a saffron knit cap to ward off the cold, sits on a platform before several gold Buddha images. Without saying anything, she kneels before him. She motions for me to kneel beside her. The monk chants and uses a baton to bless us. She drops some coins in the alms pot at his feet.

It is raining lightly. We walk carefully in our bare feet to the back of the main chedi, a striking gold-plated Lanna structure, to a trough lined by all the different Thai Buddhas where oil lamps, in the shape of lotus blossoms, burn. Ketsara takes a ladle and slowly pours oil from the trough on top of the lotus lamps. The flame jumps.

Parami number four,” she says. “Wisdom.”

Without saying anything, she looks at me and then looks at the small gold Buddha in front of the lotus lamp she has just lit. I follow her gaze. It is the Thoughtful Buddha. Pang Rumpeung. My Buddha.

I take the ladle from Ketsara and drizzle oil over the flame which leaps and dances. Ketsara says, “Now make offering.” I take all the money out of my pocket and drop it into the alms pot in front of the Thoughtful Buddha. Ketsara smiles.

As we are taking the 304 steps back down from the wat on the mountain top, I ask Ketsara if all that was for her or for me.

She thinks about this for a moment. “We will see,” she says.

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A child in saffron robes

Novice monks walking with their alms pots early in the morning. Photo by David Lansing.

It’s an odd thing, feeding the monks. Ketsara, who has bought a tray of monk food (it’s a bit like feeding the sheep at the petting zoo) was standing on the side of the road, trying to keep warm. The sky was just starting to lighten up but the street lights were still on. There were dogs in the street and bicyclists panting and grunting as they started the ascent of Doi Suthep. And then suddenly the first little monks appeared. I don’t know where they came from. It was just like one moment there were no monks and the next there would be two or three coming down the street, stopping in front of the tables with food, looking down at their feet as a fried fish or a sticky bun was dropped in to their pail.

Actually, I don’t think any of these Buddhists were real monks. They looked too young—some couldn’t have been more than 10 or 11. They were probably novices.

Thailand has over 200,000 monks and 85,000 novices. (Young boys can become novices at any age, but you cannot become a monk until you reach the age of twenty). What people probably don’t know (I didn’t) is that once you become a monk, it doesn’t mean you’re a monk forever. You can be. But you can also be a monk for just one day, if you want (I hear that three months is more usual).

In Thailand, being a monk is kind of like going to school. It’s something you do and then you move on. In fact, many of the young boys become novices because it’s the best (and least expensive) education they can get. Their families put them in a monastery because they can’t afford to send them to school. Then, after a year or two years, they leave.

So here’s the ritual: The monks (or novices) walk single file, oldest first, carrying their alms bowls in front of them. Laypeople, like Ketsara, wait for them, sometimes kneeling, and place food, flowers, or incense sticks in the bowls. It is very important that women not touch the monks (too much damn temptation!).

The monks do not speak, even to say thank you. The giving of alms is not thought of as a charity. The giving and receiving of alms is supposed to create a spiritual connection between the monastic and lay communities. The monks never look at you directly—they just walk up, wait to receive their food, then walk away. It seemed oddly lacking in emotional energy to me, but when Ketsara was done giving the monks food, she came back to me looking like a new bride.

“We are blessed,” she said.

She may have been. I’m not so certain about myself.

Ketsara feeds the monks. Photo by David Lansing.


Monk food. Photo by David Lansing.

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Feed the Buddha

Early morning view of Chiang Mai on the road to the monastery at the base of Doi Suthep mountain. Photo by David Lansing.

Last night after dinner Ketsara told me we would be leaving the hotel this morning around 5am. This did not make me happy. We have been moving around so much that I feel like it’s been a month since I’ve gotten a decent night’s sleep.

“Kuhn Ketsara! Why?” I said.

“We go to Doi Suthep to feed the monks.”

“Can’t we go later?”

She shook her head. “Must be early in the morning.”

I whined a bit more and then she squinted at me, as she does when she’s getting inpatient, and said, “Remember I tell you it is hard for you to gain enlightenment?”

“I remember.”

“This help. This give you merit.”

“Fine,” I said.

So at 5am, having had no breakfast myself, I went to feed Buddha.

We drove to the base of Doi Suthep-Doi Pui National Park, a thickly-forested mountain with an elevation of 5,250-feet about 45 minutes outside of Chiang Mai. It was cold and the sky, which looked like it might rain at any moment, was mud gray. When we got to where the monastery was there were a bunch of stands selling food to give to the monks and flowers—mostly marigolds and lotus flowers—for the shrines and temple. The monks hadn’t appeared yet.

Ketsara encouraged me to buy some food. You could buy individual items like bags of rice or a whole small fried fish or trays that contained an assortment of things: buns, candied fruit, pickled vegetables, fruit juice. The monks aren’t supposed to care what they get (and when they beg for food in more rural areas, it’s usually all mixed up in their alms pot so you might put a pudding on top of a curry and pickled eggplant with a sweet roll since, as Buddha said, it’s only meant for sustenance, not pleasure, and your stomach mixes it all up anyway).

Ketsara could see I was having a hard time with the whole thing. “First goal of enlightenment and most important is to be generous,” she said.

“I know,” I said, “but it just doesn’t feel right. I feel like a fraud.”

Ketsara sighed. “This why it so difficult for you to reach enlightenment.”

She was right, of course. I needed to let go and just do it. Buy some fish-in-a-bag and some sticky buns and feed the Buddha. Gain my merits. Find enlightenment. But I just wasn’t feeling it.

Stalls offer flowers for sale for the shrines and temple. Photo by David Lansing.

Food for the Buddha. Photo by David Lansing.

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