Well finally, we have arrived in Chiang Mai – as far as blog topics. What a difference from Bangkok! Chiang Mai has a very small town feel to it even though there is a significant population. There is also a little bit of smog but because of the surroundings, it just didn’t feel like it did in Bangkok.
The first notable difference was our hotel. The rooms were built around a grand tamarind tree and the hotel buildings were only two stories tall. All dining was done poolside which is never a bad thing. The hotel front desk had a roof over it but was not enclosed and the staff of the hotel was small but exceedingly pleasant. There were several ways to access the hotel but perhaps the most charming was the formal entrance from the main road. The driveway itself was almost enclosed – there were very tall walls on either side of the drive. The pavement was cobblestone and there was bamboo planted in the margins. As the bamboo grew, it leaned over the drive from each side making an arched bamboo canopy. Within the bamboo there was subtle up-lighting from the ground and softer, billowy fabric light fixtures hung from above. The overall effect was enchanting.
On our first morning in Chiang Mai, Pranee, our fearless leader, took me and two other travelers out on an early morning exploratory walk. Okay, I’ll be honest – it turned from a casual walk to find interesting photo opportunities, into a full blown monk chase. Tacky but true. Now before going on about my somewhat stalker-ish mission to get casual monk photos, I’d like to make some observations about Buddhism in the West versus Buddhism in the East.
It’s no surprise to my long time readers that I have dabbled in Buddhism for quite some time. There are very strong crossovers between Yoga and Buddhism and while I have never attended any temples or completed any formal studies, I am fairly well read and am at least familiar with Buddhist concepts. My observation would be that as a Caucasian who identifies herself as Buddhist, it has been somewhat of a solitary journey. To my mind, Buddhism was less about pageantry and dogmas than it is about becoming the best me that I can be.
In Thailand, every male is encouraged to become a monk for a minimum of at least 3 months. From my understanding, this is not mandatory nor are there any spiritual repercussions if you do not do this. There were retail shops that actually sold monks starter kits – complete with robes, a blanket and a bowl to collect daily offerings. The monks leave the temples before dawn and go out into the public to gather their meal for the day. They carry large brass bowls to the market. What I observed was extraordinary. Now that I think about it, it was always women who had offerings for the monks. They would buy food from the street vendors and when they saw a monk, they would bow their heads, remove their shoes, drop down onto their knees and make an offering. The monks would then recite a prayer for the women. The whole process from offering to receiving a prayer took place over the course of 3-4 minutes and it really was special to watch. I guess because it felt so personal. This is a religion where there is no punishment. People tithe and their communities tithe. It is as ingrained as education.
From the temples and shrines of individuals to the large shrines in neighborhoods, to community temples, there were flowers and banners and gold leafed statues. There were bells to ring as you made your wishes in many of the temples. Even more of the temples have statues of the Buddha in 8 different positions which correspond to the days of the week (there are two for Wednesday). Each position has corresponding characteristics, much like zodiac signs. Even more fascinating to me, and regretfully a photo opportunity I missed, were the shops that sold magnificent gold Buddhas. Frankly, you’ve not seen anything until you’ve seen a 5 foot tall seated Buddha on casters and wrapped in plastic.
The whole point of this is that to my eye, Buddhism in Thailand was so much more personal that I believe it is here in the US. Buddhism is part of the fabric of daily life to Thai people and as a result, it seemed like people were on the whole, more spiritual than here in the West. I certainly don’t want to paint everyone with a broad brush but it just seems like Buddhism (read belief in the ability to achieve enlightenment) was embraced by everyone. Political correctness has not led to the dilution of their spirituality. Nor was there any indication that if you did not practice, follow or believe, that there were consequences.
Okay, that’s all for the moment. My dog is whining and I believe I am being summoned to take him out. But there will be plenty more coming about Chiang Mai.