Monday, August 2, 2010

Hills with White Elephants

This post is a little late in coming - but its writing was interrupted by dengue... which I would say is a reasonable excuse.

Every morning I walk out on to my balcony and look out on Doi Suthep Mountain – some times beautifully clear and other mornings covered in low hanging clouds or obscured completely by sheets of rain. High up on the mountain a triangle of gold can be spotted on clear days – Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. The legend goes that a monk had a dream which lead him to discover a bone believed to be the shoulder bone of the Buddha, after offering it to one king who didn’t not believe the monk’s story the bone made its way to the king of the Lanna Kingdom where the relic split into two. One piece was enshrined in a temple a couple blocks from my house, the other was placed on the back of a white elephant who proceeded to climb the mountain, trumpet three times and then die. The temple was then built on this site.

Most people drive up the mountain to visit the temple, but I wanted my first visit to be by foot. Sunday it finally happened. Plans were drawn (literally and figuratively) I would start at the bottom, Denali and TeReva would meet me halfway up at a beautiful forest temple, we would hike to the Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep and then circle around to an enormous old fig tree and down nine waterfall tears.

So at 9 am I set out in search of the trail head – up Suthep Road, passed CMU, passed the zoo, up a couple of steep roads and finally to a small dirt lot with a wooden sign complete with a simple map of the hike. I locked up my bike and headed out into the jungle. I have hiked in jungles before – in Costa Rice, Trinidad, Kenya, Tanzania, but always with a friend who knew the area. Here I was all by myself tramping down narrow paths, passing large leafy fronds and wondering what large wild animals might possibly be lurking nearby (or large slithering reptiles). Fortunately none materialized.

At one point I came upon a rest area that was lined with trees that had been dressed in bright orange monk clothes (to signify that they were sacred and should not be cut down). I also came to realize that what I thought were vibrantly pink shoots lining the path were actually hundreds of incense sticks – perhaps I was not quite as alone as I had thought.

Because of the vast quantity of mosquitoes I kept a steady pace. At one point I passed through a steep rocky stretch covered over with a canopy of bamboo that hung so low that I was forced to proceed bent double. Just when I really began to wonder when I might reach this forest temple I came upon a stone bridge and on crossing it the temple appeared in front of me.

At the temple I met up with Denali and Tereva who had dined on oatmeal and bagels and had brought me up jerky grilled chicken to munch on – delicious! We wasted little time heading up on the second half of the hike, which was steeper and at first drier and more exposed before it plunged back into the depths of the jungle again near the top. Summiting to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep was not quite as epic. The trail ended three turns on the road below the temple entrance but the actual temple itself was beautiful and very grand. Because it was my first time Denali suggested I buy an offering of lotus flowers, incense and candles to present at the temple, which I did. First I walked thrice clockwise around the main chedi the offerings held out in front of me as I contemplated what wishes I wanted from the temple and the mountains then I lit the incense, knelt in front of the chedi and deposited the blossoms on a silver tray the now lit candles in the holders that were suspended over a basin of water and the incense in a large incent holder. Outside the main temple we could look out over the whole of Chiang Mai and with a little searching I was actually able to spot my apartment! (The rainbow painted garage near me was helpful - check out the picture in the earlier post about my room!)

From there it was farther up the mountain, leaving the tourists and temple goers behind and off into the quiet of the jungle again in search of an enormous old fig tree. The particular species of fig tree is a strangler fig, which does just what you would expect – grows up and around a host tree and suffocates it. The host tree in this case had long since died, leaving the absence only, like a giant ribcage stretching upwards.

We continued down through the steamy jungle finding leaves the length of our arms, seeds that were deep brown and smooth and more then a few mosquito bites. And then after climbing over a particularly large log and balancing our way across another we arrived at the highest of nine waterfalls. On one of the lower falls we found some stone slides that were too irresistible not to swim in…of course that was until we discovered the little black leeches that started crawling up our legs! We moved on quickly!

Finally it was back to the road, a songtow back to Denali and TeReva’s motorbikes, wet ride down to my motorbike, a quick shower before meeting up for warm bowls of noodle soup and an epic showing of Cliff Hanger at the climbing wall! A worthy adventure all around!

Now looking out at the mountain every morning has a whole new meaning.


  1. I am enjoying your writing. Good to hear that you're better by now! (Chip Bacon, in his first year, as a Peace Corps member to Korea in mid 1960s, became seriously ill of typhoid fevor.
    Yes, typhoid fevor...what an experiment then! Hope you continue to enjoy in what you are doing, and keep on writing to share your experience. I love it!
    Have a lovely trip to Greece, for fun, family and friends!