A TNT Travel Writing Awards entrant

Author: Duncan Phillips


When your senses are in overload and the frenetic noise of Bangkok’s twenty million has you craving something a little more serene, leave the hubbub behind and go north to Thailand’s second largest city, Chiang Mai. History surrounds the civic centre; deep moats and crumbling ruins give evidence of a once mighty civilisation protected by massive stone walls. Life moves at a slower pace here until the sun sets and the mountain people flood the night bazaars to sell their wares, hand beaten silver, jade bracelets and woven bags. But Chiang Mai’s truly most spectacular and inspirational attraction is Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, its Golden Temple, nestled in the perpetually misty hills. To watch the evening sun go down and the light infuse the temple with shimmering colour until it slowly fades into the nights dark shadows, is an experience you will not easily forget. Another experience you will not easily forget is the trudge to the top!

I stood at the bottom of the staircase and laughed apprehensively as I clapped eyes on tourist littered steps. They climbed haphazardly, periodically clinging to the balustrades whilst gasping for breath, weighed down by cameras, obesity and souvenirs. How the sun’s reflection off the golden facade pierced the eyes stingingly, mine begin to water crazily, but I do not delay, I start my climb. Soon enough, my stamina has abated and I pause to rest my panting lungs and grin weakly in empathy with strangers and nod in acknowledgment of mutual effort shared. 

Almost at the top, the steps suddenly widen to accommodate a mezzanine of souvenir stalls. Sellers in bright native costumes eagerly surround me; with open smiles they guide me to their booth, a potential purchase heralds a chance for them to keep crushing poverty at bay. Laden with more bags, I press on up to Asia’s “Camelot”.

Upon conquering the stairs I cannot draw breathe, not from the sheer effort of physical exertion but rather the majesty of the shrine. Built to Buddha, the entire enclosure is gold! Golden statues, soaring golden spires and solid golden walls. Built centuries ago by the ancestors of the saffron robed, creased faced monks that now frequent the temple, the builders carried every piece either on their backs or by elephant straight up the very hill I just heaved myself up ingloriously. Even now, tradition demands that each day they must walk down to the township to beg for food (which is readily given by the people), and then commence the walk back up.

Despite the tourist’s noisy intrusion, a serenity cloaks this sacred site and if you listen closely, you can almost hear the whispers from these ancient walls of its past thousands of resident devotees.  Monks of all ages glide about their daily chores disappearing in and out of twisted corridors as the old and wizened guide the young initiates through the mysteries of Buddha. If you are fortunate, you may be invited to a quiet chapel to share in a solemn ceremony to sit cross legged on the paving stones, listen to long moments of chanting that seem to stretch into the infinity of time and receive a blessing for happiness and joy. A plaited string bracelet is tied to one wrist with the admonition not to remove it at any time. It will take at least six months before it disintegrates whereupon you will be certain it has had a positive effect on your life, by virtue of the bracelet or the experience that put it there, the choice is yours.