By the last day of my trip in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I almost deemed myself too “wat’ted out” to tour another Wat (temple). Ornate “wats” or temples are centered in nearly every block of Chiang Mai, but the boundaries of worship seem endless. Monks in brightly colored robes paint the surrounding sidewalks in a mirage of orange and red. Offerings of flowers, ribbons, and coins are laid out in dizzying arrays at every threshold. Simply walking around a block is an exercise in balance and composure to keep from tripping over the locals’ daily religious observances. My vacation to escape a northerner’s desolate winter had me careening towards sensory overload.
Initially, I blended in with many other Western tourists who shared in a limited, casual exposure to Buddhist culture, and found it easy to jump frenetically from temple to temple to capture Buddha in all his various states of glory. Before this trip, I had never heard of the Reclining Buddha, the Emerald Buddha, or seen the range in expressions that Time had painted on his face over the centuries.
Prayer chimes and a pool of water with lotus flowers
Doi Suthep, or the Lotus Temple, was the last Buddhist temple I visited, but the first that I was able to engage in, and truly observe the intricacies of worship that each previous temple had invited. What I had earlier considered excessive and almost ridiculous opulence in the temples in the city, called out in a different way on this peaceful mountaintop.
Here, every lotus petal, every drop of water, and step that was taken, was an offered prayer. As I moved through the space and rung bells (“louder!” I was instructed), and dipped a silver cup into a little pool and poured it out, it finally dawned on me that every gesture was deliberate worship. I stopped to take it in. The sounds of bells and chimes seemed summoned by joyful hands and gentle breezes. Gold glinted in the sun, and incense hung in the air. Every string of ribbon wrapped tight around a tree, a flower stem, or a wrist, was a tied deeply to tradition. Standing still for a moment in this place, was to experience with all my senses, a thousand simultaneous prayers celebrating beauty and life.
Stephanie Webster is a landscape architect who enjoys exploring the world she lives in.