In Chiang Mai, the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, or simply “Doi Suthep”, is the largest and most iconic wat on offer. Perched 2,000 feet above the city in the mountains west of town, the temple is said to contain a relic of the Gautama Buddha. Other similar claims are made by other temples, though, and with so many wats it would seem there is only so much of the Buddha to go around.
The temple is accessed by a long, winding, curvy road that would be insanely fun in a small sports car, and terrifying on a scooter. We visited in a songtheaw, one of the double bench-seated open truck taxi’s we had rented for the day to do some touring. After the winding drive, a set of more than 309 perilous steps must be climbed before reaching the temple complex itself.
The complex is filled with a strange mix of tourists, adherents, admirers and the completely wonderstruck. Cameras are as common as prayer candles. At times, the lives of faith and technology overlap. It was not uncommon to see people praying, and then turn to take a selfie with one of the many images of Buddha.
The temple complex itself is stunning, and the views of the city, particularly at sunset are no less impressive. From this height, the monastery windows open on the waving palm branches and twinkling glow of the city, far above the noise and bustle of the crowded streets.
Here, you could understand how, for now, the astounding pace of change has done little to change the visible traditions of Buddhism in Thailand. Whether the encroaching world of technology will bring about the sunset of this ancient religion or just the dawning of another day remains to be seen.