We survived our 13 hour journey on the night train to Chiang Mai! Neither of us got much sleep thanks to rocking of the train, but we made it! I started out on the top bunk, but when the train’s movements threatened to bounce me out of bed, I decided to scoot down the ladder and snuck into bed with Shane. And so we slept huddled together on the bottom bunk, dozing intermittently. It was actually pretty comfortable all things considered, and not all that bad. Not good, but not bad.

We woke around 5:30 this morning, just as the sky was starting to lighten outside. Keen to use the rather basic bathroom facilities* before everyone else got up, we didn’t linger in bed. Soon after the carriage attendant came through offering coffee, tea, and/or orange juice. He also turned all the lights back on and made enough noise to ensure everyone was awake. A very subtle but effective way of making sure we were all up in time for our 7:30am arrival into Chiang Mai. For the last couple of hours of our journey we sat watching the scenery fly past, mesmerised as the sunrise painted the hills, jungle, and rice paddies various shades of gold.
*There were 2 toilets per carriage (40 people per carriage). One was a Western style loo, the other a squat toilet. Neither was pristine, and the smell was quite eye-watering by the end of the night last night. Luckily the loos were cleaned overnight and first thing this morning it wasn’t too bad. Not good, but not too bad.

We arrived in Chiang Mai around 7:30am and headed straight to our hotel, hoping to have a shower and some breakfast before heading out. Imagine our joy when they said we could check straight in to our room! Ah, the simple pleasures of a warm shower and a good meal…

Chiang Mai is nestled into the foothills of Northern Thailand, astride the Ping River, a major tributary of the Chao Phraya River which flows through Bangkok. With a population of almost a million people, Chiang Mai is the biggest city in Northern Thailand, but it’s still so quiet and calm compared to the chaos and hustle of Bangkok.

Once the capital of the now extinct Kingdom of Lanna, Chiang Mai has in its time been part of Burma, Siam, and now Thailand. Throughout its history the city has been renowned as a centre of learning and spirituality, which is why there are so many Buddhist temples here. Still today New Age spiritualists, Vispassana devotees, and Buddhists of all walks of life flock to Chiang Mai to enjoy its sacred spaces. The city also boasts a significant student population thanks to the large university in town.

We’re here for a couple of days to sample some of Chiang Mai’s serene offerings, starting today with an orientation tour of the town and the surrounding countryside by bicycle. We had signed up pre-emptively with a local company that offers guided cycling trips around the region, and it was great. We passed rice paddies, forest, temples, shrines, and rural Thai homes. It was all very picturesque and a good way to get an overview of the area.

Along the way we also got to see a funerary where monks were busy at work, making wooden coffins and decorative elements used in funeral processions.

We also stopped at a former leper colony, which is today a community for former lepers were the inhabitants get taught the skills to make handicrafts that are then sold by Oxfam internationally.

Exhausted after our ride we grabbed a quick bite to eat (more pad thai), had another cool shower, and chilled out for the afternoon. We emerged rested and refreshed around 4:00pm and headed out to see Wat Suthep, one of Chiang Mai’s most iconic temples. Going later in the day turned out to be an awesome idea as most of the large tour groups were gone and it was just us, the monks who live there, and a handful of devotees.

Overlooking the city from its mountain throne, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (i.e. White Elephant Temple) is one of the North’s most sacred temples. The temple is up in the mountains, about 15km from the centre of Chiang Mai, and affords incredible views over Chiang Mai from its precipitous mountain-top location.

Built as a Buddhist monastery in 1383, it is still a working monastery today and is a truly spectacular example of Thai architecture. The statues, murals, and shrines we saw within the temple complex were nothing short of breathtaking.

According to legend a monk dreamt that God had told him to look for a relic. What the monk found was a bone believed to be the shoulder bone of Buddha. Upon hearing of this magic bone, the king of the Lanna Kingdom wanted to see the relic for himself and requested it be brought to him, but on the way the bone split into two pieces. The larger piece was placed on the royal white elephant, which was then released into the jungle (the smaller piece is housed at another temple). The elephant climbed Doi Suthep Mountain, trumpeted 3 times, and died. The king, who saw this as a sign, commissioned a temple be constructed on the site where the elephant had expired. That temple is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep – the White Elephant Temple.

On the first floor terrace of the temple was a statue of the legendary elephant who chose the site of the temple. Nearby were large bells that are rung by pilgrims to bring good luck.

On the 2nd floor terrace, we saw the golden stupa that enshrines the Buddhist relic. The stupa was surrounded by Buddha statues in various positions, each with its own significance and table of offerings.

In one of the pavilions we paused to watch as an elderly monk gave out blessings, represented by a simple white bracelet tied on to the wrist.

As sunset approached we sat down with the few other visitors who were still there to watch the monks start their evening prayers. Some of the monks were very young, but, despite all the people watching, they still managed to maintain an admirable air of meditative contemplation.

We watched in respectful silence as they lit incense, made an offering to Buddha, and then began chanting. The sound of their chants, rising and falling rhythmically to an accompaniment of cicadas and evening bird calls, is something we will always remember. It was just wonderful.

Once the sun had set the stupa was lit up, rendering the gold plating even more resplendent than by day.

With darkness fully upon us and the monks wrapping up their evening prayers, it was time to leave. We made our way back down the 306 steps to the car park where our transport back to Chiang Mai awaited. The drive back down the windy road towards the lights of Chiang Mai took about an hour, giving us ample time to reflect on how fortunate we are to be on this amazing adventure.

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