Freya Stark once said: “To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.”
I’ve always associated this quote with Southeast Asia.
Which is funny because I am from Southeast Asia.
In my defense, I live in the only predominantly Catholic country in the ASEAN region—and one that’s strongly influenced by a Western way of doing things (chalk it up to our colonial past…300 years of Spanish rule, and almost 50 years under the Americans). It’s why visiting places like Thailand and Cambodia, whose religion and culture are far different from my own, always holds a great degree of fascination.
Last month, when J and I were in Chiang Mai, we were both struck by how familiar and foreign the place felt. At first glance, Chiang Mai looked to us like any other town in the Philippines—two-storey buildings, similar market places, similar set of trees and shrubbery, and people would even speak to us in Thai, because we share similar facial features. I think what made it feel foreign, what made the difference, is religion—seen in the many temples that pay homage to the Thais’ faith, and their holy men, the monks, who walked among us.
The day after the Loi Krathong festivities ended, J and I decided to check out Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, said to be the holiest shrine in the Lanna Kingdom.
The temple, which was built in 1383 under King Keu Naone, holds a mystical birth story. According to legend, a magical relic multiplied itself before it was enshrined at Wat Suan Dok in Chiang Mai, which presented the need for a suitable place to hold the twin relic. Unable to decide on a site, the Lanna king decided to place the relic on the back of a white elephant and wait to see where the animal would place it. Eventually, the elephant walked up the Doi Suthep mountain, trumpeted three times, turned around three times, knelt down, and died. The shrine was built immediately on the “chosen” site.
The relic is said to be enshrined in the temple’s famously photographed golden chedi, situated in the main cloister.
Inside the temple grounds, you’ll also find a tightly packed complex of small shrines, bells, golden umbrellas, and Buddha statues.
We somehow found ourselves in one of the prayer halls, where a monk blessed us with holy water and we went home with this lucky bracelet.
Before we went home, we spent some time on the courtyard, which afforded a great view of the city below.
On our way down Wat Phra That’s Naga staircase, J was lamenting how we didn’t have places of worship like this in the Philippines. I was about to agree with her when it dawned on me that we actually do. The Philippines is home to hundreds of century-old churches! You will probably not be seeing a lot of Buddhist temples in the country (I’ve never seen one), but we have our own Catholic versions of these places. :P
It’s just funny, the things you realize when you’re outside your homeland. We get so caught up in the differences, the things/practices we don’t often see in our country, that we don’t realize that behind all these are similar values that actually bind us together. In this case, I believe it’s that capacity to keep the faith. Different set of customs and traditions, a different way of doing things…but the result—a strong sense of faith and spirituality—is one and the same.