The Elephant Temple Of Chiang Mai

"He who pays his respect is always respected."

The sign was hung from a Banyan tree, as many others were, scattered about the temple complex of Wat Chiang Man. They were reminders, subtle hints, nailed to trees and written in bold letters to help visitors remember that this place is sacred.

Pilgrims from all over Asia and the world were enclosed by the temple walls of Wat Chiang Man with me, bowing to the many golden Buddhas that rested in the shadows of Chedi Chang Lom - a bell-shaped relic chamber carried on the backs of 15 life-sized elephants and crowned by a gilded, bronze pinnacle.

I had stumbled into one of the oldest temples of Chiang Mai, and I didn't know it yet, but this place would call me back to it before my time in Thailand became a memory.

CHIANG MAI - เชียงใหม่

City of Tuk-tuks. City of tattoos. City of temples.

Wrapped in a medieval moat and vestiges of its historic wall, Chiang Mai held my imagination captive. I wanted to imagine it as it once was, a mysterious place on the other side of the world where elephants roamed the streets, golden temples scraped the sky, and the chanting of mantras was louder than the roar of traffic.

During my time there, I floated through temple after temple, observing a way of life that was very different than my own. Wat Chiang Man. Doi Suthep. Wat Chedi Luang. Wat Phra Singh. They were names that had become close friends, and they were places that have now become fond memories.

Wat Chiang Man became the closest of those friends, it found me before I even knew what I was looking for in Chiang Mai.

UNDER THE BANYAN TREE

I sat in the shade of a Banyan tree, cradled by roots that had broken through man-made earth and consumed part of the old wall that once protected the temple. A flood of people moved through the complex, all of them a blurred image of each other. The voice of a tour guide or the flash of a camera occasionally jumped from the mass, but the pastel of tank tops and iPhones and selfie sticks flowed into the temple, posed, and then spilled beyond its gates like a rushing current.

Some had come to Wat Chiang Man to worship, and some had come to sit in silence as I did, but there were so many more who had only come to see the beauty and art of this place from behind the lens of a camera or the screen of a smartphone.

And I wondered, as I watched the sun shift the shadows of the elephant monument, what did this place look like 10, 20, or even 50 years before, when the world did not move as quickly as it did now?

Traveling experiences were once told like myths around a campfire, but now they moved quickly, like the rest of the world, minimized to easily digestible top 10 listicles or Instagram selfies.

I was existing in an image of the 14th century - three golden Viharns (gathering halls) shimmering in the heat of the afternoon sun. The elephant chedi stood proudly behind them, shining in the gaze of seven, life-sized Buddhas. But the ancient image was blurred by a crowded, modern filter.

LOST IN CHIANG MAI

Two weeks later, walking alongside Moonmuang Road #9, I was soaking up what was left of my time in Chiang Mai. Alongside me, cars moved quickly past the moat of the old city, beeping their horns at each other not out of anger but out of courtesy. The Thai people drove about the veins of the city as if controlled by a hive mind - weaving through each other, aware of each other, respectful of each other, accepting of each other.

It was organized chaos.

Turning down a green path, unsure of where it would take me but willing to end up wherever it led, white clouds formed in the sky, covering the heat of the day and slowing my steps. The buzz of the city had faded, and I was in a garden of green. Bamboo, hanging lanterns, and colorful, stacked houses lined the alleyway and ushered me forward, leading me around corners and over busy streets not by my own will but by the cool breeze at my back.

Before I knew it, the streets had led me back to the beginning - back to Wat Chiang Man on my last day in Chiang Mai.

WAT CHIANG MAN - วัดเชียงมั่น

The pinnacle rose over temple walls that I didn't know to be there, and its gilded tip beckoned me out of the alleyway and into its courtyard for the second time.

Only, this time, I was alone.

I walked the temple grounds in disbelief, choosing again to go back to the shade of a massive Banyan tree behind Chedi Chang Lom - back to the bench that I had spent hours on two weeks prior.

I had wondered, two weeks ago, what this place would have looked like before the world moved so quickly, and it seemed that Chiang Mai had brought me back two weeks later to experience that dream in the fading afternoon light.

15 elephants, carved out of stone to protect something sacred - 30 golden Buddhas looking on with blank, transparent, man-made eyes…

They were guardians that had been standing watch since 1296, and they were now the only ones who could still remember the secret that this place once held.

In that moment, I could almost see elephants walking through the streets of Chiang Mai. I could hear the chanting of monks ushering in a new day from under the shadow of the elephant chedi. And I could feel the peace that one might have once found here, at Wat Chiang Man - at the oldest temple in Chiang Mai.

But, still, all of it left me wondering…

Were there places still unknown? Myths left to be tested? Exploration and true adventure left to be discovered? Or had the world become too small, full of so many people who had become desensitized to nearly everything?

TO BE CONTINUED...

Nathan Standridge is a journalist, author, and woodworker living in Asheville, NC. He’s been seen trekking through San Franciscan streets at 4 A.M., drinking whiskey during a tornado in the Ozarks, and sitting in silence among the temples of Thailand. His book Change was published in 2016, and he is currently working on a new novel.