Every year there is an amazing temple pilgrimage happening in Chiang Mai, Thailand. This year, in 2010, it happened in late May. The goal is to walk up to Doi Suthep temple, which is the most venerated shrine in Chiang Mai. The challenge is that this temple is not in the city, but way up a steep mountain, 14 kilometers (9 miles) from the outskirts of the city.
Thais are not really much into exercising in general, but on this day tens of thousands of people stream up the mountain – in the middle of the night! Daytime temperatures would almost certainly result in heat stroke for many participants, so people start walking in the evening when it is cooler.
Thais love to party and they have a real talent when it comes to organizing festivities. All the way up the long mountain road volunteers pass out thousands of free water bottles to prevent dehydration. There is free food for everyone too.
The side of the normally quiet road fills up with stages, kitchens, ceremonies, chanting monks, drumming bands, foot massage shops, and big speakers. Thais don’t like quiet events – the noisier the better. All loudspeakers blast away at top volume and the atmosphere is one of fun, noise, socializing, music, and excitement.
Not many hiking shoes are seen. Most people walk in flimsy footwear like rubber flip flops which are worn by most Thais. Some even walk barefoot. 14 kilometers up a steep mountain is no easy feat. It takes at least three hours, plus many hundreds of steps up to the temple.
Once people reach their destination, they join huge crowds who are offering incense, flowers and candles to the many shrines. There are processions with floats, people carrying money trees as offerings, traditional Thai musicians performing, and a total chaos which somehow just works itself out. It helps that Thais are very patient, and nobody gets upset about any inconveniences.
Nobody is pushing, nobody gets angry even if they are stuck in a huge line which is not moving. I remember walking down the long flight of stairs from the temple, and the crowd was so intense that we managed one stair step every few minutes. I did not see one single person becoming impatient.
If someone gets tired, they just lie down anywhere and sleep: next to the altar, on the street, under a bench, or wherever they can. Never mind that there is a constant cacophony of loud music, gongs and bells, drumming, monks chanting, and thousands of people talking.
Everyone is participating in this walk because there are many auspicious activities happening. Monks are tying good luck charms around your wrists, people pour water on the statues of famous monks and Buddha figures, monks are chanting everywhere, people pray for good luck and whatever they feel they need or want. And there is the chance to meet people, socialize, make new friends, eat, party, and have a great time. I doesn’t hurt to get some exercise either – massive exercise to be precise.
Many new relationships are formed during this night, and quite a few couples decide to get married after their temple pilgrimage. It is seen as a most auspicious beginning for new couples.
And just in case you wondered – most people drive back down from the mountain, taxi business is booming all night long. 14 kilometers one way is more than enough exercise for people who otherwise don’t walk much. I suspect the massage therapists in Chiang Mai get a lot of business the next day from all the people with sore legs. At US$4.- an hour this is an affordable luxury.
I created a video which shows you all the sights and sounds of this amazing event.
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