Posted by: Anna | June 14, 2011

Pop’s Temple Tour

Thailand and Laos are both full of beautiful temples (wats). Every day we see orange-clad monks walking down the street. Unfortunately, we were uninformed about the symbolism of the temples and the lives of the monks, so our reaction is little more than “ooh, pretty temple” and “look, a monk!”. We decided to sign up with Pop, a former monk, who offers private tours to see the temples. His reviews online highly praised his knowledge of the wats and his explanations of the significance.

We visited four temples in total, which is good for us, as visiting more than three temples in one day will bring you good luck (according to Buddhist tradition). We did several other things while visiting the temples that will also bring us luck. We were blessed by a monk and sprinkled with holy water. After the blessing, he tied a small white string around our wrists (left for women, right for men). If we leave it on for at least three days, it will bring us luck (Tommy has already taken his off). We put coins in each of 108 brass bowls, again for luck. We banged the really big gong for luck.  We should be all set on good luck for a while now – I don’t think I’ve done that many lucky things in one day ever before.

At the first temple, Pop showed us how to bow to pay respect to the Buddha and/or to a monk. Ideally, one should kneel down with toes folded under and make “prayer hands” (my name, not his). Hands are actually carefully positioned to resemble the shape of a lotus flower. Then, we bowed down to put our hands and forehead on the floor three times. He emphasized that it is five parts touching the floor. In Tibet, the custom is to prostrate the body completely, but in Thailand, five parts (two knees, two hands, and one forehead) suffices. It is done three times – first to pay homage to the Buddha, next to pay homage to the Buddha’s teachings, and lastly to pay respect to the monks. If a person cannot kneel, it is also okay to make lotus flower hands and bow three times.

To bring yourself merit, a Buddhist gives essential items to the monks. The morning food collection is part of this process. Additionally, Pop told us that for his birthday, he brings many essential items to the monks to give instead of a party. Interestingly, there are pre-made baskets (they look rather like the pre-made Easter baskets you can buy at the grocery store around Easter) to buy for the monks, including essential items like bottled water, toilet paper, umbrellas, and food. We witnessed a family of people making donations to a monk while we were in one of the temples.

A table full of pre-made baskets that had been given to a temple for the monks.

Respect for ancestors and other important people (famous monks, royalty) is very important. Buddhists are cremated, and the remains are often stored in stupas at temples or in stupas in private homes. Offerings and holy water are offered to the ashes on holidays or when visiting a temple (for famous monks). One of the temples we visited had the stupas for the Lanna kingdom royalty (the kingdom who ruled Northern Thailand in the Middle Ages. Famous monks relics are highly venerated. One monk’s remains are distributed to many temples, each receiving one small bit of bone, or one tooth, etc. One temple had photos of monks whose relics looked like “diamonds” or marbles (my opinion). This veneration of ancestors and other distinguished dead is very foreign to me.

We saw a “fat Buddha” statue. Interesting story: the monk was originally very handsome. Women came and fell in love with him, and came to visit not to study Buddhism but to flirt with him. He decided to make himself ugly (fat with giant ears) in order to teach them that it is the inner life that matters, not appearances.

When I visit a cathedral, I know enough of Christianity and of traditional Western architecture to appreciate the details. I really feel my ignorance when visiting Buddhist temples. They are every bit as beautiful as any cathedral, but I don’t know much. This again reinforces how Western-centric my education has been. Even knowing some of the right words gives me more pleasure. A big building holding remains or relics is a pagoda, but a small one is a stupa. I really enjoyed learning the difference between different Buddha statues – the Middle-Thailand decorative Buddha versus the Northern Thai Lanna style Buddha.

This is a Lanna style Buddha statue - simple.

This is a decoration style Buddha statue - you can see it is much more elaborately, well, decorated.

This is a Burmese style pagoda. You can tell because it is shaped like a bell. The Burmese ruled Northern Thailand for a few hundred years, and left their mark architecturally.

Here is an example of a Thai style pagoda.

After three big, beautiful temples, we finished our day at Wat Umong, a jungle temple. The temple is in tunnels instead of a big building, which originated in locals digging holes into the hills to place Buddha statues. This gave them a place to conduct celebrations on Buddhist holidays. Today Wat Umong functions as a meditation center (where Westerners and Thais can come to practice meditation and live, similar to an ashram) and temple. We saw a few young Thai men who were there with their families to celebrate their ordination as monks. They were dressed in white robes and would be give their orange robes by the monks as a part of the ceremony. The families were gathered, sharing picnics and celebrating. It brings the parents merit when a son becomes a monk, so most Thai families want their sons to become monks, at least for a while. Fewer men become monks every year, and the number of monks is dwindling (there are 200,000 in Thailand now, down from 400,000 in the mid-1990s).

We finished our temple visits with a short meditation lesson. First, we practiced sitting meditation. For me, this was very similar to the style of meditation I learned at the ashram. For Tommy, he experienced one of those weird sensations many people get while meditating. He felt like his shoulders grew and enveloped his head, then that he shrunk down to nothing. Meditation can be weird. We then practiced walking meditation. This was more difficult for me. I found it hard to direct my mind to include both thinking the words “right” and “left” and to the sensations in my feet, as we were instructed. Tiny ants crawled on me, driving me crazy. I had, as Buddha said, “monkey brain”.

As we were heading back into Chiang Mai, Pop asked us if we’d like to stop at a local restaurant. We agreed. He helped us to order – Chiang Mai sausage (very herbal, with strong notes of lemongrass), green papaya salad, and Northern Thai-style yellow curry noodles with chicken. It was all delicious. I had my first passionfruit juice – amazing. I have discovered that my favorite fruit is passionfruit. I have no idea if a fresh passionfruit is good (never had one), but the juice is amazing. It was a great end to a very interesting day.

One more picture from the temples.

 You can see more pictures from our visits to temples (wats) in Chiang Mai here.



  1. I’m playing catch-up, again! I loved the Treehouse and ” zipping to & fro travel” story…I think that would be great fun! (just not so sure about the bathroom situation!) Also, just finished the Temple tour. Did you see any Temple toys sitting around for the children to play with while the adults prayed? UBE has a collection that I will show you at Christmas.
    As always, I send you all my love & keep you in my daily prayers…add that to all of your good luck actions! XOXOXO, Kita

  2. I cannot believe I missed this post. I assume from what you said it was a private tour. It sounded very special. Especially the meditation. And I want you to have much good luck but unfortunately I am not sure I believe in creating luck. I do think you can create happiness and positive feelings so I wish you that.

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