I think it was the ‘No Women Allowed’ sign in front of the still being built ubosot that left such a soft spot in my heart for Wat Sri Suphan. Out for a night of shopping and a foot massage at the Saturday Night Market in Chiang Mai with two soon-to-be-banned dykes in tow, I stumbled upon the temple unexpectedly, though in Chiang Mai you should always expect that you’ll find a wat on any excursion around town. If not several. This one was bathed in the warm glow of worshipers’ candles, had a handful of monks on display, and offered merit making for touri. Throw in a Ganesha statue to please my neo-Hindu Thai friend, a cool shot that eventually became the header photo on my blog, and I’d call the fun, but quick visit a success.
That night, just inside the entrance gate, several novice monks manned a table offering metallic bodhi leaves for sale that, after adorning with your name and message in Sharpie, you could hang on a donation tree. A fund raiser for the wat, merit making for the locals, and a legal graffiti op for touri, all rolled into one. They were smart enough to go for the cash before women could discover part of the temple was off-limits to their kind. When a ubosot is being built and before it receives its final blessing Buddhist doctrine holds that women, who are unclean, may not step into the chapel. That it was Thai culture at fault, a custom of the land, did not sit any better with the dykes. But did make for a great photo op.
A year later, in town again, I decided to make a pilgrimage out to Wat Sri Suphan again, a daytime visit to see what the night had hidden from view. And to check out progress on the bot. The merit-making bodhi leaves were no longer on offer, the ban against women was still in effect.
Wat Sri Suphan’s wiharn seems diminutive from the outside. Possibly it’s all the red umbrellas, metallic Buddhas, and humongous drums staged at the front entrance that dwarfs it’s size. It’s a colorful entrance display, but it’s not until you get inside that you realize how large the temple really is. On my visit it was filled with novice monks. Sweet. It’s not unheard of to run across a mass of mini-monks at Thai temples, though usually it’s because they are doing their evening chants or it’s feeding time. The monks at Wat Sri Suphan were undoubtedly gathered for a purpose but were broken up into small groups doing what youth do best: chatting, horsing around, and accomplishing nothing. At least until an elder monk walked in. Then everyone got busy looking busy. Until the coast cleared once again.
Like Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Sri Suphan has a ‘monk chat’ program that provides touri the opportunity of talking with one of the brethren. Not as accessible or as famous as the more popular Wat Chedi, Wat Sri Suphan’s monks seldom get the chance to practice their English skills. One novice wasn’t willing to wait for the opportunity and instead headed over immediately when he saw me enter the wiharn.
A chubby little guy who’d been standing off by himself, even among the Buddhist fellowship fat youth face are equally unpopular existence as fat kids do elsewhere in the world. But he had the jolly thing down pat. And spoke excellent English. Novice monks and bar boys tend to progress through the same set of opening lines, so after his initial question of ‘where you from’ I headed off the rest by asking him about the wat.
It still takes a village in Thailand, and even in a city the size of Chiang Mai, what are now neighborhood once were villages and many still cling to that type of community. The locals living near Wat Sri Suphan are intimately involved with daily life at the temple. The community has always been a silver making village and many community members today are involved in the construction of the silver wat.
My new friend suggested I take a look at the craftsmen working silver for decoration of the Ordination hall, a ramshackle area I’d probably otherwise not have bothered with. Under barely roofed open-air shacks, a dozen craftsmen were busy hammering silver into scenes from Buddhist lore. And the cacophony of dozens of hammers striking thin metal I’d heard walking down the village road to the wat earlier finally made sense. Even outside the wat’s walls locals spend their days working on the decorations for the temple. Surrounding streets are filled with small silver shops offering handmade pieces of jewelry too.
The silver-smithing tradition of the village is promoted at the wat where a present day master craftsman, Khun Direk, freely gives his knowledge, talent, and time to demonstrate and teach silver-smithing to the younger generation of Wua Lai villagers at the temple’s Ancient Lanna Arts Study Center. During school holidays the number of youngsters at the wat tends to swell with young people are eager to learn a bit of crafting; farang too are invited to learn to work silver at the wat, though you need to make arrangements in advance.
The wat itself dates back to the early 1500s when it was built by King Muang Keaw of the Mangrai Dynasty. It was destroyed and looted several times when Chiang Mai was under Burmese occupation and it wasn’t until 1994 that the wiharn was rebuilt by the community along with the assistance of several corporations and artists from countries including Japan, England, Canada, and the U.S. It was to foster a sense of community within the village, and to pay tribute to the area’s history, that work on the silver wat was initiated in 2004 by the temple’s current Abbot, when renovations began all that was left of the original ubosot were the exterior sema stones which form the boundary of the present structure.
Much of the silver-work done by the village can be seen in the wiharn where large panels depict the life of the Buddha. The smaller Ordination Hall is not expected to be completed for another few years, but already displays rather fanciful depictions of Buddhist imagery. The bot features unusual cho fa rising into the sky from its roof that includes both a Naga and Ganesha in addition to the usual Garuda.
The temple grounds at Wat Sri Suphan are not extensive, it’s a medium size wat, but it’s coziness adds to its appeal. Even without participating in the monk chat program, you can easily spend an hour or two touring the outer buildings and admiring the artwork used throughout the temple.
Last, but not least, Wat Sri Suphan is part of the Sangha Metta Project, a Buddhist care and compassion program for HIV+/AIDS awareness and education supported by UNICEF. A portion of proceeds collected from visitors goes toward supporting the program and its outreach activities within the community.
Monk chat is offered every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, from 5:30 pm to 7:00 pm. You can also get an introduction to meditation on those same days, from 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm. Wat Sri Suphan is well worth a visit which can easily be combined with a trip to Chiang Mai’s Saturday Night Market. Take a few women along so you can laugh at them for not being allowed within the wat’s ubosot.