Chiang Mai’s Wat Chedi Luang is one of the more popular temples among visitors because of its accessible location and because in all things size matters. It ginormous chedi makes it a favorite must-see and its well-publicized monk chat program makes the temple a favorite must-do too. For the totally clueless, local tour operators offer a visit on their City Temple Tour programs, and for the braver touri – or at least those not directionally challenged – there are numerous ‘self-guided’ walking tours of the old city that include a stop at the wat on their itineraries. There are other wats within the city that offer monk chat programs too, other wats nearby that are far more spectacular, historically significant, and/or that house Buddha images or relics that rate higher among the faithful. But Wat Chedi Luang reigns supreme in tourist numbers, just behind Doi Suthep, which pulls huge numbers in partially because few mention that it is in fact just another wat, albeit one with an incredible mountain-top view of the city.
As popular as Wat Chedi Luang and a few other temples within the city are, with the exception of Doi Suthep your visit is seldom marred by a horde of your fellow touri descending on the place in mass. Which is a good thing. Even if it is not your religion temples are meant for quiet reflection. Having to elbow your way through a crowd to catch a peak of the Buddha is not the best way to experience any religious site. Except perhaps the Vatican. There are times during the day when the more popular wats are most popular, but those hours are often the same that any self-respecting touri is still in bed. Sure you may miss out on giving alms to the early morning parade of Buddhist monks, but there are temples that hold afternoon alms giving sessions too. And if you really feel your visit to Thailand would not be complete without chatting with a monk, just like other human beings you’ll find them much more talkative, not to mention awake, if you chat them up after lunch rather than when their little brains are still trying to wake up; caffeine is a no-no for baby monks so they have to rely on their body’s own abilities to get the same kick that Starbuck’s provides to you.
There is a lot to do and see in Chiang Mai. Your days can easily become quite crowded trying to fit everything in. To a point where you need a vacation from your vacation. And while many of those activities are strictly daytime events, and although touring temples is geared towards doing so while the sun shines, hitting a wat or two at night can free up more time for riding elephants, being mauled by a tiger that wasn’t as drugged as its handlers thought, or visiting the Disneyland version of a hilltribe village. Huh. Come to think about it spending your daytime hours catching up on your sleep might be a better way of spending your afternoons in Chiang Mai anyway.
The first time I visited Wat Chedi Luang was at night. Although that didn’t really count. We wandered into its forecourt during a visit to the Sunday Night Market, took a quick peak inside the wiharn, and then went back to shopping not having a clue about what the temple had to offer. I stumbled upon the wat again during another trip still not knowing about its humongous chedi out back. But since that visit was during the day and the path toward the rear better lit I did manage to discover the chedi and then – as I’m wont to do – looked the temple up on Google after the fact. It wasn’t until several years and several trips later that I decided to check out the wat at night again. And not on a Sunday night when the entire area is a mass of humanity.
There are no monks to chat with at night, and the wat’s grounds are dark and poorly lit. Except for the chedi bathed in a yellow glow. It’s an even more impressive sight at night. And generally, you have the entire place to yourself. All of the smaller chapels that line the perimeter of the chedi are open at night too and those that house waxen images of (I guess) famous monks take on an even eerier glow after dark. It’d be a great place to take your kids for Halloween, or whenever you needed to scare them into behaving. The reclining Buddha looks much better at night too, you even forget to compare it to the larger one at Wat Pho. And there are no vendors trying to sell you a caged bird to free – so you get both peace and quiet and the bonus karma points of not participating in a merit making activity that the Buddha would rather you didn’t participate in in the first place.
The large wiharn at the front of the temple’s grounds has an entirely different feel to it at night too. The gold used throughout really shimmers in the light and the massive pillars that lead to and flank the main altar seem even more grandiose. I have to assume, as I did, those who make an unplanned visit to the wat at night never realize there’s so much more to be seen further back. A large sign, something like Big Chedi with an arrow, would help ‘cuz the path leading deeper into the grounds is just part of a driveway and doesn’t look like it really goes anywhere special. But then again maybe that would encourage too many nighttime visits and the wat’s ambiance at night would change.
Of course there is the Night Safari at the Chiang Mai Zoo for competition, and they have ladyboys. So nighttime temple hopping may never really catch on. But if you make the effort, quite a few of the more spectacular wats within the city light up their grounds when the sun goes down and provide a completely different experience for visitors. Which is a nice change from hanging out at the Night Bazaar again.
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