I was going to call this post “Monks and Motorbikes” but then I realized you would all picture monks riding motorbikes around and that would have been completely inaccurate. My post about my interactions with monks will have to come later.
Instead, this post is about the day I got over my fear of riding a motorbike which included a ride up to a Buddhist temple near Chiang Mai.
West of Chiang Mai is Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. Just before the Doi Suthep mountain summit (1676m) is the temple Wat Phra That Doi Suthep—a famous Buddhist pilgrimage site.
Other travelers staying at the Julie Guesthouse suggested going there as a fun day trip. They mentioned songthaews and buses as the means to get up there. “Or you could just rent a motorbike,” said one traveler.
I almost laughed in the guy’s face at this. Ha! Me on a motorbike? I don’t think so. But sometimes it’s what we fear that is the most important to face and overcome. After all, deviating my comfort norm is what had already led me to some awesome experiences in the previous weeks.
I had already ridden on the back of a motorbike twice before. Once on a neighbor’s bike with my father down our road and back when I was very young and once on Ko Tao just a few weeks before. Both times were extremely brief and I was glad for it. I’ve had a fear of motorcycles and motorbikes since I was very young. There were many motorcycle-related deaths in my high school and hometown—enough to scare me away from any interest in driving one on my own.
Then I got talking with this Argentinian guy, Stefano, who I had met on the ferry from Ko Tao back to mainland Thailand. We bonded over drying our laundry in the wind with another woman from France who followed suit. Talk about travel hacking—a boat ride is the best way to quick dry your laundry on the road!
Anyway, he was heading up to Chiang Mai just like me. We decided to keep in touch and maybe make some plans together. Once in Chiang Mai, we met three guys who had traveled the Mae Hong Song loop together. This loop takes about 4-6 days to travel and includes some back country roads, small tribal village stopovers, and other unknown/unplanned adventures. They shared with us stories from their epic journey and I was completely pumped to do it except for one kink in the plan: I’d have to go by motorbike and drive it on my own.
I told Stefano if we were going to drive motorbikes along the loop together, I needed at least a day to mentally prepare, practice driving on the left side of the road, and get used to the feel of operating a motorbike. Gathering up all of the courage I had in me, I walked with him to Mr. Mechanic and rented my first bike. I practiced with Stefano in a big gas station lot before heading into Chiang Mai’s smaller city streets on my own.
After a while of driving around, I remembered the day trip up Doi Suthep the traveler had told me about earlier that day. With everything I needed for the day already in my day pack, I headed West to ascend the mountain.
Heading out of the city was admittedly scary. The traffic and highways getting out there were very busy and filled with tons of experienced Thai motorbikers, motorists, and truck drivers. I was intimidated, but I knew my limits, drove slowly, and allowed other motorists to pass me by.
Finally on the steep, winding mountain roads, I was basically alone as I drove along until I arrived at a lookout point over the city of Chiang Mai. There, Thai locals and tourists had parked their motorbikes and were snapping photos of the city below.
Continuing on my way, I saw waterfalls along the road and there were stands set up with locals selling water, ice cream, and other treats. I was getting used to driving albeit at no more than 40 kph. At just over 1000 meters up, I had made it! I finally reached the temple.
It’s 30 Baht to enter the temple or 50 if you need to take the lift up to it. There are 304 stairs to climb, lined with gorgeous carved dragons, and riddled with hill tribe children playing in their traditional dress. I asked a young girl if I could take her photo. She gladly accepted and posed like she’s been doing it all day.
Outside the temple, they sell fabric to women to tie around their waists if they are wearing shorts or short skirts. They also sell shawls to women if they are wearing tank tops. Out of respect and tradition, women are not supposed to show too much skin inside the temples. Before entering, I only had to remove my shoes and cover my shoulders with a scarf I had packed in my bag.
Inside the temple, there are statues, shrines, murals, and the huge Chedi, or pagoda. Legend tells a story of a relic of Buddha—Buddha’s shoulder bone—making its way on a white elephant’s back up Doi Suthep. The Chedi supposedly holds this relic inside.
Many people were carrying lotus flowers and doing pradaksina in which they circled the pagoda as a form of worship.
Others lit candles and received a blessing from the monks inside. The monks would perform baci, tying a white string around patron’s wrists to harness good luck.
I did not participate in any of these traditions but I did write my name on the robe. A couple of times a year, the monks lead a procession and wrap the robe around the Chedi to bring good fortune and success.
I stayed at the temple for almost 3 hours, observing the people participating in Buddhist traditions. I wandered around the temple enjoying the different monuments, bells, gardens, and clear views of Chiang Mai from the balconies.
The sunset cast gorgeous golden rays across the temple’s structures and from the balcony there were even better views of the city of Chiang Mai than I had seen on the way up the mountain. The place was peaceful and perfect for quieting my nerves after the long motorbike ride there.
As the sun began to hide behind the park’s trees on the other side of the mountain, the monks emerged and lined up in front of the golden, glowing pagoda. They began to pray and chant and eventually walked into a nearby temple building to kneel and sing in front of a large statue of Buddha.
Here's a video I took of their chant:
By the time they finished chanting, the sun had completely set. I loved how the temple looked then, lit up against the darkening sky.
As beautiful as it was, I decided it was about time to go back. I walked out of the temple and down the steps. I had to use my phone flashlight to carefully make my way down as there was no lighting after sunset. There were only a few straggling tourists remaining and most of the shops and street food carts had closed down.
I found my bike where I left it in the lot, standing alone, casting a shadow from a lone street lamp. Okay, bike, it’s time to get me down this mountain in the dark now! I figured if I was going to get over my motorbiking fear and get really comfortable riding it, I would need to ride in many different conditions—and I did! That day, I rode through city back streets, on highways, up a windy mountain road, and down the same road in the pitch black of night.
I went probably no more than 25 kph down that mountain by myself with only the rare car or motorbiker passing me by. I snapped this picture of the city lit up at night on the way down.
After busy Saturday night traffic in the city, I made it back to the guesthouse in one piece. Now I was feeling confident as ever and ready for the longer motorbike adventure awaiting me. What I didn’t know yet was my motorbike adventure up Doi Suthep would be the last one for a while. In my next post I'll share why!