After learning about Sihuhata, the Thai deity who eats red-hot coals, excretes gold nuggets and grants wealth to his worshippers, I was eager to visit the temple on the mountain where the historical/mythological Sihuhata was first found.
Called Wat Phra Doi Khao Kwai, the temple is perched high on a hill on the southern edge of Chiang Rai city. Its position is wonderful: Even on a somewhat misty day, we enjoyed beautiful views of the city and the mountains to its north. We could even see all the way to the huge white Buddha at Wat Huay Pla Kang, about 11 kilometers away.
Google Maps told us Wat Phra Doi Khao Kwai is about a 70-minute walk from the center of Chiang Rai, but only 18 minutes away by car. We knew we should hire a taxi, mostly because even if we walked out there early, getting a lift back to town would be difficult, and already by 10:30 it’s pretty hot – too hot for a long walk on asphalt roads.
Nearly every morning for the past few weeks, we’ve walked past a polite, rather handsome man who asks us where we want to go, suggests a few popular tourist destinations, and gestures to his taxi. We’ve always answered politely, “We’re just walking, thank you.” Finally one day we stopped and asked if he knew Wat Phra Doi Khao Kwai.
Yes, he knew it, and was eager to take us right away. Alan explained we weren’t going that day, and asked if the driver could take us the following Monday. The driver, whose name is Kai, gave us a price. We agreed, confirmed we’d go on Monday morning, and continued on our way, on foot as usual. I glanced back; Kai was standing where we’d left him, looking a little deflated. I was sure he thought our promise was an empty one.
I saw Kai as we strolled up to his corner just before 9:00 last Monday morning. He had already spotted us, and with a big smile on his face, he opened the back door of his taxi, gesturing us in.
His car was spotless outside, and if anything, even more spotless inside. A small teddy bear lay in repose on the console between the two front seats, and a little plastic superhero-type figure adorned the dashboard. It reminded me of the plastic dinosaur we kept out in the garden for years after our son grew tired of it as a toy. We called the dinosaur Godzilla, and regarded him as a co-protector of our garden, along with the serene Buddha figure that resides under the lilac trees.
Protectors or no, I was happy to find that the safety belts in the back seat actually worked, something that’s been rare to non-existent since we started traveling two years ago.
The drive to the temple wasn’t very long – not even 15 minutes – and it was very pretty. We were soon out of the bustle of Chiang Rai and into a much greener area, almost entirely residential. Kai pointed to the hill in front of us: “Temple,” he said, and sure enough, there it was: the characteristic layered orangey roofs of a Thai temple atop a gleaming white building, situated in deep greenery just below the summit of a tall hill (or mountain, as the Thais call it).
Soon Kai turned off the road and headed up a steep, narrow side road. We wound through dense mixed growth: clumps of giant bamboo, sal trees, vines and all kinds of plant forms whose names I don’t know. Another turn, and we pulled into the parking lot for Wat Phra Doi Khao Kwai. It was a surprisingly large compound of temples both large and small, and more buildings beyond, I assumed to house monks.
All three of us were drawn immediately to the view north over the valley in which Chiang Rai lies. It’s a wide view, encompassing the city itself and surrounding mountains and farmland – the kind of view that makes you simply stand and look for a long time, your perspective shifting back and forth from scanning the entire view to focusing in, trying to pick out the landmarks you know. Alan and I weren’t the only ones taking photos; Kai had his phone out, too.
But we were there to see Sihuhata, and sure enough, there he was, perched at the edge of this magnificent view, beside the large new temple that’s being built to honor him. This temple was the one we’d seen from the road, but we had been too far away to spot Sihuhata, even though he’s quite large.
Like most religious statues I’ve seen in Thailand, this big Sihuhata is made of concrete, but with a difference: He is hairy.
I went closer to see if what looked like a hairy coat was actually cunningly carved concrete, but it’s not: I was surprised to find that Sihuhata’s coat is made of short-cut raveled rope, the same colour as unpainted concrete.
Just to make sure, I petted the rope fur. It felt soft, so soft in fact that I stood and stroked it for a few minutes. I was impressed with this verisimilitude, and with the creativity of putting strokable fur on a religious statue. And my practical mind wondered how the caretakers of the temple will replace this material as it’s eroded by rain, sun and petting hands.
After a while I left this spot at the edge of the big open view, and turned my attention to the other temples and the rest of the grounds. On my left were two tall figures, and as I drew close, I saw that they were positioned at the top of a long staircase that led down the hill through the forest.
The figures were yakshas, the ferocious-looking guardians you often see at Thai temples. We had been driven straight into the compound, as I guess most visitors are these days. Had we arrived on foot, as people used to before cars and motorcycles were in common use, we would have climbed this massive staircase and arrived at the top to be greeted by these two fierce creatures. We would have been tired, sweaty, grateful and expectant.
I was curious about two small figures I could see partway down the steep staircase, so I headed down to look at these, and at the fronts of the yakshas. The yakshas were so covered with foliage I had a hard time photographing them, but the guardians partway down the stairs were lovely. I enjoyed the way they were positioned, and the thick forest to either side of the stairs and the figures.
I stood and looked into the forest for a few minutes. It was dark and still, but for the sounds of birds in the trees, an occasional lizard slithering between layers of fallen leaves, and an occasional gust of wind rustling the tops of giant bamboo.
The wat is beautifully crafted and tended, but here below the compound, I was reminded that the forest was, in earlier times, a wild and untamed place. It was easy to imagine the teenaged Aay Tugatta, who’d so recently lost his father, nervously bringing his father’s skull to the forest as instructed, and just as nervously coming back into this wild place to discover the strange creature who’d been trapped where the skull came to rest.
We stayed at the wat for about an hour. Though the complex is not big, there’s a lot to admire. The new Sihuhata temple is still under construction, though already nicely decorated. I liked the images of Sihuhata above the windows.
The long roof ridge of the new temple boasts a graceful golden dragon boat that looks like it’s taking off for the heavens. The boat reminded us of a mosque we saw a few years ago in Cairo that has an metal or wooden boat (I forget which) balanced on the roof. We had read that the boat is filled every day with grain for the local birds, but we didn’t see any evidence of that.
The Chinese religious influence is strong in this part of Thailand, and in the wat compound we found a beautiful Kwan Yin, the Chinese goddess of compassion, housed in her own pavilion.
In the photo of Kwan Yin, you can see the glass-mosaic stupa through the window at the goddess’s right, and a bit of the older main temple through window to her left.
The glass-tiled stupa is located at the center of the wat compound, and it is quite unusual; in fact, I haven’t seen one like this before. It’s completely covered in small mirrored tiles, some colored, some just plain mirrors. We were lucky to be at the wat on a sunny day, with the bright sunlight throwing stars from the mirrored surface that covers the stupa all the way from the bottom to its umbrella’ed peak.
The mirrored tiles are unevenly laid, making for some interesting visual effects.
In front of the old temple is a lineup of golden buddhas in various traditional poses. There’s a row of huge round stones in front of it, which must have some sort of spiritual value, as people have applied gold leaf to them. Applying gold leaf is something I’ve seen people do at temples; they’ll say prayers before a statue or a group of statues, and then carefully apply squares of gold leaf to one or more of the images as part of their ritual.
Kai called our attention to the “original Sihuhata,” the small, squat, dark statue I’d seen in photos when I was trying to learn more about this deity. There’s a basket of charcoal placed near him, with a convenient scoop, and braziers positioned in front of him, so people can burn charcoal as an offering to Sihuhata. I watched a lady doing exactly that, and then she placed a kettle of water on the charcoal fire.
When I first walked around the compound and saw the large building off to one side of the wat’s original temple, I assumed monks lived there. But while I was looking at the golden buddhas, I saw a number of nuns walking back and forth between the large building and the temple. Dressed all in white, with shaven heads, they carried buckets and trays, apparently bringing things to the temple for a ceremony.
As each nun passed me, I smiled, and every nun smiled back with great sweetness. One stopped and asked me in halting English where I was from, and we had a short conversation. I noticed that all the nuns were tiny; none of them stood higher than my shoulder, and I’m not particularly tall – just over 161 centimeters.
I had already gone into the main temple earlier, sat for a short time and enjoyed looking around at the unusual art and objects decorating the place. Now I saw a group of visitors entering the temple. Two of the nuns beckoned to me to enter, and one placed a low stool near the visitors, so I could sit instead of kneeling.
The visitors were assembled in front of the monk I’d seen earlier; he had greeted me kindly. Now he was blessing the group knelt in front of him, each with baskets of offering items: incense, flowers, food, money.
I was touched that the nuns had wanted me to take part in this blessing ceremony. It was very short. As the monk prayed, the visitors put their hands together and bowed their heads; I did the same. I watched the visitors make their presentations to the monk and receive individual blessings before I got up to leave, too.
As I exited the main temple, more visitors were arriving. But even with the cars driving into the compound and parking, and people wandering around taking selfies and making offerings, the place still had a slow and peaceful feeling. The monk and the nuns were all very friendly in a quiet and serene way. Birds and butterflies fluttered from tree to tree. The scents of flowers and incense wafted on the warming air, as the sun climbed higher in the mid-morning sky. Kai handed Alan and me each a sealed cup of cold water and a straw, very welcome as the bright sunlight warmed the temple compound.
We walked back to the new temple to have one more look at big furry Sihuhata, his new temple and the huge view. The serene mood extended itself out over the wide view, the thick growth of trees below us obscuring any noises from the road or the suburban developments at the bottom of the hill. Only the calls and rustlings of birds punctuated the quiet sunlit air before us. We said goodbye to Sihuhata, walked one more time around his temple, and walked back to let Kai know we were ready to leave.