Wat Phan Tao, Chiang Mai: the temple of lanterns

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

An average traveler in Thailand gets his dose of Buddhist architecture within the first week and feels immunized, "wat-ted out", as they say. Enough is enough. Yet the temples of Chiang Mai deserve an exception: first, the city is old, and so are its monasteries, and second, North Thailand has always been the center of Thai teak industry. Hence, quite a few temples here are majestic structures of darkened, aged teakwood, supported by immense pillars made out of single tree trunks. Wat Phan Tao is one of those; in addition to that, it has exquisite woodcarving, a rather curious history, and is a great place to see the launching of khom loi, Thai flying lanterns. The temple is located right in the middle of the city, making it easy to visit anytime. For the most memorable experience, try to coincide with a festival.

© Mark Levitin

A palace, a temple, a monastery

The main building of Wat Phan Tao, the vihaan (prayer hall), reeks of antiquity. While the 28 massive wooden pillars raise it high above the street, its foundation is slightly sunken, implying the weight of ages. This impression, interestingly, is false: for this truly ancient city, the building is relatively young. In its current shape and function it was established in 1876, merely a century and a half ago. Much more unusual is the temple’s history. It was originally constructed in 1846 as a throne hall for Chao Mahawong, the king of Chiang Mai. His successor on the throne ordered it dismantled, and after certain refurbishment it came back to life as a Buddhist monastery.

© Mark Levitin

Traces of royal past can still be seen in the woodcarving – the repeated motif of a dog (the zodiacal animal of Chao Mahawong’s year of birth) and the peacock protected by two naga snakes over the main entrance (the symbol of Chiang Mai monarchy). Aside from the vihaan, the monastery nowadays includes a small forest of chedi (stupas), and a Bodhi tree next to a pond. Monks and novices can be seen meditating under the tree during Buddhist festivals.

© Mark Levitin

Lanterns, lanterns

Monastic life lacks many forms of entertainment commonly enjoyed by laymen (yes, including the one you just thought about – didn’t you?). Scholarship and meditation are good, and sports aren’t forgotten, but the creative urge needs its outlet too. This is why many monasteries in Thailand develop peculiar hobbies. In one of them monks ride horses, in quite a few they make giant sculptures out of cement; there’s even a temple entirely decorated with empty glass bottles, combining artistic approach with a new method of garbage recycling. In Wat Phan Tao, such hobby is lanterns. Lanterns of every kind, bug and small, high and low, standing, floating, and flying. Loi Kratong, also known as Yi Peng, the country-wide lantern festival in late autumn, is very spectacular here.

© Mark Levitin

New Year’s Eve

But once a year is not enough: the monks of this temple fill the night with flickering flames, doubled by their reflection in the pond and winking from the sky, on every possible occasion. Most Buddhist festivals are celebrated this way, and even the Gregorian New Year!  It is actually the most memorable way for a traveler to celebrate this date in Chiang Mai. Instead of a drunken party that could just as well take place in any country, come to Wat Phan Tao, listen to the abbot’s sermon in passable English (or pretend to), watch the monks meditating amidst oil lamps, then join them releasing the khom loi, flying lanterns – a whole armada of man-made stars slowly drifting away into the dark.

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