The King’s Mountain
About an hour SW from Chiang Mai is the delightful little town of Chom Tong – a place that has a frontier feel about it.
Chom Tong has narrow roads and an old bridge crossing a small river with a fountain that is no longer working, market stalls, two or three old-fashioned dress shops (the shops are old and the fashions are a bit older), just one 7-11 store, a yellow-taxi cum bus stop, several shops that, like Harrods in London, could probably sell you anything from an elephant to a Steinway, day-old Bangkok Post newspapers, a huge Chinese temple and two exotic Buddhist temples flanked by scores of lottery ticket sellers. It must be lucky to buy your Lotto ticket near the holy temple.
The Wat Phra Tat Si Chom Tong Wora Wihara (what a mouthful! Smaller than St Paul’s cathedral in London … but with a name that would do honour to an amalgamation of St Paul’s, St Peter’s and even St Basil’s) is held to be a very special place as it apparently houses holy relics – bones from the right-hand side of the Lord Buddha’s head, discovered in 1452 by a certain Mrs Meng. As Buddha died and was cremated in India, I am not sure how his cranial bones ended up in Chom Tong … but then if all his apparent bones were reconfigured into one body – as with all of Jesus Christ’s apparent bones and blood, and slivers of the “true cross” – we would almost certainly have two or three Lord Buddhas and perhaps a small army of Christs and a forest of crosses.
Whatever the truth of the fifteenth-century discovery, the temple today is a beautiful collection of buildings, with a huge copper-clad stupa and a beautifully painted Phra Ubosot or ordination hall. Just over the road is a more modest temple, built on higher ground, with a street-level collection of delightful modern bas relief sculptures showing scenes from Buddhist mythology – including Bodhi trees carefully propped up with holy sticks, festivals, royal or religious palanquins, musicians … and a man smoking a cigarette.
When I was in Chom Tong yesterday the temperature was 320C and the altitude was about 300 metres above sea level. (Today I am not sure of its temperature but its altitude probably has not changed too much.) To climb the forty or so kilometres up the slopes to the King’s mountain – Doi Inthanon – one must ascend to the dizzying height of 2565 metres, at which altitude the temperature drops down to 150C in the noonday sun. At night, in the winter, I believe it is even cooler, but there is no truth in the rumours that there are plans to build a ski resort there.
Pity, really, because Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain, is so much more convenient than Chamonix Mont Blanc.
In world terms, Doi Inthonon is just a bit of a carbuncle on the Earth’s surface – Nepal’s Mt Everest is a massive 8800 metres, France’s Mont Blanc is half of that at 4800 metres, and Australia’s tallest peak – Mount Kosciusko – crawls in at just 2200 metres – about the altitude of the lunch shop on Doi Inthanon.
The Doi Inthanon National Park (http://www.thainationalparks.com/doi-inthanon-national-park) currently offers free entry – in honour of the late king – and is one of the largest national parks in the Kingdom. It is named, however, for the late King Inthawichayanon (died 1897), the seventh and last king of Chiang Mai and the Lanna Kingdom before it all became part of what is today Thailand. In a truly Thai prosaic style, it was formerly known as Doi Luang – or Big Mountain. The altitude offers a lovely respite from the heat on the lower plains, and allows a range of trees and flowers not usually seen at lower levels. There are many varieties of beech and pine trees, swathes of rhododendrons, a local variety of the flowering cheery tree, and according to my friend Mr Google, there are also evergreen cloud forest trees, sphagnum bogs and deciduous dipterocarps, which are quite different from the carps you will find in my village pond.
Neither of which is much good for eating, however.
Unless you are a vegan.
At the peak of the season, the mountain welcomes – or at least tolerates – tens of thousands of visitors each day. Yesterday was a pleasantly quiet day – just a few busloads of noisy Chinese tourists, a small group of noisy Korean tourists, four yahoos from Bangkok posing for “selfies” on a roadside wall with vertiginous drops two and a half kilometres down to Chiang Mai on the other side, an elderly European woman wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Born 2B Retired”, and an ancient Australian man also and already retired. Me.
There are rather ugly military radar stations and other scientific bases (including the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand) scattered over the top of the mountain, but these are easily ignored in favour of the several lovely nature walks offered. One led past young women re-gilding the sculptured letters of a sign giving the history of the area, and on to the summit where there is a shrine to King Inthawichayanon. The shrine is surrounded by plaster animals of all sorts offered as tributes by loving locals perhaps remembering that king’s love of the mountain and his work to preserve this important part of Thailand.
The “sphagnum bogs” have created living artworks on the nature walks, with fence posts and railings and the boardwalks covered in trails of moss and lichen, so that walkers are not sure of what is dead, what is living, what is decaying and what is growing.
The Ang Ka Nature Trail leads walkers deep into the forest along sun-dappled boardwalks and through a lovely and vibrant scarlet rhododendron grove, past trickling streams and bogs, past lunching Thais and selfie-taking Koreans, and back up to the car park, past puffing overweight visitors who ignored the signs at the entrance warning, because of the altitude and the thinness of the air, against strenuous exercise for the elderly, the pregnant and those who should really be sitting in a bath chair pushed by two or three trusted flunkies instead of hoofing it up and down the sides of tall mountains.
Julie Andrews – you have a lot to answer for.
The longer Kew Mae Pan Nature Trail takes two or three hours to complete and visitors are required to pay an entry fee and to engage the services of a Hmong guide, but I did not feel like doing the longer trek (another day!) and moved on down to the King’s and Queen’s stupas.
These modern creations were erected by the Royal Thai Air Force to observe the 60th birthdays of the late king and the queen in 1987 and 1999 respectively. An entry fee is payable – just forty baht, although when I joked that it was too much the airman suggested to his colleague that he charge me THB 300 at which I threw up my arms and eyebrows and laughed and we all parted company best buddies – for thirteen seconds at least. I am glad I have been able to make a minor contribution to the coffers of the Royal Thai Air Force. I could have bought a genuine RTAF pilot’s cap in the souvenir shop … but settled for a cup of coffee instead.
The stupas are quite pretty and perched on small hills facing each other – with escalators to drag the weary up to the top – but the views down the rather smoky valley (the burning-off season cannot be far away, unfortunately!), the bas reliefs outside the stupas, and the gardens are really what make this area of the national park a delightful place for a quiet visit.
Each garden has a floral monogram of the late king’s and queen’s initials, and there are colourful masses of ornamental kale, pansies, hydrangeas, daisies, sculptured trees, wind-blown stunted pines, trimmed yew hedges, fountains and walkways.
There are many other walkways and nature trails on the mountain, and roads to waterfalls and local villages, and further down there are places to spend a few days camping under the trees or sampling hillside produce.
I am not sure why it has taken me so long to visit Doi Inthanon – the King’s mountain – after my eight or so years in Thailand – but I am so glad I did “go to the mountain” (Mohammed did not come to me so …) and look forward to going again in the rainy season when the waterfalls are in flood.
- Journey: January 2017
- Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2017. If you enjoyed this story please scroll down to see earlier stories and forward the blog address to your friends: www.hallomega.com
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