I hike to Wat Phalad, the hidden jungle temple, as well as famous Wat Phra Doi Suthep. Photos, stories, and bucket list successes.
Wat Phalad (sometimes spelt Wat Palat or Wat Phalat) was one of the Thai temples that I was most excited to see. Hidden in the rainforest just on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, Wat Phalad draws no large tourism crowds and boasts no gaudy ornate visage.
A group of six of us travelled to the beginning of the trailhead just as rain clouds began to form. The Sawng-Thaew driver didn’t quite understand where we wanted to be dropped off, and kept thinking we wanted to go all the way to the top of the mountain to see Wat Phra Doi Suthep, the more popular temple that can be seen from the city.
Eventually, we got our message across by pulling up a picture of a radio tower that marked the beginning of the trail, and he said “Oh! Channel five.”
We started walking along the path up into the rainforest. Water trickled down over rocks, and the earth was dark and damp. The canopy of foliage was so thick above us, that when it began to rain, we were barely bothered by the droplets. In fact, we were thankful for the weather, as the clouds made us feel much cooler than your average day in Thailand.
The world was quiet, the way it often is during rain. Birds chirped sparingly, and we could hear rain pattering on the leaves above us.
The Jungle was thick, with vines and twisting branches. Bamboo groves loomed up higher than I’d ever seen, and we sometimes spotted tiny fuzzy caterpillars. At one point, we heard what must have been a large waterfall, but we couldn’t see past the trees to confirm.
Early along the hike, orange ribbons began to appear on the tree trunks. More and more could be seen, until it looked as if every tree in every direction as far as we could make out were adorned with the bright robes.
We had learned in class of the significance of these robes. Back in the 60s/70s, deforestation was rapidly devastating Thailand’s remaining rainforests. Logging industries were ravaging the countryside, and the environment was feeling the immense strain. Monks of the time felt heavily connected to nature, and were heartbroken that their country was being exploited. In order to protest deforestation of Thai jungles, a group of forest monks began to ordain trees as monks. The trees would undergo the same ceremonies as monks, and would be dressed in the same robes. Because the trees were now officially monks, nobody could chop them down, as it would be a heinous act of violence (not to mention, Thai culture is very superstitious).
With so many robes wrapped around trees, awareness about the deforestation issue became widespread, and soon the logging industry was outlawed.
Seeing hundreds of these robes wrapped around trees felt very surreal. It gave a certain magic to the forest, and I wondered how many years these trees had gone with their bright robes.
Eventually, there was a break in the forest, and we reached our first destination.
The temple was wreathed in lush jungle and situated on a large hill overlooking Chiang Mai. A waterfall ran under the temple and down the mountainside.
Unfortunately, most of my pictures from this excursion were lost, so I don’t have many images of the buildings themselves.
Hundreds of figurines, massive or tiny, were found all around the courtyards of the multi-building temple.
Giant dogs or nagas guarded entryways, and stone women with decorative headpieces looked peacefully down at us.
Tiny terracotta statues peeked out from garden areas, looking modern and adorable. A large golden buddha could be seen in one of the temple buildings, glistening brightly.
The entire area was terribly peaceful. The waterfall was loud and calming, and we only saw one other group of tourists while we were there.
After we were done exploring, we located the steep mud path that lead us back into the jungle and further up the mountain. After traveling along this for a while, we were spit out onto the paved road.
We followed this for 4 kilometers, which, uphill and in the heat, was no easy task. We stopped at an overlook to see the view of Chiang Mai
At one point, we noticed that a law enforcement officer was directing all vehicles to stop at the side of the road. To our surprise, we were also instructed to stop at this part of the road. With everyone around us speaking Thai, we had no one to ask what was going on, and could only speculate. We had to stand there and wait, wondering what on earth was going on.
One by one, every car, motorcycle, sawing-thaew, or tour bus had to stop. Then, there was a long period of time where no vehicles came by. Suddenly, a procession of fancy modern cars drove by, one by one, sporting Thai flags. It wasn’t until many cars in that I thought to count, but my estimate is between 30-50. Once the entire procession had passed, we were allowed to continue on our way.
Bonus story: This happened to me again while in Chiang Mai, a couple of weeks later. I was just leaving a cafe after getting some assignments done, and noticed a hubbub through the streets. I was stopped at an intersection before crossing a busy road. To my luck, a white woman was stopped with me, so I asked her (if you are in Asia and see a white person, it’s pretty much a guarantee that they speak English) what she thought was going on. She informed me that she had been living in Chiang Mai for six years, so knew exactly what was going on. The Royal Family was passing through! She seemed very unamused by the fiasco, but it was terribly exciting for me. And lucky for me, the intersection that I was stopped at was right where the procession of cars was turning, so I got a long look into each tinted window. One of the passenger’s being chauffeured was an old man with the exact same iconic glasses that I knew the current King wore. I’m not saying I saw the king, but I definitely saw the king.
We travelled up along the road for miles more, and finally came to the beginning of Wat Phra Doi Suthep. We were lucky in that we came on a weekday during late afternoon, as we had heard that previous students that had gone were greeted with swarming crowds and persistant venders. By the time we made it, the crowds had cleared out.
We climbed up the famous steps leading to the Wat, framed by colorful green Nagas as balustrades.
This was after we had hiked for more than 7 miles, so the steps were even more daunting than usual. We persevered, and were spit out at the top to a peaceful Wat.
We strolled around for a while, shoes off. After such a rigorously humid hike, we had our fill sooner rather than later, and made our way back down.
Luckily, there was one SawngThaew driver left, waiting on someone who had booked the taxi in advance. We were able to hitch a ride as long as we were willing to wait. While we waited, we spoke a bit to the driver. She was very lively and very kind, and we asked her a bit about life in Chiang Mai. One of the most interesting things that came out of the discussion was a snippit about a local Chiang Mai Muay Thai boxer, who would fight in a match, take a shower, put on makeup, and perform in a Ladyboy cabaret show the same night! Talk about talent!
We rode down the mountain in the SawngThaew as the sun set. We could see city lights turning on in the valley below. I hung out the back of the red taxi for the first time in Thailand as we wove our way down the mountain. A bat flew up above us, and I watched its silhouette against the darkening sky. The air was finally starting to cool down.