The humid jungle air of northern Thailand wraps around me like a blanket as I stand before an enormous stone gateway, awed by its intricate carvings of dragon serpents, celestial swans and dainty creatures that are part-woman, part-bird. Through this portal at Wat Ban Pong (wat is the Thai word for temple complex), I see a staircase that ascends the mountain.
Staircases such as these, often flanked by walls or railings of carved naga (dragon serpents) with large eyes and sharp, threatening teeth, are common at Buddhist temple complexes in Thailand. The naga is revered as a spiritual protector because, according to legend, the creature sheltered the newly enlightened Buddha from a rainstorm as he stood beneath the sacred Bodhi Tree.
Halfway up the naga stairs—it feels as if there must be a thousand steps—I stop to catch my breath and gaze into the jungle that envelops me. I hear the tumbling of a nearby waterfall and spot a flurry of dragonflies, their bodies of sapphire, emerald and ruby dazzling in the dappled sunlight.
Once at the top of the mountain, I am rewarded with a view of a magnificent white building with spires reaching to the heavens. Its tranquil glow contrasts with the backdrop of green jungle and the reverberation of insect sounds. I had spotted this mountaintop wonder while driving nearby and quickly decided on a detour. With its turrets, arched windows and multitude of gold-topped spires, the edifice reminds me of a fairy-tale castle. But it is real—and it is breathtaking.
Gazing up at the snow-white building, which I soon learn contains a chedi (a relic-filled stupa that serves as a place for prayer), I sense that I am part of something much larger. I feel far from home yet, at the same time, strangely at home on these placid grounds. Although Wat Ban Pong is just a 30-minute drive from the city of Chiang Mai, it’s rarely visited by tourists.
Buddhas adorning Wat Chedi Liam (formerly Wat Ku Kam), a 13th-century pyramid-style chedi in the walled city of Wiang Kum Kam, now an archaeological site in greater Chiang Mai. Photo by Blaine Harrington III
RETHINKING THE ROUTINE
I took this trip to Thailand more than a decade ago, back when my life at home consisted of long hours at work and a seemingly endless list of chores. Sure, I had built the house of my dreams, but though I loved it, I also resented its real cost: I had no time to enjoy life. My life felt compressed by my busy teaching career and weekends that were a blur of preparing for the next manic workweek.
I knew that I had to change something. My intuitive mother suggested an excursion to Thailand. Enthusiastically, I hatched my plan.
My 14-day visit to Thailand would begin with a 2-day stay in Bangkok to shop for bargains followed by 12 days in the country’s more serene mountainous region in the north around Chiang Mai.
My serendipitous side trip to Wat Bon Pang had come almost immediately after I had arrived in the north. Once back in the city of Chiang Mai, I began to explore my surroundings. In contrast to the skyscrapers and urban mindset of Bangkok with its 10.5 million residents, Chiang Mai is compact and slower-paced, with about one-tenth the residents of the country’s capital.
Founded in 1298, Chiang Mai retains remnants of its ancient walls and moats. Its historic center abounds in Buddhist temples—more than 100, all of them open to travelers (cameras are welcome). The temples face east as a reminder of the path toward enlightenment.
I took a private tour to some of the more popular temples for tourists, including Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh in the old city and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, one of northern Thailand’s most sacred temples, in the nearby countryside.
Photo by Blaine Harrington III
Standing outside the first temple on our tour, Wat Phra Singh, I felt the same enchantment that I had at Wat Ban Pong. Inside, a large golden Buddha stood on a platform near the temple’s back wall, surrounded by candles, burning incense and Buddhist adornments such as shimmering peacocks and wooden carvings of animals.
Colorful murals on the temple walls depicted Buddhist stories and Thai folklore. My curiosity heightened, I longed to know more about these stories; but even more so, I wondered about the elegant golden Buddha.
As I silently watched local worshippers ring the bells surrounding a golden chedi, a monk in saffron robes approached me and began a conversation in English.
He explained that the bells signify the Buddhist notion that nothing is permanent. Everything changes. Life is short. The sound reminds us to let go of whatever we are clinging to and instead appreciate the “now.”
The wise monk’s words dropped like a rock into my consciousness. I thought back to the feeling of belonging that I had felt when I had ascended the naga stairs at Wat Bon Pang. Back then, I could not figure out why I felt that way. Now I realized that what I had experienced was living.
I wasn’t worrying or thinking about the things I had to do tomorrow. I was completely in the present. I felt alive, my senses awake and my being awash in a deep sense of connectedness and gratitude.
The monk’s words rolled around in my mind in the coming days. I began to think about how I was living my life. Mine was not an unhappy life, but it somehow felt unremarkable. Yet I remained unsure how to translate my new discovery about living in the present to my life.
Wat Phra Singh is a 14th-century temple in Chiang Mai’s old city center. Courtesy of Tourism Authority of Thailand
TREES OF TRUTH
In the outdoor gardens at Wat Phra Singh, I discovered what I now call the “whispering trees” because of their gentle way of conveying truth. Planks hammered to these trees were inscribed with expressions of Buddhist sentiment, in both Thai and English.
As I walked among the trees, I happened upon this maxim: “Today is better than two tomorrows.” For me, it was the right tree at the right time. Its message was clear: Live in the moment; be present.
The next tree provided more sobering words to consider: “Cut yourself some slack. Remember, in 100 years, all new people.”
Yes, I was running out of time, and I wanted to stop wasting it.
On my long flight home, I pondered my new insights. The whispering trees urged me to live differently. I wanted to feel the elation I had experienced in Thailand every day, not just when I was on a vacation.
In the years to come, it dawned on me that there were two aspects of my life stopping me from experiencing being in the now: overwork and overconsumption. My career, although challenging and fun, was personally depleting. My home was quite lovely, but I never had time to enjoy it because I was continually cleaning the rooms and tidying cupboards stuffed with consumer items.
As I cleared the clutter from my cupboards, my emotional clutter began to dissipate. I had linked my lessons from Thailand with the idea of minimalism. I sold some things and donated others. Eventually, I downsized my house and resigned from my career. I still work, but now I work online and allocate my free time only to the things that genuinely interest me.
A silver bell hangs outside my house, reminding me of what that first visit to Thailand had taught me. When I hear its gentle “ting-ting” in the wind, I smile to myself.
These days, I don’t have to climb the steps of a mountain in Thailand to experience the happiness of living in the now and appreciating my life, step by step, moment by moment.