The Mythology of Thailand – Chiang Mai, Thailand

One of many elephany statues found in Chiang Mai

When most people think of Thailand, they think of all of the exotic animals that can be found here. There is a plethora of birds, monitor lizards, monkeys, and tigers, and it is impossible to talk about this part of the world without bringing up the elephants. Many people travel to Chiang Mai just to spend some time with these majestic creatures, but if you do come out here to do that, please make sure you do your research first, and find the places that treat the animals well.

A statue of a horse found at Wat Phra Singh

And yes these types of animals all exist out here, and in the short time I have been here, I have been able to come across most of them as well as some that you would expect to see in other parts of the world as well, such as horses, water buffaloes, cats, and dogs. Yes, there are plenty of dogs all over the place. Someday, I will have to do a post dedicated to the soi dog epidemic, but that is not what this post is really about.

A naga at the entrance of the shrine at Wat Phra Singh

One of the reasons I became an English teacher was because of my love of mythology. I have always been fascinated by the stories that were told by the greatest of mythology, but more importantly the mythical creatures that I have come across throughout my travels. I knew that there was a mythology associated with Thailand that takes from both Hindu and Buddhist traditions, but it wasn’t until I made it out to Chiang Mai that I was able to fully understand that rich history behind this mythology and how it is still ingrained within the culture of Thailand.

Nagas can be found at most temples as the guardians to the images of Buddha. They appear as large snakes, sometimes with more than one head, and even though the legend tells of these creatures being born from the Hindu deity, Kadru, their legend is more associated with Buddha himself. When Buddha first reached nirvana under the boa tree while looking out at a river, he was protected from any interruptions from one of these creatures. It is the reason why many of the temples have them at their entrances. Beyond this, they are also associated with the Thai New Year when people will have the biggest water fight anywhere in the world. It is believed that the spraying of water into the air will appease these beasts and they will pop their heads out the many rivers, and the ocean to squirt water in the air and allow for a very rainy season.

The statue of the Three Kings with the royal seal on the building behind them depicting a garuda

The brother to the naga would be the garuda. This is the mythical beast most associated with royalty in Thailand, and is a part of the actual seal of all official documents. It is a creature that basically has the head and arms of a man, but the rest of his body is that of a bird. As far as the stories go, there is only one garuda, and he is the half-brother of all the nagas. They both have the same father, but the garuda’s mother was Vinata. The two creatures fight in an eternal battle with each other with the garuda consuming as many nagas as he can come across.

A yaksha

Though the brothers have some sibling rivalry to content with, they both are mortal enemies of the yaksha. This creature can be found at numerous temples and as stone statues in front of people’s houses. They carry around clubs and cause havoc wherever they go. They are considered demons and they are most closely related to the ones that Buddha had to contend with during his lifetime. They appear in many of the tales across Thai classical literature, and even though they take on the role of the antagonist in many of the stories, they are not always evil.

There are many other creatures that can be found at many of the wats and temples all across Thailand, and they each add a specific flavor to the culture of this country that gives the world a unique and varied mythology. It triggers my imagination, taking it to places that will allow for me to create stories and campaigns for games, and I am happy to be able to learn more about this culture, not only from its beautiful landscape and food, but also from the collection of stories that it has told.

 

Getting Some Culture – Chiang Mai, Thailand

A small Buddha temple made of teak wood and protected by dogs

I know I have been very lazy ever since I have landed in Chiang Mai, and there is a lot that this city has to offer which I have been missing. So I finally pulled myself away from the pool to go out today and see the sights which is a harder thing to do than you would think. It is not easy to leave the comfort of the pool out here to wander around in the confines of the old city walls because Thailand is hot.

I knew this before I moved out here, but I had no idea how oppressive the heat could be. It is even the official end of the monsoon season out here when the temperature outside should start cooling off a bit, but nobody has told the weather that this is what it is supposed to do. Granted, I have not seen any rain since I have been here, but the sun has continued to beat down on me and this might be up there with the hottest temperatures I have experienced since I have been out here. I didn’t want to leave the pool life and explore, but I knew that if I did that for another day I would have regretted it.

A bamboo grove on the grounds of Wat Phra Singh

So I went out to explore a couple of the various wats that can be found in the old city. I started early enough in the day so the heat would not drag me down, and I was able to explore both the Wat Phra Singh and the Wat Chedi Luang. These structures are the ancient temples that house some of the most spectacular buddhas that can be found in Chiang Mai as well as the grounds on which the monks can travel around and meditate. Not only are the gold encased buildings and statues impressive, but so are the well-cared for grounds on which they reside.

Look carefully and you can see the apple in the naga’s teeth

Every temple has a series of steps up to the inside of the building where you are supposed to take off your shoes. The steps are guarded on either side by some kind of creature depending on what part of the world you find yourself in. In Thailand, the common statue is of a naga. This mythical creature is said to live in the rivers, lakes, and ocean waters all around the country, and before the monsoon season, the citizens of the country will squirt water to appease these beasts so they will come out and spit water into the air causing for an exceptionally rainy season. Most of the statues I found at the temples had one head, but the ones at the Wat Chedi Luang seemed to be a hybrid of the hydra from ancient Greece. People do come and offer these creatures gifts, and you can see various fruits, and flowers laid at the ground in front of them. Somebody gave the one I saw an apple and placed it in his mouth.

The ancient temple at Wat Chedi Luang

The temples that hold the buddhas are also impressive. The one at the center of the grounds at Wat Chedi Luang was built in the 13th century, and even though it has seen better days, there are efforts to restore it to the magnificence it once was. The brick building reminded me of the types of buildings that could found at Angor Wat in Cambodia and as I walked around it, I was rewarded with sculptures of not only buddha, and nagas, but also elephants as well. It added to the majesty of this place.

One of the various Buddhas at Wat Chedi Luang

And there are plenty of images of Buddha around. There are many different ways that he is presented from standing, sitting and sleeping, and all of them were present at these temples. The ones that disturbed me the most were on the lifelike wax statues that were created of some of the more celebrated Buddhist monks. At first, I thought they were the actual monks that were waiting to greet visitors as they made there way into these sacred places, but they were just replicas. Why they did that I could not say, but it made for a unique experience as I went into my first temple.

The largest temple at Wat Phra Singh

I will admit that I did not last very long before the pool at my hotel called me from across the old city, but it was fun to endure the heat, and go see these ancient and beautiful places. It made me feel like I had earned the refreshing dip in the cool waters, and I know that I have a few more days out here to go out and get some more culture.