There are so many temples here, it’s easy to become inured to their presence, let alone be curious enough to investigate. When I moved from my former hotel to a new location within the Old Town over a week ago, I began noticing temples every day that I had not known about. I also noticed I was not even curious anymore, passing them all by on the way to something else.
But if I thought there was nothing further to see in that domain, I would be wrong. Wat Umong, only a couple kilometers from Old Town, was built in 1297 by King Manglai of the Lan Na dynasty, the same King who built Chiang Mai itself. So that makes Wat Umong 718 yrs old.
It’s easy to become caught up with the many appealing diversions in this city. The satisfaction of all appetites is within easy reach. There is color, motion, novelty and, as I have said, an endless expression of human ingenuity and resourcefulness.
There is also something underneath all of that. Something that has its own pace, its own inertia, a deeper history that defines and drives everything; it is a silence, if you will, that speaks its own language below the hubbub of everyday life.
This is a 720 yr old city, after all, with a history of monarchs coming and going, conflicts arising and resolving, domination by alien (Burmese) cultures, royal intrigue, intermarriage and finally unification under a single royal house. The current monarch is of course a link to all that, which is likely a source of the reverence he enjoys. From this view, within the tunnels beneath Wat Umong, the temporary manifestations of power struggles, the evolution of governance, economic gyrations and even the current military junta, though immediate and directly effecting the lives of many, take on a somewhat less urgent aura or importance.
From Chiang Mai, at least, the contortions of government seem a distant reality. The influence of living amidst sacred spaces 3-400, or 600 years old may be subtle, but difficult to eliminate from consciousness. It’s easier to take a longer view of one’s own life and the life of the culture. The faces of young and old here are entirely familiar in many ways. Yet one might also see hints of that long view in their brightness, their innocence, their readiness to engage, their tolerance of unconventional lifestyles, their unruffled earthy simplicity.
America, by contrast, is such a young country. And we have made such a mess of our adolescence. Sure, we were born of revolution, casting off foreign authority, creating a form of governance reflecting high ideals, a beacon to the world even, and which remains worthy of our efforts to realize. But in our adolescence, having vanquished old enemies, we now create, nourish and then, in our relentless hubris, ultimately fail to subdue new enemies of all kinds. We have also created an atomized and homogenized culture, assimilating the richness of cultural diversity on which it was founded and which fueled its ascendence.
In America, we live in an increasingly polarized battleground of righteousness and fear. We now have legislators who are not scientists, yet think they can tell us what science is; who are not teachers, yet wish to tell us what history is; who are not doctors, but who are determined to tell us what the practice of medicine is.
I would not claim to know much about Thailand. It is not a paradise. One may find any number of faults with it, but one thing is as plain as day: this culture, unlike America, is not driven by fear. That’s surely part of why it is so attractive. That may change of course, as issues of general concern (like the economic impact of climate change or international conflict over natural resources –driven by climate change) arise with increasing alarm and permeate the collective consciousness. But the fear and righteousness that now grip America are entirely of our own making. And unfortunately, the vast majority of us don’t have the luxury of living anywhere near our own ancient temples of faith whose vast age invariably renders petty the common concerns that drive our everyday thought and action.
©2015 Gary Horvitz. All rights reserved.