The heaviness of the humid air seems at breaking point at you slog through the soupy midday Chiang Mai streets. The northern Thai city that was once the seat of the Kingdom of Lanna is pretty and low-rise. The spicy som tam you had for lunch has cooled your temperature a bit, but the fiery papaya salad is still pounding your lips with its relentless waves of capsaicin. As the final throes of the chili peter out, you find yourself on the northern edge of the old city’s defensive moat. Rebuilt in places, absent in others and beautifully derelict in yet more places, the old city walls are a reminder of the small size of the original city that has grown over the years of urban sprawl. Despite its modernization, Chiang Mai has a surprising amount of greenery and the Thais have left trees and plants to grow without impediment. Opposite the moat, you see an exquisite temple roofline that draws you close. Following your eyes, you are pulled into the grounds of one of the most beautiful temples in the city. The dark walls and beautiful roof of the wiharn of Wat Lok Molee are an icon of the city.
Although there has been a temple at this location since the 14th century AD, the history of Wat Lok Molee begins in the 16th century. The temple can be seen as a seminal piece of the history of the Mengrai Dynasty. Lanna was founded by King Mengrai in 1296, his descendants ruled it independently until 1558, when the kingdom became a vassal of the Burmese for the following 200 years. Wat Lok Molee was founded by King Kue Na (1355 – 1385), the sixth ruler of the Mengrai Dynasty, as a place to house ten Burmese monks of the Phra Maha Uthumphonbupha Maha Savamee Committee, who he has invited in order to spread the Buddha Dhamma. Situated close to the Golden Triangle, a nexus region between Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, Chiang Mai has influences of all three countries. Historical connections between the Burmese and the Lan Xang kingdom of Laos have always been prevalent in the former kingdom of Lanna.
The kingdom began to fall into decline, especially after the disastrous expansionist efforts of King Muang Kaew, who tried to invade Ayutthaya, the capital of Siam. His failed military attempt at the Siamese power base resulted in reprisal attacks and a weakening of Lanna. His son, King Muang Ketklao commissioned the maha chedi and wiharn of Wat Lok Molee in 1527, during the twilight years of the independent Lanna Kingdom. After being deposed by his own son, he later regained the throne, only to be assassinated in 1545. His cremated remains were placed inside the massive chedi he commissioned. Thirteen years later, King Mekuti of Lanna surrendered to the powerful Burmese king Bayinnaung, the founder of the Taungoo Dynasty. Another descendant of Ketklao, King Setthathirath of Lan Xang opposed the rule of Mekuti, but ultimately, his kingdom too fell to the unstoppable forces of Bayinnaung, who created the largest empire in Southeast Asian history. After Mekuti died, his successor, Queen Visuddhadevi ruled until 1578, when she died and the Megrai line officially ended. Nawrahta Minsaw, the new king of Lanna and son of Bayinnaung, had her ashes interred into the chedi, thus closing a chapter of Lanna history.
You enter the temple grounds and find before you an interesting array of buildings from different times. You turn to your left and, removing your shoes, enter into an octagonal teak pavilion that houses a statue of Queen Chiraprapha, who ruled the Lanna Kingdom for a year following the death of her husband, King Muang Ketklao, in 1545. She abdicated in favour of her grandson, Chaiyaset. He was given the name Chaiyasetthathirath and would also become king of Lan Xang. Setthathirath, went to Vientiane, taking with him the famed Emerald Buddha image, when his father, King Photisarath of Lan Xang, died. The nobles of Chiang Mai felt that he had been away too long and installed a distant relative of the Mengrai family to the throne in his stead. This Shan Prince known as Mae Ku became King Mekuti of Lanna, the last independent ruler of the Kingdom. Leaving the queen in her pavilion, you step back into the open temple grounds of Wat Lok Molee.
Passing a shrine to the Hindu deity Phra Prom (Brahmā), you see an unusual shrine to Avalokiteśvara in the form of Guānyīn. The presence of the four faced Phra Prom is normal for a Thai temple, as the connections to pre-Buddhist Brahmanism is strong in Thailand and, to some extent, Thai Buddhism has amalgamated the older gods into the pantheon. Much rarer is the Mahāyāna bodhisattva. Thais are almost universally Theravāda Buddhist and do not include the Mahāyāna figures in their worship. Here, the Chinese form of the bodhisattva is present, showing the creeping influence of Chinese culture into Thailand. The bodhisattva does have a following in Thailand, particularly in Bangkok, where many of the population claim some form of Chinese decent. More modern buildings of the same age as the Guānyīn shrine sit beside it and a small statue of the popular Hindu god, Gaṇeśa. Known to the Thais as either Phra Pikaned or Phra Phikanesawora, he is the god of wealth and luck.
You opt to go to the more traditional part of the temple and head towards the beautiful wiharn. A wiharn is a shrine hall and this one, while lovely, is a modern reconstruction from 2003. The original wiharn fell into disrepair when the temple was abandoned in the late 18th century. The Bumese rule of the city lasted until 1776, by which time the temple had already lost its status; the Mengrai line having finished 200 years earlier. As Burmese power waned, the prince of nearby Lampang, Chao Kawila, led an uprising supported by King Taksin of Thonburi that liberated Lampang in 1774 and then Chiang Mai two years later with help from the general Chao Phraya Chakri. Kawila was later recognised as the ruler of Chiang Mai in 1802 by King Rama I, the name that Chao Phraya Chakri took after taking power from King Taksin in 1782. The city of Chiang Mai was rehabilitated by the Tipchak dynasty of Kawila, but Wat Lok Molee did not get the treatment that other parts of the city got.
The new wooden structure has a dark wooden exterior that is highlighted with light detailed carvings on the façade, giving it the appearance of an intricately iced gingerbread. The low-slung roof is typical of Lanna architecture, and lends an exotic air to the structure. The lamyong (bargeboards) of the roof are decorated with hang hong (hăang hŏng), nāga head shapes, and the ends of the roof ridges with chofa (chôr fáa), or sky cluster. The interesting feature of the roof, that makes it stand-out from the southern Thai styles, is the dòk chôr fáa (flower sky cluster) in the centre of the main roof ridge. The spired ornament is normally found in Laos, and the proximity of Chiang Mai to Thailand’s northern neighbour is reflected in the architectural nuance. The centre of the doorway slopes down on either side to create a point. This is also similar to the dok huang pheung (beehive pattern) of Laotian temples.
The beautiful aesthetics do not stop outside the temple. Stepping past two nāga banisters either side of the entry steps and into the darker interior of the wiharn, you find that the same dark wood theme is highlighted with lighter colours, just like outside. Looking up to the ceiling, you see that many colours have been employed to make the relief carving show more clearly, red, green, blue and yellow fill in intricate spaces at the top of the temple and carved lotus flowers descend from the ceiling. As you proceed down the centre of the wiharn, you come closer to the main Buddha image. At the back of the hall, the large golden statue shines out through the chamber. The seated figure is performing the Jhāna muddika (Dhyāna mudra), the hand gesture of meditation. Sitting with the figure for a few moments, you feel the tranquility of the Buddha radiating out into the space. Experiencing this, you calmly walk back to the entrance to retrieve you r shoes and continue around the outside of the wiharn to the huge chedi at the back of the temple compound.
The maha chedi (great stupa) towers over the rest of the temple. Approaching it, it fills your vision with its brick and stucco lines. You enter the grounds of the chedi through a gate and note the line of small golden coloured chedis next to the boundary wall. These smaller stupas show the different designs of the great chedis from the Theravāda Buddhist world. In front of the maha chedi are a few statues. On the left, a statue of Phra Sivali stands holding his umbrella. Known at Shin Thivali in Myanmar, Sīvalī is an arahant (saint). He is a patron of travellers and brings good fortune, as he was particularly successful at gathering alms in his lifetime. Behind the Phra Sivali is an intricately carved wooden board. Reaching up into the sky, it has an intricate design of two intertwined nāgas. Between each of the coils is an animal from the Chinese zodiac, connecting the temple with Chinese culture, much like the Guānyīn statue at the front of the compound.
Your eyes move away from the nāgas and up to the chedi, the only original temple structure left standing. The original wiharn is long gone and only the foundations of the Ubosot (ordination hall) remain. The maha chedi is a complex structure and quite unique in its many different elements. The whole structure sits on a square three-tiered base. Next is a stylized square lotus base that supports two rings that have been squared off and rabbeted. Then the main chamber of the chedi occupies the central space, above which are three more rings, topped with a bell shape and finally a golden spire. The spire is the only part of the chedi to be restored to original condition and its golden umbrellas look perfectly new compared with the more worn looking brick and stucco of the rest of the stupa. The main chamber is the most important part of the structure. Square, but double rabbeted, the chamber is interesting in that it contains the cremated remains of King Muang Ketklao and Queen Visuddhadevi. There are perhaps more Mengrai ashes in the chedi accompanying the two rulers. The chamber also has a niche on each side that houses a Buddha image. In the rabbets on each corner are two devās (deities) to protect the chedi and the remains it houses. Here at the most northern point of the temple complex, you note the other peculiarity of the temple. The alignment is pointing to the north, rather than towards the east, like most Buddhist temples.
Passing through a side hall on your way out, a monk gives you a blessing and you receive a sai sin (holy thread). The monk ties the white string around your wrist as a protection, but more to remind you to act according to the Dhamma (teachings) of the Buddha. The string will fall off with time, giving you a lesson in impermanence. It is very much a lesson that the temple itself gives. Built by the Mengrai dynasty, they did not stay on the throne long. Ousted by the Burmese, their time ended. The Burmese in turn lost the city to the Tipchak dynasty, who were eventually dissolved so that Chiang Mai could be fully integrated into the Thailand of the current reigning Chakri dynasty. The temple is a history lesson in the impermanent nature of things. It is a story that will perpetuate over and over again and, leaving the temple grounds, you feel you have understood the narrative told by Wat Lok Molee.