Chiang Mai, Thailand – Urban Rhythms I: Buddhist Temples

May 2012 – Throughout human history, life in urban settlements has always seemed to move at a faster pace than life in the country side. There is something exciting about the gathering of people and the sharing of ideas that seems to quicken the way we perceive time. Urban rhythms come in many forms and cities across the globe have found different ways to play with their particular pace.

Plazas, parks, cafes and laid back eateries are the typical remedies used across the world to slow down the fast paced life of cities. There aren’t many parks or plazas in Chiang Mai but the year-round pleasant weather has allowed for a healthy endowment of charming cafés and relaxed outdoor eating and drinking spaces. In addition to Chiang Mai’s already mellow vibe, the city’s legacy as the spiritual center of Northern Thailand has blessed the urban environment with a rich supply of Buddhist temples that further slow down the pace of life in the city.

Most temples in Chiang Mai are small walled in campuses containing a collection of spiritual buildings and sacred spaces that come together to create a calming world that exists apart from the surrounding urban environment. Temples, also known as wats, can be found throughout the city but they’re a particularly common part of the urban landscape within the walls of the historic city center. The city center is surrounded by a moat, two rings of traffic, intense tourism and is the busiest place in Chiang Mai. The busiest part of town also has the highest concentration of temples which creates an interesting dynamic of urban vibrations. Escaping the fast paced hustle of city life and walking onto the campus of a local temple is a relief from the action and a passage way to a new urban rhythm.

Upon entering a temple, the bustling noises typical of the urban sound track seem to wash away as unfamiliar yet calming sounds fill the space. Our ears become more attuned to the soft melodies of wind chimes, trickling water, chanting monks and fallen leaves finding themselves peacefully swept aside. Our feet begin to soften and slow as we meander about the temple paths without a mission. So often we walk upon the urban environment with a goal-oriented sense of mission that narrows our vision, quickens our pace and limits our openness to the world around us. Walking with no sense of direction allows our body to feel connected to forgotten sensations as we become more relaxed and more in-tuned with our surrounding environment.

Without engaging in any kind of spiritual practice, I find myself sinking into a softer and slower internal rhythm. Within the temple walls, the hands of the clock become complacent and the burdening weight of time diminishes.

A new urban rhythm has entered our body, a calmer more mellow rhythm that stays with us as we exit the temple walls and return to the busy streets of city life. Urban rhythms come in all shapes and sizes from the fast pace of working commuters, to the ear bud totting urbanites walking with a musical bounce to their step. The urban environment is a diverse and interesting place with people buzzing at different frequencies and different vibrations.

The internal rhythm of all the separate individuals in a city has a direct relationship with the overall rhythm of a city itself.  As well, the urban environment has the influential ability to encourage specific rhythms within individual city dwellers . In this way, urban rhythm becomes a cyclical relationship between the individual and the city. As urban planners, I think it’s important for us to be aware of the overall rhythms of our cities, but also our own personal rhythms.

During my final year of university in the fall of 2010, I made a decision to be calmer and slow down how I approach my life. This decision has brought clarity and confidence to my life and living in Chiang Mai has given me the opportunity to take this idea to a deeper place within myself. Becoming a school teacher is no easy task so after a long day in the classroom, I often take a stroll through my neighborhood temple to slow down and refresh my body.

Just the other day I was sitting with a friend along a large pond in my neighborhood temple, feeding the fish and taking in the scenery. We remained perched along the pond long after our fish food had finished, observing the sounds, sights and sensations happening all around us. We must have been there for a long time because light was disappearing from the sky as we left the temple. The beauty and timelessness of the Wat Umong temple gave us the opportunity to slip into a slower rhythm where we could feel more connected to the environment around us. We returned to the urban life waiting just outside the temple walls with a sense of tranquility that is so often absent in our urban lives.

Temples in Chiang Mai not only relax the internal rhythm for the individual urban dweller but they also influence the city as a whole by softening and slowing the overall pace of life in the city. It’s important that we have an awareness of the various rhythms within our cities so that we know how to influence, and be influenced, by these unique urban frequencies.

Wat Suan Dok is beside a busy road yet the temple is seemingly a world apart from bustling urban life

I took this photo of Wat Chiang Yuen Det to contrast the world of the busy street and the world of the calming temple.

Wat Umong is my neighborhood temple and a temple I visit often during my weekly routine. The temple is nestled within the jungle foothills of Doi Suthep mountain yet urban life thrives just outside of the temple walls.

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