Doi Suthep and the Hmong Village

Doi Suthep temple

Our next excursion out of Chiang Mai took us up a winding mountain road to the sacred temple of Doi Suthep (doy SUE-tehp). In 1383, King Keu Na commanded that a relic of the Buddha be enshrined at the site, and ever since then, this spot has been the destination of many a pilgrimage. Perched on the mountainside, the temple's golden chedi can be seen for miles around.

The songthaew dropped us off at the base of a long staircase. A dragon-shaped banister led up 300 steps to the temple gateway. We walked around the grounds of Doi Suthep past golden pillars, six foot gongs and rows of bells. A three tiered umbrella made of gold sat on display in the inner courtyard. A kitten played at the base of a golden stupa. A monk sat and prayed in front of a twenty foot statue of the Buddha. Doi Suthep is Thai grandeur at its best. Instead of walking down the 300 step staircase, we took the cog railway to the street. The railway's path is hacked through the forest, which makes for an interesting view. Back at street level, we climbed into another songthaew and traveled deeper into the forested hillside.

Andy plays with a kitten, Doi Suthep

Up the dirt path, we came across a Hmong village. Actually it was more of a dirt road lined with Hmong shops. That was fine with me. I didn't feel like invading hill tribe homes anymore. Women sat outside their shops, sewing Hmong blankets. A baby in a traditional Hmong hat sat by his mother and sucked on his bottle. Up the path, we found a garden carved into the hillside. For a small fee, we could walk through the terraced flower beds. A waterfall dropped into a green pool. Marijuana and flowering poppies grew alongside orange blossoms. Braided vines draped over the pathway.

Hmong garden, Doi Suthep Hmong baby, Doi Suthep

Our trip to Doi Suthep and the Hmong village turned out to be our last excursion in Northern Thailand. The next day we caught the 4 PM train to Bangkok. Since the ride to Bangkok is 11 hours, we booked an overnight train. Our cabin was pretty comfortable - cushiony bunk beds with crisp white sheets. The rhythm of the train was lulling, and by nine o'clock, I was fast asleep. Around 6 AM, the porter woke up everyone on the train, and at 7:00, we pulled into Bangkok.

Our plane wasn't taking off until the next morning, so we had a whole day to kill in Bangkok. Too worn out to do much of anything, we spent the day drifting through the city's towering shopping malls and kicking back at the Hard Rock Cafe (I know, I know, how cliché). That evening we saw "Air Force One" at one of the local movie theaters. When we bought our tickets, we had to reserve specific seats - just like we were going to a play. Before the film started, the national anthem played over the speakers and the screen showed pictures of the Thai king. Everyone in the theater stood up, and the teenagers next to us even hummed along. As soon as the song and slide show ended, the entire audience sat down, picked up their buckets of popcorn and watched the previews. Royalty is such a strange concept to me.

At 5 AM the next morning, we gathered our souvenirs into our backpacks and caught a taxi to the airport. We had a one day layover in Hong Kong, but for all intents and purposes, our Southeast Asia journey was over. As we flew over Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, I stared out the airplane window, trying to catch one last glance of those vast green rice fields.