Temple in the mist

Thailand January 22, 2014 00:00

By Kitchana Lersakvanitchakul

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Popular with Buddhist pilgrims, the remote northern temple of Wat Pra Prabat Si Roy is little known among foreign visitors

A magnificent forest temple perched on a mountaintop in Salouang, a remote area of Chiang Mai’s Mae Rim district, Wat Pra Prabat Si Roy – or the Temple of the Four Buddha Footprints – somehow fails to feature as an attraction on the tour lists of any agents in this northern province.
Highly revered by locals, the temple also appears to be little known to Thais living outside the north and it is only because of my cousin’s nagging that I make it there at all.
The temple is not accessible by public transport and the only way of reaching it if you have no car is to rent either a motorcycle or song thaew. We’re fortunate enough to have the use of a minivan and set off early from the city for the 45-kilometre journey, much of it on a small road that winds through the mountains.
We leave Chiang Mai on the highway towards Pai, travelling through Mae Rim and turning left after the Rim Nur Sub-district Administration Organisation and Wat Prakadtum. The signposts are written in Thai but foreigners will have no trouble spotting the turn off – the sign also boasts a picture of the Buddha’s footprint.
It’s just 18 kilometres from the turn off to the Temple of Four Buddha Footprints and the first warning that it will take a while to cover that relatively short distance comes before the first bend where a sign, also in Thai, warns “holy people” to “drive slowly, the road is narrow and steep with dangerous bends. You are far from hospital and rescuers.”
Lush forest lines both sides of the road as we commence our climb, several passengers turning green as the van eases its way through the never-ending curves and shivering with fear when our driver narrowly misses a car coming in the opposite direction.
Two hours later, the van pulls up outside the temple and we pour out, eager to enjoy deep breaths of the fresh and cold air. The temple is wider and larger than I had expected with a spacious parking lot that boasts a long line of food shops and stalls offering herbal product shops.
Carrying flowers, incense and candles, we walk slowly towards to the Buddha’s footprints. The four overlapping footprints are embedded in a large boulder and were once accessible only by ladder. A scaffold has now been erected and soon we are paying our respects. The footprints are measured in “sok”, the Thai equivalent of the cubit, which works out to approximately 50 cm. The largest is the footprint of Buddha Gooksantha at 12 cubits (600cm) and the smallest the Buddha Gautama’s at 4 cubits. In between are the footprints of the Buddha Gonakamna at 9 cubits and Buddha Gassapa at 7 cubits.
Legend has it that when the Lord Buddha Gautama travelled to present-day northern Thailand to spread the dharma philosophy, he saw the footprints of the other three Buddhas on this mountaintop and added his own, while history tells us that in 1928, Princess Dara Rasmee, the consort of King Chulalongkorn, visited the temple and ordered that a viharn (chapel) be erected over the footprints. Phra Kruba Srivichai, the revered Buddhist pilgrim of northern Thailand, also came to pray here and along with his followers organised renovations. In 1954, the footprints were registered by the Fine Arts Department as Thailand’s most ancient remains.
Renovations were again carried out in 1993 at the order of Phra Kruba Pornchai and new facilities were built. The latest phase was finished in time for the Golden Jubilee Celebration of His Majesty the King in June 1996.
After worshipping the footprints, we make our way to the Dhevada Pavilion, a peaceful haven that’s home to the images of 28 Buddhas and a variety of Buddhist saints. 
From the pavilion, we can see the Pra Viharn Jaturamuk temple in all its glory, its gold façade glittering in the sun and its base decorated with Buddhist precepts. Murals on the exterior walls relate the life of the Lord Buddha and the stairways leading up to the temple look alive with their carvings of crawling Nagas.
All too soon, with three hours of road travel in front of us, it is time to leave but as I turn back for one more look at this splendid temple, I promise to return.
If you go
_ Wat Pra Prabat Si Roy is in Salouang, Mae Rim district about 45 km from downtown Chiang Mai.