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Doi Dtoong:

Switzerland of the North

DOI DTOONG is an easy side-trip from Chiangrai for those with half a day to spare. It can be an easy stopover on the way to Mae Sai, the golden Triangle or any of the areas near the Burmese border in Chiangrai province.

The mountain itself is an oasis of natural beauty in the midst of Chiangrai province. The clean mountain air and altitude of the place are invigorating for weary travellers. The mountain is the former home of the Princess Mother, but that's not the reason to take the trip to Doi Dtoong. The reason is the natural beauty of the area and the wonderful manmade edifices that blend so well with the natural scenery.

The best way to get there is to take the main highway from Chiangrai to Mae Sai. About halfway to Mae Sai, 30 kilometers or so, you come across the town of Mae Chan. Another 20 kilometers on and about 10 kilometers from the Burmese border at Mae Sai, there's a turnoff to the left. It's a wide road with a rectangular wooden archway so its hard to miss. Just before you reach the turnoff, you'll see a sign reading "Doi Tun".

Turn left onto this road and follow it straight. Soon you'll find it beginning to ascend the hill. If you look up, you'll see that a well-paved road curves up the mountain side above you, but that isn't the main attraction; it's the beautiful greenery on both sides of you. What looks like tiny dots in the distance turns out to be carefully tended bush on the terraced hillside as you draw close.

Grassy turnoffs have been placed at various points along the winding road, and each has a hand-laid stone walkway surrounded by flowers. As you go farther up the road and the mountain, you'll see what looks like half of Burma and Northern Thailand stretching off into the distance.

Depending on the mode transportation, it takes anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes to reach the very top of Doi Dtoong. Here you'll find a Buddhist temple unlike any that you have seen before.

The temple grounds are laid out in a square. In the center is an open-sided shelter for a collection of authentic antique Buddha images from all of the various periods of Thai history. This collection has grown quite a bit recently, and plans are being made to house only the most precious images from this large collection. All are welcome to go in and take a look around, but please take off shoes off.

On all side of the central shelter are rows of large bronze Buddhist bells. Each has a different tone, and each is a valuable antique. The bells are about the size of a medium-sized kettle drum, and have vaguely the same shape. Feel free to try them out by rolling a wooden stick along the inside surface or lightly tapping the outside. The sound of the bells and the mountain air may conspire to transport you somewhere else.

There are a number of different Buddha images scattered about the grounds not far from the bells. One of the most interesting, especially for visitors, is the large Chinese-style Buddha image with it's one-meter protruding paunch. In the center of his immense belly is an open navel.

People come and try to throw their good-luck charms into the hole, and it's funny to see rows of people trying to toss them in. But it is considered very serious, because if one is successful in depositing his or her good-luck piece in the navel, it means good luck will come to them and their relatives.

Not far from this Chinese-style Buddha is a more typical Thai-style Theravada Buddha image cast in bronze. His face carries the serene half-smile common to this form of sculpture. Unlike the area around the Chinese-style Buddha image, people tend to be more serene and quiet around this one.

The two different Buddha images and the ringing bell is what makes the small temple on Doi Dtoong such a special place, but there is more to the mountain. Just outside the grounds of the shrine is small shaded wood with moss-covered rocks. In the ground and on pedestals all around are both Buddhist and animist statues, placed in what appears to be haphazard order. The statuary and small shrines in the area have a disquieting effect on most people, even though they are just off the road at the entrance to the temple grounds. Take one step in and you'll be enthralled by the magical feeling.

Miniature shrines rest on rocks, leaning at various angles in the dim light of the forest floor. All of the small shrines have been placed by people with varying beliefs, and each is cared for with offerings of food, incense sticks, or candles. There are images of every type in this glen, but the most attractive and largest is the reclining Buddha at the very back just below the small hillside. The image is surrounded by miniature disciples bowed in respect, almost lifelike in their positions. Each has a distinct posture, face, and appearance; each one tells its own story without words.

The combination of so many different types of figures in such an earthly setting is a great contrast to the temple grounds at Doi Dtoong. Every visitor should take the time to visit and explore this very special "forest home".

The trip back down the mountain side is every bit as wonderful as the one up. Coasting down with the cool breeze blowing on your face in the sunshine is a great experience, with seas of rice fields and islands of mountain tops on all side. Doi Dtoong seems like one of the most beautiful places in the world, and after a half-day there you may wonder if it has all been a dream.

When you get to the bottom of the mountain, you can continue on the same way, or turn left and see an authentic Chinese village in the valley. It only takes about five minutes to get down to the village, and some people may want to drop in for a look. Whatever you do, thought, it is hard to

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