On April 30, 87 years ago, the road to Doi Sutape Temple was opened and a car traveled up it for the first time. This, in my estimation, was the most momentous road opening in Chiang Mai history.
The construction of the road was a significant undertaking, begun at the behest of Kruba Srivichai, abbot of Wat Suan Dawk at that time. The temple on one of the peaks of Sutape Mountain immediately west of the city of Chiang Mai was neglected and hard to reach, although it presumably contained a major relic of the Lord Buddha. The relic’s twin was at Wat Suan Dawk. This symbolically linked the two temples.
What Kruba Srivichai proposed is the people build the road as a merit-making undertaking. The project was begun on 9 November, 2477 with a ceremony performed by the abbot. For the next 5 months and 22 days thousands of people took hand tools and scraped a roadway around the mountain to the base of the 325 step stairway leading up to the temple building and chedi.
Then, on 30 April 2478 (1935 AD) the road was completed enough to allow the first car to pass over it, carrying Kruba Srivichai. The trip began with a formal ceremony in which the venerable Kruba lit candles in honor of the Triple Gems, with Lord Kaew Nawarat the ruler of Chiang Mai in attendance.
What makes this event most important is the way it indicated how important Kruba Srivichai was in the estimation of the people, who responded in their multitudes at his beckoning, despite the fact that the hierarchy (both political and religious) in Bangkok were trying to suppress him. He had been placed under house arrest for his outspoken resistance to Bangkok’s attempts to do away with Buddhist practices that were not under Bangkok’s control. He obstinate in his efforts to preserve a measure of Lanna character. He had huge support for whatever he undertook. The success of the road-building sent a powerful signal that Chiang Mai needed to be handled differently than had been attempted.
Today, Doi Sutape is Chiang Mai’s most important pilgrimage destination. 30 years after the road was completed, HM the King constructed a palace residence a few miles further up the mountain beyond the temple and spent extended time there each year for several years, showing in concrete and roses that he was king over the north as well as the rest of the country.
People barely remember how the nice road, now well paved and easy to traverse, was first of all a rebellious act. But some do. Every year on April 30 someone brings out old pictures of the day Kruba Srivichai opened the road and ascended to the top of the hill overlooking the whole valley.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.