By Leigh Morrow
My alarm jars me from sleep at 4:30. I quickly dress and as I step into the courtyard, I feel the chill of the city that is still fast asleep. Here in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I have risen before dawn to travel to the base of Doi Suthep Mountain and climb the well-trodden route to the lost temple of Wat Pha Lat and up the mountain before sunrise.
Hundreds of thousands of novice monks have walked this route before me, barefoot, uphill in the dark, to reach Wat Phra That, the temple that adorns the mountain top before morning prayers. They walk in complete silence and repeat the route daily for months as they finish their stint of spiritual discovery. Wat Pha Lat originally was used as a resting place for people on the pilgrimage up to worship farther up Doi Suthep Mountain. Wat Pha Lat has long ago been swallowed by the jungle. The remaining pillars, with gold and red dragons and serpents adorning their corners, reveal themselves as the light sifts in and the morning sun – a red fire ball – inches up through the mist.
It is not a national requirement, but here in Thailand, after they reach the age of twenty, men from Buddhist families, are expected to experience the pious monk’s life for a few months as a way to spark their spiritual journey and spread good karma to the family. Around the world, spiritual journeys are often sparked by a pilgrimage of sorts that occurs often in early adulthood. Every year millions of pilgrims travel to places with unique spiritual significance in hopes of experiencing elevation, transformation and attainment of a new degree of wisdom. Pilgrimage destinations can be places where a religious teacher was born, where a miracle or mystery took place, or where the natural world holds sacred significance.
The symbol of the scallop shell with its long white lines leading to a single point have been surfacing in my head. The fringed scallop shell is said to represent that spiritual quest, its lines representing the different routes pilgrims travel from all over the world, using different walking trails but leading to one point: the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Not so long ago, when pilgrimages were very popular, people would place a scallop shell over their doorway to tell weary travelers that help was happily given by the people who lived there.
Spiritual journeys requiring long arduous months of physical endurance have fallen out of fashion, to be replaced by more practical daily attempts to find some meaning in our lives and spark our spiritual thirst through acts such as meditation, forest bathing, or journaling. Seldom do we make more time than this for de-stressing and just being still. Yet the value and the beauty of a pilgrimage is that it allows long stretches of time, weeks or often months, of solitude that gestates seeds of self-discovery.n our age of digital connectedness, I’m sure those on the Camino trail today are Instagramming their route and WhatsApping their friends, and sadly missing much of the essence of a spiritual journey, which the experts say only comes when we are just being still.
The sun is now dappling the jungle floor as I retrace my steps down the well-worn monk trail. The early red ball of dawn is now high in the clear blue sky. I hear faint voices of tourists who must have slept in, hurrying up the path unable to make up for lost time.
Top Spiritual Journeys in Mexico
According to legend, Tepoztlán is the birthplace of the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl, and the place where he underwent his inner transformation, where he began his journey to fully realize his potential as a great teacher.
It was here that Quetzalcoatl received ancient energy to help him on his transformative quest, and today this energy can still be felt by visitors seeking answers on their own spiritual journeys.
Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacán, Mexico (northeast of Mexico City)
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Teotihuacán is an impressive sacred centre with imposing monuments laid out on geometric and symbolic principles. Teotihuacán is the place where, according to the legends, the Fifth Sun was created, and where today we can marvel at the Pyramid of the Sun. The Temple of Quetzalcoatl, the third largest pyramid at Teotihuán, which has representations of the Feathered Serpent covering its sides, is a natural place for visitors to connect with the sacred energy of this ancient teacher, and understand the cultural importance of this large spiritual site.
Mayapán means the “Flag of the Maya”, but it also symbolizes the link with the One force, the Solar Logos or Christic energy. Located southeast of Merida in the Yucatán, Mayapán was once an important city with architecture that mimicked Chichen Itza. Visitors to Mayapán are still impressed by the powerful temples and pyramids, one of which is suitable for climbing to take in the striking views from the top.
Chichen Itza, Yucatán
Probably the most famous of all the Maya sites, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is also one of the most important examples of the fusion of Mayan-Toltec civilization in the Yucatán. Spiritually, this site is powerfully connected to Kukulkan, the feathered serpent, and visitors can learn about this Mayan diety here, as well as experience the forceful energy of the beautifully-constructed buildings.
Leigh Morrow, co-author of “Just Push Play” (www.jppmidlife.com) is a Vancouver writer who operates Casa Mihale, a vacation rental in the quaint ocean-front community of San Agustinillo, Mexico. Visit:www.gosanagustinillo.com.