CMU Freshman Welcoming Celebrations
Every year, there’s a right-of-passage ceremony in Chiang Mai that not many visitors get to hear about. To mark the beginning of the new academic session, freshman students at Chiang Mai University (CMU) are invited to trek the winding 11km path from their campus in the city’s foothills to the summit of Doi Suthep. Once they reach the mountain’s peak, they gather to make merit at Wat Phra That, a gesture intended to bring them good luck during the years of study ahead.
With a total student body of more than 36,000, thousands of people participate in the annual CMU Freshman Welcoming Celebrations. This year, the walk up Doi Suthep took place on the second Saturday of September, with some people setting out well before dawn. Despite the rainy season’s heat and high humidity, most wore jeans for the pilgrimage. Dress code is actually a very important part of the ceremony: Every faculty at CMU has its own colour, and for the walk, each student must don their faculty’s ‘uniform’ – usually a t-shirt or shirt, sometimes with the added flourish of a bandanna or a sash – that has been designed specially for the event.
Forming new bonds
Dressed in their faculty garb, students band together into colour-coded clumps to walk arm-in-arm up the mountain. Six hours of strenuous climbing is intended to fortify bonds between new students, many of whom have travelled from different provinces all over Thailand to study in Chiang Mai. According to CMU:
The aim of this activity is not only to welcome CMU freshmen but also to foster relationships between the seniors and the new comers. This ceremony is a great experience that all CMU students will never forget.
Joining the trek to Doi Suthep
As luck would have it, Eye, who works at our apartment complex, is a CMU student and wanted to participate in this year’s trek. She kindly invited us to make the trip up Doi Suthep with her and a friend.
The four of us set off from CMU at midday in a red songthaew. (We decided not to walk the whole way as Eye recently injured her leg.) Even though parts of the road were closed off for the event, traffic was still moving freely up and down the mountain. After a few minutes of ascent, our truck ground to a halt and we saw the first of many cavalcades of students. Dressed in black and red, the Fine Arts faculty passed us by in a flurry of chanting and chatter.
Eventually, traffic came to a complete standstill and we decided to jump out and join the footrace. Eye led us to a turn in the road where we had a perfect vantage over the winding path below. We watched as students from the Social Sciences faculty spread out across the full width of the road in perfect formation and performed a choreographed war cry before bolting for a few hundred metres around the hairpin turn.
Reaching Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
We submitted the mountain in perfect unison with the Social Sciences cohort and faced the final stretch – the climb up Wat Phra That’s 309 stairs – with a group of blue and purple-clad students. When we reached the first plateau, everyone kicked off their shoes into one giant pile of sneakers. Despite the chaos outside, the temple grounds were actually very quiet. Storm clouds started to gather over the golden spires as we made our way around the complex, admiring the ornate decorations sparkling in the afternoon sun and piles of richly coloured tiles waiting to be sponsored and added to the temple’s roof.
Blessings outside the temple
As the final stragglers from the Social Sciences group came crawling through the temple gates, everyone took their place on woven plastic mats that had been arranged over the temple’s ceramic tiles. Each student was handed a lotus bulb – a symbol of good fortune – before participating in the blessing ceremony. After watching on for a while, we hitched a ride in a songthaew and made our way back down to Chiang Mai.
If you want to watch the Freshman Welcoming Celebrations in person, I recommend going with a local. Our friend Eye had the procedure down pat: She knew exactly where to go, what time of day would be best, and, most importantly, where to stand to get the best photos. Thanks to her negotiating skills we only ended up paying 80 baht each (less than $4) to travel up and down the mountain; on any other day, a round trip would cost closer to 300 baht per person. Lost in the crowd, we slipped past the front desk unnoticed and didn’t have to pay the usual 30 baht foreigner’s fee to enter Wat Phra That, either. Along with the free iced coffee, electrolyte drinks, water, chocolate milk, juice and chips we picked up from the promo vans dotted along the path, it made for a pretty cheap day out.
Joining in on the CMU Freshman Welcoming Celebrations was one of our favourite travel experiences to date! Have you ever found yourself one of few visitors participating in a local celebration?