Photo: A Lanna tradition.

Mai kham sari

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Visitors to almost any northern Thai temple will notice the numerous wooden poles propping up branches of the temple’s bo tree. What are they?

Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Saen

Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Saen.

The bo, bodhi or pho tree (ficus religiosa) is the Buddhist holy tree par excellence, since it’s the species under which Buddha was believed to have been sitting when he attained enlightenment. As such, it’s a near essential feature of any temple grounds.

Buddha under the Bodhi tree

Buddha under the bodhi tree.

What is more specific to north Thailand, though they can be seen to a lesser extent elsewhere in the kingdom, are wooden poles clustered around the base of the tree. The old Lanna term for the tree is sari and the poles are called mai kham sari. Bodhi trees have pliable branches, so older ones droop, and by supporting the branches Thais believe they are supporting their religion and will thus gain good fortune, peace, happiness (for instance by winning the lottery) and so on.

Mai kham sari at Wat Jet Yot

Mai kham sari at Wat Jet Yot.

Ideally the prop should be the same length as the branch it is supporting. Since the mai kham tree (a hardwood tree thought to give the best results for propping up sacred branches) has only short branches itself, bamboo is often used to prop up longer sections. The mai kham sari require a fork to form the prop part, and believers also pop notes and supplications in the space between fork and branch.

Can't see the tree for the wood

Can’t see the tree for the wood.

The above — a veritable forest of mai kham sari — is at the prestigious Wat Phra That Lampang Luang in Lampang, though visitors are most likely to come across them at popular Chiang Mai temples such as Wat Phra Sing or Wat Chedi Luang.

Learn more about this distinctive northern tradition at the excellent new Chiang Mai Lanna Heritage Museum.

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