In the middle of the hundreds of Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai, the Wat Umong or “Tunnel temple” is exclusive because of its spot in the forest and its structure of tunnels. The quiet and peaceful atmosphere at the 13th century forest temple near Doi Suthep mountain provide a welcome change from the a lot visited sites in Chiang Mai.
The well known temple’s full name is Wat Umong Suan Phutthatham, which translates to “Temple of the tunnels and Buddha Dhamma garden”.
A plenty of tunnels dug out of a mound contain shrines with Buddha images, where devotees can offer their respect to the Buddha.
The big, shady temple grounds are often packed with the sounds of monks’ chanting. The temple’s setting in a wooded area with a natural lake makes the Wat Umong an outstanding place for meditation. The meditation center organizes meditation classes and Dhamma talks.
Going back to the History
The Wat Umong was established at the end of the 13th century by King Mengrai, first King of the Lanna Kingdom and founder Chiang Mai.
According to local legend, the King frequently consulted a monk who lived at the Wat Umong Maha Thera Chan, a temple located inside the old city walls of Chiang Mai. The monk named Thera Chan utilized a tunnel to meditate in peace and quiet.
When the city of Chiang Mai grew larger and more crowded, the monk found it more and more hard to meditate. King Mengrai wanted to provide accommodation to the monk and ordered a number of tunnels dug out in a man made mound outside the city, in a wooded area bordering Doi Suthep mountain. The tunnels were wrinkled with brick walls, plastered and Buddhist murals were painted. Shrines with images of the Buddha were new, giving the monk a novel place to meditate in peace and quiet.
The temple was deserted during the 15th century. Only in 1948 the temple was restructured and one year later reopened as a center for meditation and Buddhist teachings. Today the Wat Umong is an lively temple with resident monks. The very old tunnels have been restored. Unfortunately, most of the murals have vanished.
On top of the mound is a big, circular bell shaped chedi. The Lanna style chedi has lately been restored. Near the chedi is a black image of a very skinny fasting Buddha in the austere style. The kuti, the monks living quarters, are sprinkled in the forest.
Copy of an Ashoka pillar
On the temple grounds is a copy of an Ashoka pillar way back to the beginning of the temple in the 13th century. On pinnacle of the pillar are 4 lions and a Dhamma wheel over them. In the 3rd century BC, the Indian King Ashoka told monks to go to the South and South East Asia, and even as far as Europe to spread Buddhism. A large number of emblazoned pillars were erected across India and adjacent countries, some of which still remain today. The pillars are decorated with details about the spread of Buddhism.
Along the track around the mound is a compilation of damaged Buddha images speckled on the grounds between the trees. The images, of some of which only the head is left were brought over from quite a few other temples. In the forest on the temple grounds is a pond filled with catfish, ducks and turtles longing to be fed. Food can be sourced from one of the vendors at the grounds.
Signs came out from trees with Buddhist proverbs
Down the path through the forest towards the lake are signs with Buddhist proverbs coming out from trees, in Thai and English. Among them are:
“Love is Devine, lust is devil”
“Today is better than two tomorrows”
“Nothing is permanent. Things go in and go out”
“All things arise, exist and expire”
“The only thing that is liked or disliked just appears, exists for a moment and then expires”
“Detachment is a way to relax”
Meditation and Dhamma speech
In 1948 after the restorations had been finished, the Wat Umong reopened as a center for meditation and Buddhist teachings. The temple is also called as Suan Buddha Dhamma, or “Garden of Buddha’s Teachings”.
Each Sunday between 3 and 6 pm, Dhamma talks are apprehended in English at the Chinese pavilion close to the pond. Monks talk about Buddhism and there is a chance to ask questions. The Wat Umong meditation center uses the Anapanasati meditation method, which concentrates on breathing. If you are interested in joining meditation sessions, ask first to make sure the sessions are in the English language.
How to reach Wat Umong
The Wat Umong is situated just West of Chiang Mai city near Doi Suthep mountain. The temple is established and erected about 1,500 meters South of Suthep road, just West of the Chiang Mai outer ring road.
You can go there by private taxi, tuk tuk, songthaew or samlor. Since the temple is little out of the way, it can be hard to find a ride for the return trip, so it would be sensible to book a round trip and have the driver wait.
The most easy way to get there is by private taxi. Many hotels can be booked which would cost you, around 250 Thai Baht one day.
Another way is by songthaew, a transformed pick up truck with benches in the back. Wilt down a songthaew that does not go behind a fixed route (usually they are red), and negotiate a price with the driver. Fare is a propos 70 Baht per person, one way. A tuk tuk or samlor bicycle taxi (very slow) taking two people must cost between 100 and 150 Baht, one way.
Unlike the most well-liked temples inside the old city of Chiang Mai, Wat Umong is surrounded by 15 acres of forest prosperous with natural vegetation. The monastery is located on the foothills of the famous Doi Suthep mountain, a quiet location that gives the temple its unquestionably serene and peaceful atmosphere. The absence of crowds and general city chaos also make it healthy worth a visit.
As per the historical documents, Wat Umong (originally named Werukattatharam), was established in 1297, a year after Chiang Mai was founded as the latest capital city of the Lanna Kingdom.
Exploring the tunnels
Wat Umong stands for the tunnel temple. The main complex is a big level area where an artificial mound has been build and then riddled with tunnels that guide you around, through and finally to the top level of open spaces and a big stupa.
It’s a rather exclusive design and no one is fairly clear why tunnels were chosen. One legend is that Wat Umong was built for a great regarded monk who also a little wild. The maze-like tunnels were hypothetical built to help to keep him from wandering off.
Wandering the chilly 700 year old tunnels barefoot and exploring the a variety of grottos filled with incense, candles and buddhas is so unusual to most temple visits. The tunnels feel aged, even with the new-fangled tiles on the floor and electric lights.
Be certain to look up at the roof – you’ll infrequently glimpse faded murals that will help give you an idea of what it must have once looked like.
You will love the trees with motivating quotes pinned to them all over the grounds of the complex. Some where rather deep … some less so.
Away from the main complex you can walk down towards a lake where you’ll discover turtles, catfish and a ludicrious number of pigeons. The dark waters aren’t all that charming but for a few baht you can feed the fish.
Expect the really ‘friendly’ pigeons to flock towards you in big numbers to steal the fish food. They’re not introverted about landing near you.
Wat Umong is at the bottom on Doi Suthep mountain. An hour is sufficient time to discover the temple and see the fish pond, although you could easily spend more time there.
But sitting in a calm forest in the suburbs of Chiang Mai is a rather unusual temple. The temple dates from the 13-14thcentury but was deserted for many years before being used again and restored. Wat Umong isn’t superb like other Thai temples. Wandering around Wat Umong is like exploring a sound maintained ruin rather than visiting a temple.
The walls are so uncomplicated and plain that the you can simply be grateful for the fact that they are 700 years old, almost rightly preserved and still in use. The temple is older than Ayutthaya, the same age as the very similar breakdown walls that once bounded Chiang Mai and only 100 years younger than Angkor Wat.
In contrast to all of those, Wat Umong is astonishingly intact. So the fact that it’s a bit lacking in beautification doesn’t detract from the pleasure of visiting. It’s over 700 years old, unbroken and still in use. That’s pretty remarkable.