Postcards from Thailand #2: Wat Umong, a Buddhist Temple in a Tunnel in Chiang Mai

The main Chedi (stupa) at Wat Umong (a Buddhist monastery) in Chiang Mai, Thailand
The main Chedi (stupa) at Wat Umong (a Buddhist monastery) in Chiang Mai, Thailand

The Wat Umong is a Buddhist temple unlike any other, and one missing on most traveller itineraries. The monastery is built in tunnels constructed for the purpose, going back to the 14th century soon after the city of Chiang Mai was built.

The kingdom of Lanna with Chiang Mai as its capital was established by King Mangrai; he died at the age of 72 and was followed by 17 descendants who successfully ruled over the kingdom. Once the task of city building was over, the king focused his attention to religion and made a monastery in the midst of 11 bamboo clumps. It was thus initially called the Werukattatharam meaning the ‘Temple of 11 Clumps of Bamboo.’ Chiang Mai was founded around 1297 A.D.

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This temple was built for the use of a monk, Thera Chan (also spelt Therajan). He was believed to be mentally disturbed but the rulers held him in high esteem. Tunnels were built here to offer cool, quiet places for meditation. It thus came to be called the Wat Umong Thera Chan meaning ‘Monastery with Tunnels or Caves built for Thera Chan.’ These tunnels are still accessible, and immediately invite you to spend time in silence with yourself. The smell of bats is hardly a bother. Unfortunately, the murals on the walls have all disappeared over time.

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Rising high in a clearing in the forested setting is the principal Chedi or stupa, and makes for impressive viewing. A short Naga staircase leads to the Chedi; the original remains only in the form of a part Naga statue with a relatively new one replacing the old.

The monastery lay abandoned for a long time after renovations sometime in the 18th or 19th centuries A.D. It was also robbed of its valuables around 1900. But it was carefully restored and made into a functioning temple again around 1948.

Interestingly, a replica of an Ashoka Pillar stands near the entrance to the tunnels. One of the greatest emperors of India, he Ashoka (spelt Asoke in Thailand) dedicated a good part of his life spreading the word of the Buddha worldwide and practicing a life of non-violence. You will see many such linkages between India and Thailand, including limited shared vocabulary also.

A zoo, more like a forest, is home to some deer and offers space for monks looking for meditate without any disturbance. And a lake provides opportunity for visitors to feed the fish in it.

If you are in Chiang Mai, insist your guide takes you to this monastery.

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Statue of a lion at Wat Umong (a Buddhist monastery) in Chiang Mai, Thailand. There are no lions in Thailand and artisans made what they imagined a lion would look like
Statue of a lion at Wat Umong (a Buddhist monastery) in Chiang Mai, Thailand. There are no lions in Thailand and artisans made what they imagined a lion would look like

A guardian deity at Wat Umong (a Buddhist monastery) in Chiang Mai, Thailand
A guardian deity at Wat Umong (a Buddhist monastery) in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Replica of the Ashoka Pillar in Wat Umong (a Buddhist monastery) in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Replica of the Ashoka Pillar in Wat Umong (a Buddhist monastery) in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Tunnel with temples inside at the Wat Umong (a Buddhist monastery) in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Tunnel with temples inside at the Wat Umong (a Buddhist monastery) in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Buddha images at Wat Umong (a Buddhist monastery) in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Buddha images at Wat Umong (a Buddhist monastery) in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Buddha images inside the tunnels at Wat Umong (a Buddhist monastery) in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Buddha images inside the tunnels at Wat Umong (a Buddhist monastery) in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Remains of the original Naga steps at Wat Umong (a Buddhist monastery) in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Remains of the original Naga steps at Wat Umong (a Buddhist monastery) in Chiang Mai, Thailand

A relatively newly built Naga statue on the steps at Wat Umong (a Buddhist monastery) in Chiang Mai, Thailand
A relatively newly built Naga statue on the steps at Wat Umong (a Buddhist monastery) in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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