Wat Umong, the tunnel temple, Chiang Mai

Wat Umong is one of our favourite temples in Chiang Mai. The full temple name is Wat Umong Suan Phutthatham, which means ‘Temple of the tunnels and Buddha Dhamma garden’. It’s tunnels are really quite magical, and if you’re lucky and go early in the morning you might just have the place to yourself.

Located in the foothills of Doi Suthep, Wat Umongs grounds are mostly forest and a lake, making it a very tranquil place to spend a couple of hours. Chickens and dogs roam freely about, and (like everywhere else in Thailand) don’t bat an eyelid at each other. There are many ‘talking trees’ in the grounds – with little signs in Thai and English bearing words of wisdom, or a thought for you to meditate on. But it’s the tunnels that make this temple unique in Chiang Mai, and these are open for you to wander through.

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The Temple was thought to have been founded in the 1300’s by a King, however it’s not agreed which one as the paintings under the Chedi are dated later than the reign of the King rumoured to have built it! The story goes that the King built the tunnels for a very special monk called Jan. Jan had brilliant problem solving abilities, and back then the highest monks would have been consulted to solve problems, religious and not, by rulers. Jans abilities to resolve things were very highly regarded by other monks, there was no issue beyond him. He was, however, not always of sound mind and he would sometimes disappear into the forest for days, not knowing what he was doing. The King wanted him on hand to consult with, and so the tunnels were constructed and painted with forest scenes so Jan could wander alone but always be available. 

tunnel temple chiang mai

The temple fell into disuse for many years until about 1900 when robbers broke in and stole everything. The site was re-discovered by a monk in 1948, and since then the temple has slowly been reclaimed from the jungle bit by bit. When the tunnels were found they were filled almost to the top with sand (yes, that’s right, in the mountains there is apparently lots of sand). The resident monks have restored Wat Umong from an abandoned ruin to the functioning temple and meditation centre you see today. For more detail on the history you can see www.siamese-heritage.org.

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The tunnels themselves are beautiful, even without the paintings! There is a grid of about three tunnels wide by three long, so there’s no chance of getting lost (obviously)! There are large buddhas in the end alcoves, and small ones dotted along the walls in alcoves. You can exit the tunnels out the back and head up to the chedi (if you carry your shoes with you). There is also a black statue above the tunnels of an emancipated monk (turn right from the back entrance) -It’s quite gruesome but stunning at the same time. You often see statues of monks fasting at temples however they never have anything to explain what it’s all about! 

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If you opt to leave your shoes at the front, you can exit this way and walk up the naga staircase to the big Chedi above the temple. From the Chedi garden you can see the lake, which is nice to take a stroll down to. The lake is home to a lot of very large catfish and carp, and if you’re lucky you may see the odd turtle too. All the lakes residents, as well as hundreds of pigeons, appreciate fish food which you can buy for 10 baht by the side – just watch out for pigeon poo!

You can stay at Wat Umong for meditation practice, see the Wat Umong website for details. According to the meditation centre board, you can stay for any amount of days, however probably best to check with them!

talking tree Wat umong

Wat Umong is less visited by tourists and I think this is mainly due to it being located outside of the old city. You could always combine it with a visit to Baan Kang Wat, a local artist village. It’s just 10 minutes away, very close to Chiang Mai University. It’s not hard to get to, most taxi and Tuk Tuk drivers will know where it is. It maybe best to get someone to wait for your return journey as this road is not frequented by buses. It’s a beautiful temple with a serene atmosphere, and absolutely worth the effort!

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