The forest temple of Chiang Mai

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Thailand has it’s share of ornate and magnificent temples. The gold guilded ones like Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep where you walk around alternating between picking your jaw up off the ground and contemplating what you could do if you could only somehow acquire just a tiny fraction of this gold. The intricately carved mosaic temples like Wat Arun and mural walls of Wat Pho that almost make the ceiling of the Sistine chapel look less than impressive. Even the more mundane temples in Thailand are usually nothing short of elegant, elaborate and impressive.

But sitting in a quiet forest in the suburbs of Chiang Mai is a rather different temple. Wat Umong, or ‘tunnel temple’ as Thai temples go, it’s rather unpresuming. The temple dates from the 13-14thcentury but was abandoned for many years before being used again and restored. Wat Umong isn’t magnificant like other Thai temples. Walking around Wat Umong is like exploring a well maintained ruin rather than visiting a temple. The walls are so simple and plain that the you can simply appreciate the fact that they are 700 years old, almost perfectly preserved and still in use. The temple is older than Ayutthaya, the same age as the very similar crumbling walls that once surrounded Chiang Mai and only 100 years younger than Angkor Wat. In comparison to all of those, Wat Umong is amazingly intact. So the fact that it’s a bit lacking in decoration doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of visiting. It’s over 700 years old, intact and still in use. That’s pretty amazing.

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The surrounding jungle has mostly been left in place. After the rainy seasons the temple walls are said to look quite wild with moss. We were there in the dry season though so we just got to enjoy a peaceful jungle setting and being out of the direct sun. Add in tunnels to explore, wide open spaces, stray chickens and a catfish pond and it’s a nice place to add to your list of things to see with kids in Chiang Mai.

Wandering the tunnels

Wat Umong means tunnel temple. The main complex is a large level area where an artifical mound has been build and then riddled with tunnels that lead you around, through and eventually to the top level of open spaces and a large stupa.

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It’s a rather unique design and no one is quite clear why tunnels were chosen. One legend is that Wat Umong was built for a highly regarded monk who also a little crazy. The maze-like tunnels were supposed to help kept him from wandering off.

I’m not sure the tunnels are maze like enough to have that effect but it’s a nice legend.

Wandering the cool 700 year old tunnels barefoot exploring the various grottos filled with incense, candles and buddas is so different to most temple visits. The tunnels feel old, even with the new tiles on the floor and electric lights.

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Be sure to look up at the roof – you’ll occasionally glimpse faded murals that will help give you an idea of what it must have once looked like.

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I loved the trees with inspirational quotes pinned to them all over the grounds of the complex. Some where rather profound … some less so! “Today is better than two tomorrows” was one of the best.

Past the main complext you can walk down towards a lake where you’ll find turtles, catfish and a ludicrious number of pigeons. The murky waters aren’t all that picturesque but for a few baht you can feed the fish.

Expect the extremely ‘friendly’ pigeons to flock towards you in large numbers to steal the fish food. They’re not shy about landing near you.

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Wat Umong is at the base on Doi Suthep mountain. An hour was sufficient time to explore the temple and see the fish pond, although you could easily spend more time there. It’s not top of my list for things I’d race back to see in Chiang Mai but it was a lovely change of pace and I enjoyed the chance to visit a temple that is this old and see it so well preserved.

And how can you go wrong with stray chickens, space to explore, fish feeding and tunnels if you have kids!

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