Wat Umong Suan Phutthatham, which translates to ‘Temple of the tunnels and Buddha Dhamma garden’, is more commonly referred to as Wat Umong, and is a 700-year-old Buddhist forest temple located against the mountains of the Suthep range in Chiang Mai. One of the lesser known temples amongst the hundreds of Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai, this unique 14th-century temple is a fascinating and unique one and is indeed worth a visit. The entire Wat Umong complex occupies a tranquil setting and consists of 15 acres of still heavily forested grounds.
Wat Umong was founded and built at the end of the 13th century, more precisely in 1297, by King Mengrai of the Lanna dynasty, first King of the Lanna Kingdom and founder of Chiang Mai. According to a local legend, King Mengrai regularly consulted a monk who lived at Wat Umong, a temple located within the old city walls of Chiang Mai. The resident monk, Thera Chan, meditated in peace and quiet inside a tunnel. When Chiang Mai city grew bigger and more crowded, Thera Chan found it more and more difficult to meditate, so devoted King Mengrai ordered to dig a number of tunnels inside a man-made mound in a forested area outside of the city, at the foothills of Suthep mountain, the current location of modern Wat Umong. The walls that lined theses tunnels were plastered, Buddhist murals were painted on them – unfortunately most of them have disappeared – and eventually shrines with images of the Buddha were added. Thera Chan finally had a new place where to meditate in peace.
Wat Umong was abandoned during the 15th century, only to be restored and reoccupied during the 1940’s, and in 1949 it started functioning as a center for meditation and Buddhist teachings (see paragraph below). This long period of disuse explains its overgrown look and somewhat dilapidated atmosphere. Today Wat Umong is an active temple with a few resident monks, and visitors can finally take advantage of this historical center for Buddhism.
THE ASHOKA PILLAR
The temple grounds are home to a copy of an Ashoka pillar dating back to the founding of the temple in the 13th century. Back in the 3rd century BC, the Indian King Ashoka dispatched monks across South and South East Asia to spread Buddhism, and a large number of pillars were erected in the visited countries, inscribed with details about the spread of Buddhism. The Ashoka pillar at Wat Umong is a replica of an Ashoka pillar located in Vaishali; a further replica is stored in a museum in Sarnath, the village where the Buddha told his first sermon.
SCATTERED BUDDHA IMAGES
The first interesting thing you notice as you walk towards the main tunnel entrance is a curious collection of amazing Buddha heads, religious oddities and other relics scattered on the grounds between the trees. These collection of broken images started when some worshippers rescued some of them from an abandoned temple, and it is now being enriched by devotees who find such relics, or by those who have a broken Buddha to replace.
You will love the ‘talking trees’ along Wat Umong temple grounds that display signs with Buddhist proverbs and words of wisdom both in Thai and in English. Amongst them:
“Love is Devine, lust is devil”
“Today is better then two tomorrows”
“Nothing is permanent. Things go in and go out”
“All things arise, exist and expire”
“The thing that is liked or disliked just appears, exists for a moment and expires”
“Detachment is a way to relax”
The path then leads to the artificial earth mound under which there is an underground tunnel system of criss-crossed passageways. Within the maze-like tunnels are meditation cells and shrines with revered Buddha images where devotees can pay respect to the Enlightened. A legend tells that Thera Chan, the highly regarded resident monk at the time, was slightly mentally deranged and had the habit of wandering off into the bush for days on end. King Mengrai could have had the tunnels built and their walls painted with bush scenes in order to keep the monk from wandering off. Whatever the truth behind these tunnels, they add to the temple’s mysterious air.
Both the front and the back of the mound have flights of steps taking up to a large, circular and bell-shaped chedi (stupa) in Lanna style which has recently been restored. This picturesque and imposing chedi is usually draped in orange cloth and was built right on top of the underground tunnels. The front stone staircase has Naga snakes at its lower end and leads to some of the monks’ cells and other out-buildings.
There is a library museum containing several books on Buddhism as well as a collection of historic objects and Buddhist art. Opening times are clearly displayed, but the museum may be closed in occasion of special festivities or events.
Near the museum is an interesting display of reproductions of ancient Indian Buddhist stone sculptures and a School of Pali language, and a building hosting incredibly accurate spiritual wall paintings. The monks living quarters, or ‘kuti’, are scattered in the forest.
If you have some extra time on hand, then spend it to explore further. Pass the mound and the pagoda, follow the footpath flanked by woods and gardens and you will emerge by a small lake. It is an excellent and peaceful place to relax, spot birds and butterflies and other wildlife. One popular activity is feeding the resident fish, ducks and turtles. You can buy the food from one of the local vendors there. Locals flock to the place at weekends, wandering and sitting by the water.
MEDITATION AND DHAMMA TALKS
The great temple settings, the heavily forested area and the small lake all make Wat Umong the perfect place for meditation. Meditation activities and Buddhist teachings started right after restoration of Wat Umong was completed in 1948, while the Meditation and International Buddhist Education Center opened its doors in 2005 with the objective of spreading theoretical and practical Buddhism amongst both Thais and foreigners.
Wat Umong meditation classes are very popular, and meditators particularly enjoy the peaceful and natural settings of the temple grounds. You can chose between the Vipassana method, based on the foundations of mindfulness, and the Anapanasati method, which concentrates on breathing. Foreigners are more than welcome, however make sure that the sessions are in English too before you join the practice. Information can be had on http://www.dhammathai.org/e/meditation/page23.php
The other great opportunity visitors to Wat Umong have is the chance to have a chat with monks who can speak English. Dhamma talks (also popularly known in Chiang Mai as ‘monk chat’) usually happen in English every Sunday between 3 and 6 pm, when monks gather at the Chinese pavilion near the pond to talk about Buddhism and to answer visitors’ questions. There are also occasional one-off sessions in meditation areas, if you are lucky you may be able to join one.
Wat Umong is one of my favorite temples in Chiang Mai and I visit it every time I am in town. I love particularly the shady temple grounds, the temple peaceful settings and the serene and peaceful atmosphere. Adding to all this the fact that the large temple grounds are often filled with the sounds of monks’ chanting, Wat Umong certainly provides a welcome change as it differs from the much visited sites in Chiang Mai. Wat Umong can be especially magical just after the rainy season has ended, around early October or November: the brick walls of the mound and the stone works are covered with moss, vines and small plants. Overall, Wat Umong is such an interesting spot to visit, a tranquil site to while away some time, and a nice diversion from the bustle of Chiang Mai. A site well worth your trip.
Located 2 kilometers West of Chiang Mai city, Wat Umong is off Suthep Road, just outside the city center. It is a bit off the beaten track, and indeed tricky to get to by bicycle, so it is advisable to catch a mean of transport. You can contract a songthaew – a converted pick up truck with two benches in the back; these stop when you raise your hand and flag it down. The trip to Wat Umong will take about 10 to 15 minutes from downtown and it can cost in between 100 and 150 thb per person one way.
If you are driving there yourself with a motorbike, find any map of the town and Wat Umong will be marked there. If you want to treat yourself, hire a private taxi; your hotel can book one for you. The going fare is about 250 thb one way. Wat Umong opens daily from 6 am until 5 pm, and admission is free.