Chiang Mai certainly has its share of elaborate and ornate temples, such as Wat Phra Doi Suthep and Wat Phra Singh. However, if you’re in the mood to visit a temple with a different style, my new favorite wat in the city might be exactly what you’re looking for. Sobering Wat Umong, built in 1297 and located west of the Old City off Klon Chon Pratan Road, is a quiet yet large temple complex situated on a humble hill in the middle of the woods. Where it lacks in elegance, it makes up in historical significance and natural beauty.
After entering the gates and passing the bookstore on your left, follow the path through the woods, where you will see sayings, some in Thai and some in English, posted to trees. I took my time through here to contemplate each quote. One of my favorites was “One today is better than two tomorrows”, which I believe speaks directly to the Buddhist philosophy of being in the present moment.
The end of the path opens up to the complex of structures, some very modern-looking made out of cement and others clearly not from this century. Wat Umong has quite a collection of Lanna artifacts from the last 700 years. The stone Buddha statues, arranged in rows, give the impression of a graveyard.
One of the most spectacular aspects to Wat Umong is its tunnels, dating back to the 13th century. After removing your shoes, the air, which smells of spicy incense and humbling earth, becomes obviously cooler as you walk through one of the three entrances. Inside, there are a few Buddha statues in enclaves where locals will leave incense and flowers and pray.
Upon going deeper inside the cave-like tunnel, be sure to look up at the ceiling. Ancient drawings can still be seen and if you look closely you can make out patterns and even elephants. These ancient frescoes bring the historical significance of Wat Umong to light. I couldn’t help but let my imagination take me to hundreds of years prior to a time when these faded colors were vivid and colorful, as monks roamed the halls.
Another fascinating aspect to Wat Umong is the rather large golden stupa that sits atop the ancient tunnels. I found this stupa rather photogenic in its simple and natural setting, especially against a blue sky. I particularly liked shedding my shoes and joining the locals walking around the stupa three times in a clockwise direction, giving me a more genuine and authentic experience at the temple.
In my opinion, Wat Umong is already worth a visit just for the temple, the tunnels and the stupa, but the large pond replete with fish, turtles and birds was my favorite part. I crossed the bridge to the little island, where I saw monks feeding the birds. Covered in trees and sprinkled with well-placed benches, it’s a great place to relax a bit and watch the wildlife. If you would like to feed the animals, there is a place just before crossing the bridge where you can pick up food for only 10 baht. If you fancy a short walk, there’s a trail that will take you almost the entire way around the pond, passing the monks’ quarters as you go.
If you are interested in learning more about Buddhism in general, there is a monk chat at the beginning of this trail on Sundays at 3pm. A Western monk, who has studied and lived in Thailand for a long time, will answer any questions you may have about the religion’s ideologies and practices.
You never know what you might see at Wat Umong. Once, I visited during Songkran, when people made sand castles and put flags in it; another time I happened to show up on the day that at least 100 monks were getting ordained.
Still another time, a visiting nun from outside of Bangkok smiled at me, striking up a conversation. She shared that in her 40 years of being a nun she learned of the importance of traveling inside oneself. As a dreamer of one day visiting every country in the world, this advice has stuck with me and I contemplate it every now and again.