There are hundreds of Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai, but Wat Umong, or Tunnel Temple, is unique because of its location in the forest and its system of tunnels. This 13th century forest temple, near Doi Suthep mountain has a serene and peaceful atmosphere giving a welcome change from the more visited sites in Chiang Mai.
Many of the tunnels contain shrines with Buddha images, but don’t look for them as for safety reasons, the tunnels are not accessible to visitors.
As you walk the grounds, it is common to hear the monks chanting. Set in a forest with a natural lake, Wat Umong is an excellent place for meditation. There is a meditation center which hosts meditation classes and Dhamma talks.
Wat Umong was founded at the end of the 13th century by King Mengrai who was the first king of the Lanna Kingdom and founder of Chiang Mai.
Legend has it that the King regularly consulted a monk who lived in a temple within the old city walls of Chiang Mai. The monk used a tunnel to meditate because of its peace and quiet. As Chiang Mai grew, meditation became increasingly more difficult. To accommodate this monk, the King had several tunnels dug at what eventually became Wat Umong. The tunnels were lined with brick walls which were plastered and painted with Buddhist murals. Shrines with Buddha images were added and this gave the monk a new place to meditate.
The temple was actually abandoned in the 15th century and laid vacant until 1948 when it was restored and a year later a meditation center was opened. Also, recently restored, is a large/circular bell shaped Lanna style chedi. Near the chedi is a black image of a fasting Buddha.
Scattered around the forest are the Kuti, or monks living quarters.
Also on the temple grounds is a copy of an Ashoka pillar dating back to when the temple was founded. Atop the pillar are 4 lions with a Dhamma Wheel over them.
Around the grounds amidst the trees there are several Buddha images, most of which have been damaged and in some cases only the head remains. These statues have been recovered from several other temples.
As you walk the paths you may see signs hung from the trees, These are Buddhist proverbs such as:
- Love is Devine, Lust is devil.
- Today is better than 2 tomorrows.
- Nothing is permanent. Things go in and out.
- All things arise, exist and expire.
- Detachment is a way to relax.
Now open as a center for meditation and Buddhist teaching – every Sunday Dhamma talks are held in English at the Chinese pavilion which is close to the pond. Here the monks will talk about Buddhism and also offer a chance to ask them questions.
Getting to Wat Umong is best done by hiring a taxi, tuk-tuk or baht bus. Try to negotiate payment for a round trip as returning may be a bit difficult.