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The Secrets of Monkey Temple

Wat Tham Pla: Chiang Rai

Wat Tham Pla — the name means Fish Tail , is a popular attraction for visitors to this area of Thailand, though most visitors see only Fish Tail Cave and so miss the lesser known caves which are well worth seeing. If you do plan to visit these caves and are interested in a bit of exploring, bring a torch and wear strong shoes, preferably boots, as the chalky floor can be slippery and wet.

Karsts & Caverns

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The viharn at Wat Tham Pla
The viharn at Wat Tham Pla

As you approach the Burmese border at Maesai, the northernmost point of Thailand, the main road meets the western edge of the Shan Plateau rising abruptly from the plain in a series of jagged peaks typical of weathered limestone. These mountains, or karsts, are part of a corderilla stretching from the Himalayan Massive in Tibet down through to the Malaysian peninsular. The geology of this area is one of caves and caverns and underground rivers, many still to be explored but some places are easily accessible to casual visitors. One of these is Wat Tham Pla, an unusual temple complex featuring several caves, nestling at the foot of the mountains 13 kilometres south of Mesai.

Yunnanese Settlements

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A small shop in Bahn Tham
A small shop in Bahn Tham

The village you pass through to get to Monkey Temple, Bahn Tham (or Thum) is a Yunnanese Chinese village with a rather square, squat style of building. A sure sign of a Chinese home is the red paper with good luck motifs pasted either side of the door and over the lintel. These good luck charms are replaced every lunar new year around the end of January. There is a small Chinese style temple and clan building, a reminder of how close we are here to China whose influence at one time extended well to the south of this point.

Monkey Temple

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Some of the monkeys that give the temple its popular name.
Some of the monkeys that give
the temple its popular name.

Wat Tham Pla is often called Monkey Temple after the macaques that live there. They are not usually aggressive though and only stay in one area near the fish pond and shrine to Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy who is very popular with the Chinese. More recently though, the monkeys have started threatening visitors climbing to the upper cave, probably in response to being teased so be careful with your belongings and in particular don’t openly carry food as this seems to be what they are after.

Fish-Tail Cave

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The entrance to Fish-Tail Cave
The entrance to Fish-Tail Cave

Apart from the monkeys, the main attraction is the cave from which the temple gets its name: Tham Pla. Crossing the bridge over the fish pond fed by the crystal clear stream running from the base of the mountain, up nearly 300 hundred steep stone steps cut into the its side; the path then levels out into a deep, narrow gorge with steep vertical sides formed when the roof of a long cave collapsed. Trees high above on the very edge of the gorge have sent down roots forming a natural lattice like steel bands tightly gripping the walls.

At the top of the main flight of steps, at the entrance to the gorge, is a platform perched on the very edge of the mountain. From here it is straight down to the plain. Gazing out you can easily make out the line of hills across the eastern border of Thailand in Laos in the area known as the Golden Triangle. The border itself follows the Mekong River which you can almost make yourself believe you can see; while to the north are the hills of Burma.

Around two hundred metres long, the gorge is supposed to look like the tail of a fish, hence the name. At the far end of the gorge are a dozen slippery steps leading in almost complete darkness to a cavern with a partially collapsed roof, which at least allows a bit of light to enter. There are two main chambers each with elevated Buddha figures in a well maintained area. The floors are tiled and slick so step carefully.

Tham Ku Kao—Turtle Cave

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The ruins of a much older temple
The ruins of a much older temple.

If you walk straight ahead as you enter the temple compound from the car park rather than going to the left, passing to the right of the main temple hall with the ruins of a previous temple on your left, you will see the entrance to another cave, Tam Ku Kao (Turtle Cave). This is rarely visited; even though the steps leading up to cave entrance are wide and level and easily seen. There is a reclining Buddha at the musty entrance to the long, narrow tunnel-like cave. The cave is several hundred metres long, unlit with a hard packed chalk floor which is wet and slippery most of the year. The roof drips and the walls are slick with moisture; the floor with bat droppings.

During the rains a small stream runs along the middle of the floor. The cave turns ninety degrees left soon after the entrance, continues straight for a hundred metres or so before turning sharply right to end in a small, clear pool that appears to be the beginning of an underground stream. Just past the pool there is a small niche in the wall holding a solitary image.

Most caves are used as quiet places of meditation away from the distractions of the outside world. Try switching off your torch and imagine sitting for hours alone under the weight of the mountain in the damp, musty darkness, silent but for the slow drip of water.

The Lagoon of the Sleeping Lady

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The beautiful Sleeping Lady Lagoon
The beautiful
Lagoon of the Sleeping Lady

From the car park, turning left while keeping the compound walls of Wat Tham Pla to your right, there is a pleasant walk along the bottom of the cliff. The track follows the stream that flows out from under the mountain and then turns and follows the edge of the cliff until it passes under a small footbridge and into a beautiful placid lake about a kilometre away. Romantically called The Lagoon of the Sleeping Lady or Kun Nam Nang Non in Thai, the lake is framed by sheer cliffs and thickly covered craggy slopes. The water is still and is an almost perfect mirror. It would be a tranquil spot except for the music coming out of a row of bamboo huts set along the eastern shore. These are the ’dining rooms’ of restaurants.

Head towards these along the track and the last one, which incidentally has the largest and loudest jukebox I’ve ever seen, rents out pedal boats for 40 baht an hour. It’s a short ride across the lagoon to the cave clearly visible on the opposite shore.

The Cave of Pillars

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The entrance to Pillar Cave
Entrance to The Cave of Pillars

Tham Sao Hin Pha Yanak (Pillar Cave), gets its name from the large number of stalactites and stalagmites that have fused together to form a maze of pillars climbing back into dark recesses of the mountain. It’s a bit like walking into the tooth filled mouth of some petrified monster. The only way to get there is by boat and there is a small wooden jetty just in front of the cave mouth.

You can go deep into the cave, but there’s a lot of slippery scrambling and climbing involved and you’ll get covered in chalk. The cave has a number of galleries and the paths are not always clear so it is easy to get disorientated as you twist and turn and squeeze between the pillars. And it gets dark very quickly as you go into the cave. At one point there is a long, rickety bamboo ladder, and we were told back at the restaurants that it was possible to get up it to the top of the cave and out through the roof. We just took their word for it. Poking around in the first few metres is safe enough but further in there are sudden edges and deep holes so be very careful and don’t go in alone or without taking sensible safety precautions.

The entrance to the village of Bahn Tham
Entrance to the village of
Bahn Tham

Finish off your exploration by pedalling round the placid lagoon, framed by karsts and surrounded by thick growth. In the dry season you can get out on the opposite bank and explore more on foot, but in the rainy season the undergrowth is too thick unless you have a squad with machetes. Jumping into the water is a great way to wash off the chalk and cool off before returning to shore and having a meal in one of the restaurants.

Getting there

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On Highway 1 at kilometre 877.5 there is a junction immediately before a police check point. Turn west towards the mountains and Wat Tham Pla is at the end of this road, about 1.5 km. There are several signs in English as well.



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