In Thailand, a Reliquary in the Trees

A dispatch from Wat Umong, a Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai

By / June 2014

A slight breeze blows through the trees, the only break from the wet summer heat. The ground in front of me is covered with torsos, some without heads. The leaves rustle, a dog barks in the distance, both competing to be heard over the loud rhythmic chanting of young monks dressed in orange robes.

This is not the scene from a Apichatpong Weerasethakul film or the site of a massacre by a ghoulish cult. Rather I am standing in the Wat Umong or “Tunnel Temple,” a necropolis of now-broken and discarded religious icons in northern Thailand, outside of Chiang Mai. Said to have been built in 1297 by King Mangrai, the first king of Chiang Mai, Wat Umong’s ancient tunnels and its charnel for sacred statues distinguish this shrine from the plethora of Buddhist temples scattered across Thailand.

Photograph by Aaron Goccia

The icons are a recent addition. Between 1968 and 1970 some of the temple’s monks journeyed north to the province of Phrao. On their travels they happened upon many abandoned temples and monasteries. Amid the rubble was a number of broken and discarded Buddha statues, some dating to the 1400’s. They brought the icons back to Wat Umong, placing them in a small, peaceful area shaded by hulking trees.

Over time monks and locals began to deposit more discarded relics – busts of the Buddha, effigies of the kings, a statue of Ganesh the elephant headed god, devas, broken dragons, brightly painted pottery, sections of stone relief carvings depicting scenes from the Buddhist scriptures, and other interesting religious relics. Wat Umong boasts one of the only statues of the fasting Buddha in all of Thailand, a country with more than 60 million Buddhists.

The reliquary is equal parts moving and disquieting. One relishes the encounter with such history and tradition, even as one rues the decrepitude of the carved stones. And yet there is something refreshing about encountering these treasures out of doors, in nature, not isolated from the elements but in league with them, subjected to the same wind and heat and rain as the trees and the pilgrims who flock from all over to plod among these cracked statues.

After wandering through the fields of sacred debris, I head for the underground tunnels. Legend has it, they were constructed for a brilliant yet mentally scattered monk named Jan. His aspiration to gain enlightenment to better understand the Buddhist scriptures drove him to the temple atop Suthep Mountain. He earnestly sought to meditate without distraction.

Photograph by Aaron Goccia

At the entryway, I remove my shoes, a sign of respect throughout Asia. I step forward into the dim corridor as a cool, moist breeze rolls past my face from deep within. The smell of mildew stings my nostrils. I wander the tunnels amidst smoky, swirling clouds emanating from tall thin red sticks of burning incense. I pass three saffron robed monks busy reciting prayers in front of Buddha statues tucked into recesses in the walls.

After meditating for several days and nights, the story continues, a beautiful goddess appeared to Jan. She tested him, asking if he would leave the monkhood once he received divine enlightenment. When Jan assured her that he would not, she held out her hand. In her palm was intelligence in the form of a piece of food. As he reached to take the morsel from her, he grasped her hand, something that was considered immodest. As a result of his actions, she altered his mind so that he would become mentally disturbed.

People came from great distances to learn from Jan. But true to the curse, his notoriety was hindered by his apparent absentmindedness and aimless wandering. People would seek to meet with Jan only to learn that he was ambling somewhere in the jungle. This is when King Mangrai had the tunnels built and the walls inside painted with jungle scenes. The hope was that Jan would busy himself with roaming the tunnels so as not to stray too far from the temple.

I spend a half hour looking in vain for remnants of painted jungle scenes before heading for the exit, reentering the green swelter of the temple compound. On the way back to my car, I pass several “talking trees,” their signs emblazoned with Buddhist mantras. “All things arise, exist, and expire,” one reads. Another: “Detachment is a way to relax.” About expiration and detachment I am unsure. But I know that my idea of relaxing, at least at this moment, is getting into the car and turning the AC on full blast.


Photographer Aaron Goccia is an EthnoTraveler contributor.