Archaeological travel guide to the ancient Chiang Mai temple of Wat Umong, a forest monastery built with tunnels to accommodate a monk driven to insanity.
Name: Wat U-mong Suan Phutthatham
Where: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Location: 18.783181, 98.951222
Description: Wat Umong is the oldest and most expansive forest monastery in Chiang Mai, containing underground tunnels meant to occupy the mad monk Thera Jan.
Getting there: A round-trip tuk-tuk should not cost more than 500 THB (USD 15).
Wat Umong Suan Phutthatham, straddling the base of Doi Suthep mountain is another temple unlike any that I had previously seen in Thailand. Taking a left off of the road that goes up to Wat Doi Suthep, and then passing some winding roads through a few neighborhoods, a tuk-tuk brought me to Wat Umong, the forest temple of Chiang Mai.
This wat has a quaint peacefulness to it in a very different way than Wat Doi Suthep does. It is spaced throughout with buildings blended well into the forest atmosphere and connected by a series of tiled pathways, some leading into a series of underground tunnels meant to contain and stimulated the cursed mind of the mad monk, Thera Jan.
The Story of Wat U-mong Suan Phutthatham
A Brief History of Wat Umong
Wat Umong is the first of the forest monasteries of Chiang Mai, dating back 700 years to the time of the Lanna Kingdom’s founding monarch, Mangrai. There is no information surrounding the official founding of the temple, however, documentation at the temple itself speaks of the temple existing as an Aranyawasi (forest temple) lying beyond the western walls of Wiang Suan Dok.
Clarifying the Names of Wat Umong
Throughout historical records and tourist literature, the Wat Umong temple is referred to by several different names. Also, further complicating this case is another temple named Wat Umong Maha Therachan within the Chiang Mai Old City, but that will be addressed later in more detail.
Firstly, a quick guide to the terms you’ll see here:
Jan (จัน) – moon*
Phutthatham (พุทธธรรม) – Buddhist teachings
Suan (สวน) – garden
Thera (เถร) – a senior monk
Umong (อุโมง) – tunnels
Wat (วัด) – temple or monastery
Wihan (วิหาร) – temple hall
*Note that “Jan (จัน)” in this case is the monk’s name
|Name||Name in Thai||Name meaning||Notes|
|Wat Umong/U-Mong||วัดอุโมง||“Temple of Tunnels”||Common name in tourist literature.|
|Wat Umong Suan Phutthatham||วัดอุโมง สวนพุทธธรรม||“Temple of the Tunnels and Garden of Buddhist Teachings||Modern official name of the temple.|
|Wat Umong Wihan||วัดอุโมง วิหาร||“Temple with Wihan in Tunnels”||Ancient name found in historic documents.|
|Wat Umong Thera Chan/Jan||วัดอุโมงค์ เถรจันทร์||“Tunnel of Temples of the Monk Chan/Jan”||One local/historical name. The Ch/J are used interchangeably in many Thai transliterations.|
|Wat Werukattatharam||วัดเวฬุกัฎฐาราม||Temple on 11 Clumps of Bamboo”||Also spelled Welukattharam. Named after the spot where the temple was built, in the forest near 11 clusters of bamboo.|
|Wat Umong Maha Thera Chan||วัดอุโมงค์มหาเถรจันทร์||“Temple of Tunnels of the Great Monk Chan/Jan”||Temple in the Chiang Mai Old City just south of Wat Chiang Man. Also referred to as “Wat Umong Ariya Monthon” in some historical literature.|
In one document, referencing the temple’s eponymous monk Chan (or Jan), it is said that he also was granted a location in the city by the king. The same document, the Banha Thera Jan, “The problems of (i.e. composed or solved by) the monk Jan” actually makes reference to 2 different Wat Umong temples, which led researcher Hans Penth to conclude that one is a reference to the forest monastery, and the name was also later attributed to Jan’s city temple, which was also known as “Wat Umong Ariya Monthon”
To avoid further confusion, I’ll be using the “Wat Umong” spelling for all in-text references to Wat U-Mong Suan Phutthatham in this article.
The Legendary Founding of Wat Umong Thera Jan
Like many aspects of Thailand’s ancient history, embellishments and folktales have grown around locations and figures, including in the Lanna Kingdom, where several decades of Burmese rule brought much of the Chiang Mai and its kingdom to abandonment and ruin. One such tale is in connection to Wat Umong (Wat U-mong Suan Phutthatham).
This legend places the founding of the temple a short time after the city of Chiang Mai was founded by King Mangrai. Mangrai ordered the temple built to indulge the habits of the learned monk Jan, who also suffered from a mental disorder, which included a tendency to wander from his monastery into the forests outside of Chiang Mai.
Such a habit meant the monk was often unavailable when called upon by the King for his sage advice.
This construction of Wat Umong included a maze of tunnels richly painted with vibrant forest and animal scenery. The monk, Jan, could then wander the tunnels in his semi-lucid state and still be found at the temple when the King was in need of him.
The Legend of the Mad Monk Thera Jan
Another legend addresses the monk’s mental disorder, stating that it was actually divinely induced, also explaining the Jan’s adept understanding of Buddhist scriptures. This is found in the aforementioned Banha Thera Jan text. The entire legend is described in detail in an abstract written by historian Hans Penth (complete text can be found here).
The legend tells of a young monk named Jan from a village outside of Chiang Mai, which Penth surmises is southwest to the southwest of the Old City. It goes on to tell us how the young monk climbed Doi Suthep mountain in order to chant holy texts at the newly enshrined Buddha relic at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.
Here is where the written legend deviates from the folktale This story of a white elephant bringing the Buddha relic from Wat Suan Dok up Doi Suthep is an event that is specifically dated to the reign of King Kuena. Penth dates this event to 1380-85, during the reign of King Kuena, which the Banha Thera Jan text then goes on to name later in its telling.
The monk Jan’s purpose for performing these rituals was in order to gain an increased capacity to quickly learn and understand the Buddhist teachings and writings. What happened next ended up being a blessing and a curse:
“While he was thus reciting, a beautiful goddess approached him, questioned him about what he was doing there and then asked if he would leave the monkhood once he had gained intelligence.”
“When he replied in the negative, she handed him the desired intelligence as something small to eat. Taking the intelligence from her, he also grasped her hand, and for this immodest act she told him that in the future, he would be mentally deranged.”Hans Penth
After this, Jan returned home and quickly became an expert on these texts with the goddesses’ blessing. However, he was also struck with the habit of wandering unconsciously into the forests.
Jan soon gained the attention of Kuena, who visited him and offered him a position under the head monk of Wat Werukattatharam (the former name of Wat Umong), named so for 11 bunches of bamboo in the area — much as in the folk legend.
However, unlike the folk legend, it was actually Kuena who had the tunnels built for Jan so that he could wander freely without leaving the temple, eventually giving it the name Wat Umong Thera Jan, or “Temple of Tunnels for the Monk Jan”.
Wat Umong’s Revised History Based on Archaeological Evidence
While the popular folk tale explains the creation of the forest monastery, several other aspects don’t line up with the more ancient founding date of King Mangrai’s time. Researchers now place the creation of Wat Umong during the reign of King Kuena (1355-1385 CE).
This revised date based on three main items of analysis: the style of the paintings found within the subterranean tunnels, the architecture (especially of the stupa), and other supporting historical documents, such as the Banha Thera Jan manuscript.
At one time, murals lined the walls of all the subterranean tunnels. Many of these stucco adornments have since faded or crumbled away, however, enough remained for experts to date the style to 1380-1450. This date coincides with the later part of Kuena’s reign. Given that Kuena’s time as king brought in many aspects of Sri Lankan Buddhism, it’s not surprising to find such elements reflected in the paintings.
According to a display on Wat Umong’s paintings at the Chiang Mai National Museum,
“The polychrome mural painting on maroon background. The motifs were mainly green painted, were ornamented with vermilion and white, the drawing lines were bolded with black color…The designs consist of floras, swans, peacocks, egrets and gandas. The main motifs are peony bouquets rows on the middle of ceiling.”Chiang Mai National Museum
Above the tunnels stands an open courtyard with the temple’s stupa (chedi). The shape and details of the stupa are characteristic of a later date, ranging from 1450-1550 CE. According to Penth, there is evidence of restoration work done sometime in the early 1800s CE.
Wat Umong’s Restoration in the 1940s
Like many other parts of Chiang Mai, Wat Umong was abandoned at one point, likely during the Burmese rule of the city. If this were the case, it would mean a second era of abandonment between the 1800s restoration and 1900, when the stupa was broken and looted. I was unable to find any records of the items that would have been stored in this specific stupa’s reliquary, unfortunately.
Wat Umong was brought back into service as an active monastery in 1949. This effort was largely led by Jao Chun Sirorot and the locals in the Suthep neighborhood surrounding the ancient temple.
When they began the restoration, the temple had been reclaimed by the subtropical jungle and overgrown. Wat Umong’s namesake tunnels were filled with sand reaching up to a meter high, leaving space only to crawl rather than walk.
The entire process involved an intensive clearing of the thick jungle foliage, built-up sand, and debris. The tunnels, which had been left open and unprotected for a century were subjected to the worst damage. When removing the build-up of soil, the workers had no idea that there were paintings on the wall.s the Efforts to remove the sand also stripped away many of the centuries-old paintings lining the walls of Wat Umong.
Forest Monasteries in Ancient Lanna
Forest monasteries have a long history in the Buddhist world, not only in Thailand. Much of the Buddhist tradition in the ancestral Thai kingdoms comes from Sri Lankan Buddhism, where forest monasteries are quite commonplace going back almost 2000 years. This falls in line with the ascetic tradition of the Gautama Buddha himself, who spent many prolonged and isolated periods far from civilization during his legendary quest for enlightenment (see Dungeshwari Caves).
Meanwhile, forest monasteries in Thailand have existed from the Dvaravati age at sites such as Phu Phrabat, through the era of independent Thai kingdoms (see Kamphaeng Phet’s aranyak temples), and continue to the modern day. The idea behind later forest monasteries is the ability of monks to remove themselves from the distractions of city life and further contemplate the teachings of Gautama.
Such forest monasteries gain an interesting and exalted status during the reign of Kuena, with the further integration of Lankawong (Sri Lankan) Buddhism. Kuena was highly invested in the Aranyavasi (forest-dwelling sect), and eager to expand patronage to this strict and erudite interpretation of Theravada Buddhism.
In 1369 (~15 years before meeting Jan) Kuena summoned the Sri Lankan monk Sumana Thera from Sukhothai to Lanna. Sumana Thera brought with him a Buddhist relic that was later enshrined in Wat Suan Dok and Wat Doi Suthep, which remain two of the most important temples in all of Thailand to this day.
Kuena later put Sumana Thera in charge of the Lanna Lankawong sect of Buddhism, particularly the aranyavasi (forest dwellers).
Despite conquering the city of Hariphunchai (modern Lamphun), Lanna’s founder, Mangrai, had left the city intact as the flourishing heart of Buddhism in the region that is now northern Thailand. This action by Kuena a century later fundamentally shifted the center of Buddhism in the region from Hariphunchai to Chiang Mai.
Visiting Wat U-mong Suan Phutthatham
My first visit to Wat Umong was in November of 2011, during my first month in Thailand. In the time since, and particularly since moving to Chaing Mai, I’ve come to much better understand both the history of the temple and how it connects to the greater history of the ancient Lanna Kingdom.
“With each day passing,the ‘Talking Trees’ of Wat Umong
what have you been doing?”
The “Talking Trees” Signs
One of the first things you’ll notice as you enter the grounds of Wat Umong is an assortment of signs in English spout random quotes of fleeting wisdom. These quotes painted onto wooden signs are known as the “talking trees”. It’s important to note that these are not quotes from Siddhartha Gautama, nor any texts associated with his teachings, nor even Buddhist text in general, as was my initial impression.
While often in need of spellcheck, these signs add to the pleasant atmosphere as you walk deeper into the forest monastery.
The Monks’ Abode Pond Waterfront
Turning left down the initial path, you come to a large pond with an island in the center and 2 small footbridges connecting it to the shore. This area is called the monk’s abode and is lined with several buildings where the resident monks of Wat Umong are housed.
Although it wouldn’t surprise me at all if this pond were artificial, the spot is nonetheless tranquil and dotted with a few statues of important Buddhist figures. It has, unfortunately, also become a popular spot for selfies and wedding photos since my initial visit, but there are also people there simply to take the opportunity to feed the fish in the pond.
Once past the brides and selfie area, this is the quietest spot of the whole temple.
Monk’s Chat on Sundays
I had chosen to come this day because of a weekly lecture given by an English-speaking monk. I wasn’t quite sure where on the Wat grounds to find this lecture, though I quickly found him and a small group of about 10 foreigners all gathered in a gazebo not too far from this pond.
The monk was a reserved, though strongly spoken British man around 60. I walked in about 10 minutes, maybe more, after his lecture had started. It began with the basics on Buddhism and how it impacts the lifestyle and mindset throughout Thailand.
Eventually, once he had begun taking questions, there arose an unyielding bombardment of Christian-centric queries, seemingly more in effort to defend their own beliefs than genuine curiosity. I can understand asking questions for the purpose of comparison when your basis for analysis is a monotheistic tradition. However, these questioners seemed to be simply trying to shoot holes in another’s religion using only their own as ammunition.
One intriguing question that did not come out as harshly, though, was what Buddhism’s take on gods, devils, and specifically a creator god was.
To answer this question on gods and demons, the lecturer admitted, unexpectedly, that it doesn’t matter. Yes, Buddhism arose out of the Hindu belief system and incorporates much of its cosmology into many facets of Buddhism, including representations of its deities within many temples. The closest thing to an ultimate deity in Hinduism is Brahma, the creator.
Rather than establish a cosmology or recognize a set of gods to worship as Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, or Judaism do, Buddhism is, he says, a system of self-betterment. It is not concerned with the universe, but with the self.
Exploring Wat U-Mong’s Tunnels
After the lecture disbanded, I continued around the large temple grounds. One of the rumors I had heard about this temple was about a system of underground tunnels. It turned out that they did indeed exist as 3 parallel and intersecting tunnels built into a large platform, on the top of which was a very large brick stupa.
The southern face of the temple’s artificial mound has 3 entrances to the tunnels. These three tunnels all parallel each other until they intersect with an east-west tunnel which contains the central vihara (wihan) of the temple. This vihara has 2 large Buddha idols, one at the end of the central tunnel, and one at the western end of the east-west tunnel.
According to legend, these tunnels were once painted elaborate murals of both the natural and supernatural scenes in order to stimulate the mind of the mad monk Thera Jan, who had been cursed by the same goddesses who granted him supernatural intelligence. However, restoration efforts in the 20th Century unknowingly stripped away the stucco that contained most of these murals.
Today only a small amount of the murals remain. One such image displays the classical “Passing Buddha” image, and is the oldest known such image in Lanna. The majority of Wat Umong’s namesake tunnels are lined with bare bricks and some patches of crumbling stucco. However, all the tunnels still retain their original niches, which have various Buddhist images placed within them.
While not the quasi-mystical intrigue of actual subterranean tunnels, these were interesting to walk down, and a few times a bit too short for me. And, while you can edit from one of the three entryways on the temple’s southern face, there is also another tunnel path splitting off of the inner east-west tunnel leading up some stairs to the open temple grounds atop Wat Umong’s network of tunnels.
Atop the Central Mound
Sitting on the artificial terrace of Wat Umong is its distinctive Chedi (stupa). The Lanka-style bell chedi is surrounded by a level field of grass. At first glance, there really isn’t much distinguishing it from the rest of the stupas around Chiang Mai, or Thailand in general.
This stupa is a three-level chedi characteristic of style between 1450-1550, incorporating many aspects of Sukhothai style. This likely stems from the influence of the monk Sumana Thera who came to Chiang Mai at the request of King Kuena in 1369, and subsequently took over one of Chiang Mai’s largest schools of Buddhism.
While the stupa was broken into around 1900, subsequent restoration efforts have repaired the damage to the point you can’t even tell now.
Little else stands accompanying the stupa atop the artificial mound, although there is one conspicuous statue of the emaciated Gautama Buddha. This image is a bit unsettling at first, but stems from the story of his time nearly starving to death in the Dungeshwari Caves near Gaya, right before his enlightenment.
South of the Chedi is a long staircase lined with Naga serpent carvings leading back down to the ground level, as well as the southern face where the entrances to the tunnels are found.
The Relic Garden of Broken Buddhas
Leaving the Naga staircase or any of the three entrances to the Wat Umong’s tunnels, you will notice a leafy garden littered with shattered sculptures. This collection of Wat Umong’s Buddha relics are salvaged sculptures from other wats. Some of the pieces were clearly very old, but retaining an unexpected amount of detail for their age and condition. Exploring the details of these broken relics became my favorite part of visiting Wat Umong.
Many of these heads display features of the Phayao School of Buddha images, made between 1400-1550 CE. They were collected by Jao Chun Sirorot and others during the years Wat Umong was undergoing restoration in the mid-1900s. The majority of the images seen here are from abandoned monasteries in Phayao province.
One additional curiosity of Wat Umong to see on the way out is its replica of an Ashoka Pillar. Ashoka, who was a powerful conqueror in India later adopted Buddhism, installed such pillars throughout his vast Maurya Empire. Of course, this was 1500 years before Chiang Mai was founded and his empire never reached anywhere near Thailand, but his pillars did become a symbol of his state religion of Buddhism.
The Pillar at Wat Umong is a modern replica, dating neither from Ashoka’s time nor even the early days of Lanna and Wat Umong. It was instead commissioned by the patrons of the temple only after it had been reinvigorated in the 20th Century. Nevertheless, the pillar is a unique feature not found at any other temples in Chiang Mai, nor any others in Thailand that I am aware of.
After finishing my initial visit, I unintentionally took the long way back to the main entrance, walking past many unfamiliar buildings before I got back to the parking lot. Closing back in on the main area, I noticed a road heading up a small hill. Going up a short way, it became clear that this was to the residences of at least a portion of the monks. I figured that was a path better left alone.
Unfortunately, the cab that had told me he would wait for about 20 minutes had no doubt left well over a half-hour ago. So, I had to wait a while before another visitor came in their tuk-tuk, which I snatched up and took back into the heart of Chiang Mai.
How to Get to Wat U-mong Suan Phutthatham
GPS Coordinates: 18.78345, 98.95121
Wat Umong is located on the far western edges of Chiang Mai at the foot of Doi Suthep, about 3 km from the eastern gate of the Old City (Suan Dok Gate). If driving yourself, the easiest way is to begin at Suan Dok Gate and go East on Suthep Road. Follow this road for about 2.5 km past Wat Suan Dok, Nimmanhaemin Rd, and Canal Road, which will put you in the Suthep neighborhood.
Turn left (south) onto one of several small streets branching off of Suthep road. Despite them seeming to be narrow and branching, they all eventually end up converging and passing Wat Umong. The temple has its own free parking lot for motorbikes and cars.
Alternatively, any tuk-tuk or taxi in the city can bring you. If taking a tuk-tuk, it’s advisable that you ask for them to wait for you, as there may otherwise not be another coming to this area for a while — resulting in a long wait.
A round-trip tuk-tuk from the Chiang Mai Old City should not cost more than 500 THB.
A forest-dwelling sect in Thai Theravada Buddhism who are removed from the distractions of city life in order to better contemplate the Buddhist teachings.
Pillars erected by the Maurya Emperor Ashoka throughout the Indian Subcontinent, which were inscribed with the merits of Buddhism.
Dharmic religion centered on the belief of karma and release from the cycle of reincarnation. Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.
City in northern Thailand and historic capital of the Lanna Kingdom founded by King Mengrai in 1293.
Revered mountain on the western edge of Chiang Mai. The mountain peak has been used by both the Hariphunchai and Lanna Kingdoms to house sacred Buddhist relic temples.
Dvaravati kingdom in northern Thailand centered in the modern town of Lamphun. Eventually conquered by the Lanna Kingdom.
City in Central Thailand and historically part of the Sukhothai Kingdom.
Lanna king from 1355-1385 CE. He expanded the Lanna domain to its largest extent and founded the Lankawong school of Buddhism in Lanna.
A sect of Theravada Buddhism based on Sri Lankan teachings.
Thai kingdom based in northern Thailand and northwestern Laos. Its capitals included Chiang Rai, Wiang Kum Kam, and Chiang Mai.
Final ruler of the Ngoenyang Kingdom (Chiang Saen) and founder of the Lanna Kingdom from 1291-1311 who established Wiang Kum Kam in 1286 and its successor Chiang Mai in 1293.
City in northern Thailand and historic center of the Phayao Kingdom before becoming part of the Lanna Kingdom.
A legendary prince born in Lumphini, Nepal who would go on to found Buddhism. Known generally as the “Buddha”.
City in central-northern Thailand and abandoned capital of the Sukhothai Kingdom.
Thai word meaning “temple”
Wat Suan Dok
“Flower Garden Temple”, a historic temple west of Chiang Mai built by King Kuena to house the Buddhist Relic from the Sri Lankan monk Sumanathera.
- “Head of Buddha Image Phayao School” sign. The 7th Office of Fine Arts Department, Chiangmai. Wat U-mong Suan Phutthatham, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
- “Painting at Wat U-Mong” display. Chiang Mai National Museum, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
- Penth, Hans. “A NOTE ON THE HISTORY OF WAT UMONG THERA JAN (CHIANG MAl).” Journal of the Siam Society, vol. 62, no. 2, 1974.
- “Phaya Kua Na” display. Chiang Mai National Museum, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
- “Raman Buddhism (Old Lankawong) from Sukhothai” display. Chiang Mai National Museum, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
- “U-Mong Temple” silver plaque sign. The 7th Office of Fine Arts Department, Chiangmai. Wat U-mong Suan Phutthatham, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
- “WAT UMONG THERAJAN” tablet. U-mong Suan Phutthatham, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
- “Wat Umong.” Wat Umong, “The Tunnel Temple”, www.renown-travel.com/temples/wat-umong.html.
- Williams, Benjamin. “Wiang Suan Dok: Ancient Chiang Mai’s Holy Outer City.” Paths Unwritten, 22 July 2019, https://pathsunwritten.com/suan-dok-chiang-mai/.