Constructed in 1297, Wat Umong (Umong is the Thai word for tunnel) is among the oldest of Chiang Mai’s temples. Situated in the afternoon shadow of Doi Suthep Mountain, the temple was constructed by the Lanna King Mengrai, the founder of Chiang Mai. According to legend, there was a monk in a temple in Chiang Mai named Thera Chan whom the king regularly consulted with. As Chiang Mai grew in size and became increasingly busy the monk had a hard time finding a quiet place to meditate. The king had Wat Umong constructed on the outskirts of town near just at the base of Doi Suthep so that the monk could meditate in peace in the tunnels that were constructed there. Some others believe that the tunnels constructed there were painted with bush scenes to keep Thera Chan occupied as he had become senile with age and often wandered off into the forest for days at a time. Whatever the truth the temple has continued to delight. The temple itself was abandoned in the 15th century and left to the jungle, during 1948 the temple was reclaimed and re-occupied and has since enjoyed a renaissance and remained occupied by monks ever since.
Wat Umong takes up over 6 hectares (15 acres) of land at the base of Doi Suthep Mountain which makes it an ideal place for escaping the heat of the city with its lush trees growing everywhere in sight. The temple is filled with the sounds of various birds, insects, and the wind rustling through the trees which make it the perfect place to get away from the hustle of city life.
Near the south side of the temple grounds lies the large pond that many consider a highlight of the temple where several species thrive, you’ll see water birds, ducks, turtles, fish, butterflies, and other animals enjoying time in and around the water. If one is lucky you may catch a glimpse of one of the peacocks that have been known to inhabit the temple and nearby forest. For a small fee, there is a local vendor who sells fish and bird food as well as refreshments for human consumption.
Near the western side of the temple complex there is a large man-made earthen mound out of which are carved several intersecting tunnels with several areas carved out for sacred shrines, or as Thera Chan may have preferred, for quiet meditation. Feel free to wander the tunnels and take in the mysterious air of the centuries old complex.
Atop the earthen mound is the large and ancient bell shaped Chedi of the temple. It is a spectacular sight given its age and often seen wrapped in gold or orange cloth.
Outside the entrance to the tunnels, one will find hundreds of buddha images, both large and small, and new and old. The one thing the images seem to have in common is that they are all broken in some way. Apparently some time ago some worshippers brought some of the broken buddha images here from an abandoned temple and since then worshippers have been bringing more and more tired, worn, and broken buddha images ever since. Many are covered in moss as the jungle has attempted to reclaim them for itself adding to the air of mystery surrounding the area.
Residing within the temple grounds lies a copy of an Ashoka pillar dating back to the 13th century. The history of the pillar relates to the Indian King Ashoka who during the 3rd century BC, sent monks across South Asia to spread Buddhism, many pillars were erected in various countries that were visited and inscribed with details about the spread of Buddhism.
The temple also serves as a place for learning meditation and also about Dhamma which is the teachings of the Buddha. On the temple grounds is the Meditation and International Buddhist Education Center which opened in 2005. Feel free to enquire within for class times and activities available to people from all walks of life whether Thai or Foreigner. Many classes are also held in English. For those with a more casual interest, every Sunday between 3 and 6pm talks are held in English near in the Chinese pagoda near the large pond, monks will explain the basics of Buddhism and you may ask them questions.
The Temple is open from 6am-5pm, and there is no admission fee. Visitors can feel free to wander the temple grounds for as long as they wish. As with any Buddhist Temple it is expected that you dress respectfully and keep your voice low so as not to disturb those who are praying or meditating.