A passage through the dragon’s mouth takes you to two impressive caves and a mountaintop chedi affording tremendous river views at Wat Ban Tham, and if you don’t mind the steep climb, this is the mountain-cave temple that we suggest above all others in Kanchanaburi.
The “Village of Caves Temple” has been a site of Buddhist activity since at least the early Ayutthaya period, perhaps as long ago as the 12th century. Resident forest monks oversee nine caves in total, though most visitors only hit the two largest on their way up the mountain.
The journey begins with a steep set of stairs between balustrades depicting naga serpents. Then comes an enormous dragon with swirling eyeballs daring you to keep climbing into its mouth and up through a human-made tunnel punctuated by murals. On our visit, sunlight pierced through the windows as monks applied a fresh coat of red paint to the stairs.
Just beyond the dragon tunnel, the first cave enshrines an ancient U-thong style Buddha image known as Luang Por Yai Chinnaraj. Seated in the Subduing Mara posture, it’s placed at the back of a large cavern that stays cool thanks to air flowing through the front entrance and out a second hole in the limestone. A monk sat ready to splash visitors with holy water.
From here the stairs become steeper and turn to steel as you climb through a massive crag. On the other side, a rocky trail fastened with concrete steps continues up to the second cave, Tham Man Wijit, hosting a shrine to the hermit Ruesi along with colourful ribbons and metre-long stalactites that grab the eerie glow of red, yellow and blue lights. We emerged into the cool outside breeze sweating heavily due to the hot, stagnant air inside.
Clusters of bamboo lean over the trail as you approach a pinnacle crowned with a four-faced statue of Brahma, among other statuary, and a gold-painted chedi at the end. This was a tiring climb and at this point it was time to take a breath while absorbing a fabulous Mae Khlong River vista set to the gentle chiming of prayer bells in the wind.
Wat Ban Tham is usually hit on the same trip as Wat Tham Sua and Wat Tham Khao Noi, which are located four kilometres further south down the same road and also have their share of stairs. In between you could stop at Wat Tham Faed, another cave temple with more stairs. After all of this you might cruise back north for eight kilometres and cut west to Wat Tham Mangkon Thong, a smaller cave temple known for its “floating nun” performances, which cost 200 baht and star a nun who isn’t quite as buoyant as her predecessor, we were told.
How to get there
Wat Ban Tham is located 10 km south of downtown Kanchanaburi on the west side of the Mae Khlong River and is not included on the usual group tours. Expect a songthaew or tuk tuk to charge 500 to 1,000 baht for a round trip that would also include Wat Tham Sua and Wat Tham Khao Noi.
If coming on your own, take Sangchuto south out of downtown Kanchanaburi and hang a right at a traffic light onto Mae Nam Mae Klong Road, just after the Government Hospital. You’ll pass the immigration office on your left before reaching a bridge; take the first left after crossing the river and you’ll be on Highway 3429, which continues south between the river and some large Chinese cemeteries. Marked by English signs, Wat Ban Tham will be on the right after six km.
By David Luekens.
Last updated on 11th February, 2017.
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