Not to be missed
Published/Last edited or updated: 25th July, 2018
A row of hills along the northern edge of town is all that separates Tha Ton from the border and Burma’s Shan State and dotted among these forested slopes and strung along the summit ridges you’ll find the sprawling temple complex of Wat Tha Ton.
Many mountain tops in this rugged part of Thailand feature pagodas, temples or stupas but this, to our minds, is one of the most impressive—an eclectic collection of shrines, statues, Buddha images (both Thai and Chinese styles) and increasingly impressive views as you ascend, culminating in a huge, multi-coloured, hill-top stupa.
Standing at the foot of the hill on the main road, it looks quite a climb to the top (it is) although the path does ascend gradually through a series of levels with something to see, plus different views, at each step. Take it slowly with plenty of pauses and you’ll make it in one piece. Of course, you could just hire a motorbike and drive up the sealed road that winds its way up, but then you’d be missing half the fun.
The steps begin just on the west side of the bridge and lead through some rock gardens with elaborate Chinese-style salas and statues overlooking the river. After this, level one includes a dharma school for novices, the abbot’s office and perhaps of more interest to casual tourists, a good coffee shop. The gold-leaf-coated chedi you see on this level is certainly the oldest part of the temple and is said to contain Buddha relics such as hair and bone.
Level two, a short walk further up, is home to the main ordination hall above which, peering through the trees, you’ll spot the giant, seated, white Buddha on the level above. You can see this huge statue from pretty much anywhere in Tha Ton. The principal temple admin buildings over and done with, the path and steps become more attractive, leading you through forest and rock outcrops with occasional small shrines and statues along the way.
Level four has the meditation centre—a modern building surmounted by another giant Buddha image in the corresponding meditation position—so, seated and protected by a seven-headed Naga. Views from here are already tremendous and you’re not even at the top yet! Have a good rest because the next stretch is a steep climb. Level five has a large car-park, more statues and minor shrines, a coffee shop and a cafe, all dominated by Chedi Kaew Pagoda.
We’re not sure how to begin describing it... “highly eclectic” is a safe bet, with the architects, working under the abbot’s direction, seeming to have included elements of just about every Buddhist (and some non-Buddhist) styles you can think of. Decorators meanwhile have gone through the entire paint palette plus construction is still ongoing with new elements being continually added. To Western eyes it may appear gaudy or kitsch but it’s undeniably impressive and views are stupendous. Incidentally, being above the treetops, it also happens to be a good spot for bird watching. Two floors of arched colonnades surround the pagoda’s base while inside a staircase, open to the public, continues up to a third level within and a viewing point.
From the fifth level, if you wish to go further, a sealed road continues east along an undulating ridge through the forest to a series of peaks and additional shrines, terminating at yet another impressive Buddha image, this time a gold-painted standing one. Raised wooden walkways have also been added through the forest linking up some of these various shrines as well as affording alternative vistas. If you look at the hill on the opposite bank of the river you can even see the Thai Army positions way up on the ridge-top.
This last stretch is worth it for the scenery if you have enough energy left, but you do have to go down the same way, unless you follow the very winding vehicle road down. The complex is predominantly the work of one man: the current abbot, Phra Ratpariyatimethee, who’s been creating it bit by bit over the last 35 years.
Visit time will depend on your walking pace and break times but at a pinch, you could probably dash up and down in less than two hours, though at a leisurely pace and with plenty of stops for photos and coffee we’d say allow half a day. If you have transport then sunset and sunrise are obviously great times to visit but if you’re on foot you wouldn’t want to be going either up nor down in the dark.
The official opening times—if you’re entering any of the buildings—are 08:00-17:00. Correct, respectful attire is required of course.
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.