A wooded hill on the north edge of town is all that separates Tha Ton from the border and Burma’s Shan State; you can’t miss it thanks to Wat Tha Ton sprawling up the entire hillside. The temple includes an eclectic collection of shrines, statues, Buddha images — both Thai and Chinese styles, seated and standing — and increasingly impressive views as you ascend, culminating in the huge multi-coloured, hilltop pagoda. A lot of hilltop temples feature in this mountainous part of the country, but this is one of the best.
Standing at the foot of the hill on the main road, it looks quite a climb to the top — and it is –though the path ascends through a series of levels with something to see, plus different views, at each step. Take it slowly, with plenty of pauses, and it’s not so bad. 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 dhamma 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 see the giant seated white Buddha on the level above. (You can see the huge statue from most of Tha Ton.) The principal temple 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 such as the Chinese-style Buddha image below.
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 carpark, more statues and minor shrines, a coffee shop and even a cafe, all dominated by Chedi Kaew Pagoda, to give it its full name. 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. Decorators meanwhile have gone through the entire paint colour range. Yes, to Western eyes it may be gaudy or kitsch, but it’s undeniably impressive. The construction isn’t finished yet but it’s clearly a feat already — they have some good photos of the process on the temple’s website.
Views are stupendous. Incidentally, being above the treetops, it also happens to be a good spot for bird watching. Inside the pagoda is a staircase open to the public; two floors of arched colannades surround the chedi’s base and the staircase continues up to a third level within the chedi itself.
From this 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.
As well as vistas back across town and the Kok valley, this viewpoint also provides views back over Burma; if you look at the hill on the opposite bank of the river you can see the Thai Army positions 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 under two hours, though at a leisurely pace and with plenty of stops 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. Official opening times — if you’re entering any of the buildings — is 08:00-17:00. Correct, respectful attire is required of course.
The foot access is just to the west of the bridge while the road is another 100 metres further on.
By Mark Ord.