Encompassing a vast limestone eminence near Krabi town, Wat Tham Seua is a forest temple founded by the famous Thai meditation monk, Ajahn Jumnien. Translating as “Tiger Cave Temple,” the name comes from a small cave where wild tigers used to sleep, and also a rock outcrop that resembles a tiger paw.
The tigers have long since vanished, leaving paw prints in the cave that now houses a shrine with a statue of a tiger and numerous Buddha images. Other interesting features include an oddly placed whale skull and human skeletons used to aid in contemplating the impermanence of life. Signaling the area’s Chinese influence, a towering Chinese-style pagoda houses a giant statue of Kuan Yin, the Mahayana “goddess” of compassion.
The temple’s main draw is a Buddha image and golden chedi perched atop the cliff with a large lookout platform. The views from here are breathtaking — Khao Phanom Bencha looms to the north, the steep karst cliffs that cut Railay off from the rest of the mainland rise to the west and the mouth of the Krabi river empties into the sea to the south. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Ko Phi Phi.
A steep 278-metre-high stairway with no less than 1,237 steps, some over 20 inches high, is the only way to reach the chedi. It’s an exhausting climb, even for those in good shape. Bring plenty of water — and keep bottles secured from the ever-present troupes of monkeys that like to snatch drinks and whatever else they can get their hands on, including hats and cameras.
The best times to make the climb are early morning or late afternoon; attempting it under the midday sun is not recommended. At any time, be prepared to expend some serious energy — we’re still huffing as we write this. If you’re an endurance athlete (or lunatic), sign up for the Thailand Vertical Mile Stair Climbing Challenge. It took the current record holders 255 minutes to climb and descend the stairs six times in a row.
Wat Tham Seua also has an intriguing history. Born in 1936 and trained in childhood by his doctor/shaman/fortune-teller/meditation master father, Ajahn Jumnien took residence in Surat Thani province in the 1960s. Then a stronghold of a Thai Communist insurgency, the area saw bloody fighting for several years. The monk served as an influential neutral figure, brokering ceasefires and providing a forest sanctuary for locals and fighters from both sides of the conflict.
When the war drew to a close in the mid ‘70s, Ajahn Jumnien set out on tudong (ascetic wandering) and found the caves to the north of Krabi town to be suitable for meditation. He had become well known as a master of meditation, compassion and wisdom, and with local support, Wat Tham Seua grew up around him. He can still be spotted with several talismans, mostly animal bones and teeth, hanging from his robes. These were accepted from lay-people and worn as a symbolic gesture of carrying the weight of their karma.
At the temple’s Thamseua Khaokaeo Vipassana Center, Ajahn Jumnien continues to teach insight and loving-kindness meditation in Thai (his English is limited). Visitors can walk a forest path with a white jade Buddha image and old-growth trees among the hanging mosquito nets that protect meditating monks and white-clad lay-practitioners. Methodically climbing up to the chedi can also be a meditative exercise.
Admission to Wat Tham Seua is free but donations are appreciated. It’s open every day from sun up to sun down. Visitors must dress appropriately: shirts should cover the shoulders and shorts/skirts must go past the knees.
How to get there
Several types of songthaews can drop you at Big C, from where the temple is about a kilometre away, and maroon songthaews will run you straight to the temple for 30 baht from Krabi town. A motorbike taxi can take you here for around 400 baht roundtrip. If going by private car or motorbike, head north out of Krabi town on Uttarakit Road and take a right on to Phet Kasem Road (Route 4). The temple is located directly off a side road that shoots east (it's a left off Phet Kasem) right before the Big C shopping centre. There's only a single old faded sign from that direction so keep your eyes peeled.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 3rd May, 2015.