In a city full of wats (Buddhist temples), Wat Umong is the most unique and least-visited in Chiang Mai. Tucked away on the western edge of town in the forested mountain foothills, this wat contains a network of centuries-old tunnels still used by Buddhist monks.
Local lore states that the wat was founded in the 13th century by King Mangrai. The king regularly met with a monk in Chiang Mai, who preferred to meditate inside of a tunnel. As the city grew and the monk found it harder to find quiet refuge in his subterranean sanctuary, King Mangrai ordered a system of tunnels be built on the forested edge of town.
Archaeological evidence and written sources conflict with this original legend. Instead, the style of painting within the tunnels as well as the architecture of the stupa above match the period between 1380-1450. This is supported by a written text called the Banha Thera Jan, which tells how King Kuena offered the monk Jan a position at Wat Umong and had the tunnels constructed for him.
Soon, this network of tunnels had sprouted into a fully functioning temple. Wat Umong remained active until the 15th century, when it was mysteriously abandoned. In 1900, the stupa was broken and its relics looted. Reconstruction efforts began in 1948, including repairing the stupa and clearing dirt built up a meter high from the tunnel system. Unfortunately, this also destroyed many of the paintings that lined the tunnel walls.
Today the wat is an active center, used by monks and locals. The tunnel system once again contains various shrines. There’s also a large, somewhat rare statue of the fasting Buddha sitting atop one of the tunnels and hiding among the trees. The forest is dotted with Buddhist sayings nailed to trees and old, decaying statues of the Buddha are scattered about the grounds. Visitors to Wat Umong will also find a pretty lake, a spiritual center, a small museum, and lots of chickens roaming around.
Know Before You Go
The wat is a few miles outside of the old town. You can use a taxi, songathew, tuk tuk, or bicycle to get there. If you pay someone to drive you there, arrange for them to wait while you explore the grounds, as this is not a popular tourist spot and return transportation will not be easy to find. Please dress conservatively and act respectfully, in accordance with local customs, as this is an active wat.