Wat Tham Chiang Dao

Chiang Dao

Set in pretty grounds that teem with jungle butterflies, this forest wát sits at the entrance to Chiang Dao Cave, a chilly warren of passageways that extend more than 10km beneath the limestone massif of Doi Chiang Dao. For Buddhists, the cave is a meditation retreat, a sort of extension of the wát itself, and the twisting tunnels overflow with stalactites and stalagmites.

The chambers at the start of the network of tunnels – known as Tham Sua Dao and Tham Phra Non – are illuminated by electric lights, but the most interesting section of the cave system is unlit and you'll need to hire a guide (200B) with a gas lantern to explore, providing a living for a local villager in the process (they are actually volunteers so a 50B tip is appropriate and expected). The tour wriggles through narrow passageways to other large chambers – Tham Mah (735m), Tham Kaew (474m) and Tham Nam (660m) – and your guide will point out bat colonies and limestone features that have been named for their resemblance to animals. At the end of the illuminated section, you'll reach a small but highly revered sleeping Buddha in a small antechamber.

Local legend says that the cave was the home of a reu·sĕe (ascetic, holy man) who convinced the spirits to create several magic wonders inside the caverns: a stream flowing from the pedestal of a solid-gold Buddha, a storehouse of divine textiles, and a city of naga (mythical serpents). These miraculous features are said to be much deeper inside the mountain, beyond the last of the illuminated caverns.

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