Wat Tham Pla: Caves, Monkeys and Fish
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An unusual temple
Wat Tham Pla (วัดถ้ำปลา) aka the Fish Cave Temple is a Buddhist temple at the foot of Doi Nang Non, a mountain range on the border with Myanmar. It is the same mountain range in which the famous Tham Luang Cave is located. This cave made headlines across the world in 2018 when a football team got stuck in it after the water level rose. A very complicated and daring rescue operation saved their lives.
There are a lot of things to see, experience, and enjoy at this unconventional and rather eccentric temple. The setting of the temple is simply stunning as well. It is not far from the main road from Chiang Rai to Mae Sai. Few people take the time to visit though. Wat Tham Pla means “the Temple of the Fish Cave”. Feeding the fish from the cave is a popular activity.
History of Wat Tham Pla
Well, where to begin? It is not easy to find any information about the history of Wat Tham Pla. There is some information at the temple in the Thai language. It is believed that the Buddha once visited this location. In 1980 a monk from Phrae province visited and decided it was worth establishing a temple here. The cave temple probably was there already as was another nearby cave temple, called Tham Pum. Employees of the Louis T.Leonowens Company Ltd. visited Tham Pum in 1935. All the other structures were built after 1980, it appears.
The resident Monkeys
The resident monkeys might have been for much longer. They are from the Northern pig-tailed macaque species and have become the kind of “Mascotte” of the temple. They are all over the place and there seem to be no restrictions to their behavior. Monks gave me a wooden stick before I walked up the Naga staircase to the cave temple. They didn’t bother me though.
Chedi Nopha Chuta Gow Yot
The most striking structure of the temple is the Chedi Nopha Chuta Gow Yot (เจดีย์นพจุทาเก้ายอด), a large, dark and somber structure. Joe Cummings wrote this in the 1995 edition of the guide book Thailand, a Travel Survival Kit”: “Another attraction here is the unique cake-like chedi in front of the cave entrance. It’s a very large, multi-tiered structure stylistically different from any other in Thailand.”
It is a very impressive structure that is highly revered by the local people, looking at the Facebook page of the temple. Although my first impression was that this chedi is very old, that is not the case. A monk at the temple told me this chedi dates back to about 30 years ago.
The Cave Temple
This appears to be the oldest part of the temple. A Naga staircase leads to a small cave in the limestone mountain. I was the only person going up. A monk gave me a stick to ward off the monkeys which made me a little bit apprehensive. Fortunately, they didn’t bother me. From the top of the staircase, you have a nice view of the surrounding countryside. Inside the cave is a small Buddha statue. The walk up the staircase is not too difficult. I recommend wearing good shoes. The scenery at Wat Tham Pla is stunning.
Visiting Wat Tham Pla
Wat Tham Pla is an unpretentious, local place. There are no buildings that have cost billions of baht. It is a weird, surprising place with a lot of humor.
This temple is about life, death, repentance, and worship. Don’t forget to bring a lot of 5 and 10 THB coins. There are some interesting and bizarre machines that will make you laugh. The temple doesn’t have any entrance fees but a donation is always appreciated.
You will probably have to charter transportation in Chiang Rai to get there.
Visiting Wat Tham Pla is definitely one of the things to do in Chiang Rai province.
Sources of this article
Most of the information I obtained at the temple from information boards and talking to people and monks.