The Chiang Dao Cave Temple
Table of Contents
Visiting the Chiang Dao Cave Temple
Introduction to the Chiang Dao Cave Temple
The Chiang Dao Cave Temple (วัดถ้ำเชียงดาว) is a limestone cave and Buddhist temple at the foot of Doi Luang Chiang Dao (ดอยหลวงเชียงดาว) aka Doi Chiang Dao, the third highest mountain of Thailand. This mountain is about 10km west of the town of Chiang Dao (ดอยเชียงดาว) in Chiang Dao district in the province of Chiang Mai. The cave is about 70km north of the city of Chiang Mai.
The Chiang Dao Cave Temple is one of the most sacred places for local people and has been for hundreds of years. Humans have used this cave as shelter and a place of worship at least since the 17th century. The cave is part of an extensive temple complex with pavilions with statues of monks and hermits, Buddha images, and several buildings. You can easily spend 1,5 interesting hours at the Chiang Dao Cave.
Doi Chiang Dao becomes a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve
On September 15, 2021, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has approved Doi Luang Chiang Dao as a new biosphere reserve. It is the fifth biosphere reserve in Thailand. The reserve occupies 85,909.04 ha and is the only region in the country covered with sub-alpine vegetation. According to UNESCO, you can find this kind of vegetation in the Himalayas and the southern part of China. What the consequences of the UNESCO status are for the mountain is, at the moment, not clear to me. I will try to find out.
Doi Luang Chiang Dao is the third highest mountain in Thailand, after Doi Inthanon and Doi Pahom Pok. It is the highest limestone mountain in the country. In the dry season, it is possible to hike up to the summit of Doi Luang Chiang Dao, but I am not sure about the current situation. In the dry season of 2019/2020, authorities didn’t allow hikers to go up because the mountain had to recover from forest firest. After the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, they closed the peak for an indefinite time. We will keep you updated.
The Chiang Dao Cave
You enter the cave through a covered elevated walkway constructed in the 1930s. Two “yak” (giant) guardians protect the entrance. The walkway passes over a fish pond, teeming with fish that people consider sacred, so you are not allowed to catch them.
The Chiang Dao Cave consists of four caves. Tham Phranon is the main cave, which translates to the cave of the reclining Buddha. This cave is illuminated and contains lots of statues, images, and other sights of interest. It is easily accessible. The first cavern is the “Plong Jaeng,” which has many Buddha statues. According to information on a board, these images date back to 1635, during the Burmese occupation of North Thailand.
After this, you arrive at an area where the local guides are waiting. You can either continue to walk to the end of Wat Phranon, but you can also choose to enter one of the three not illuminated and more adventurous sections: Tham Maa, Tham Kaew, and Tham Naam.
The Cave of the Reclining Buddha
The cavern “Jong Plaeng” contains images of Buddha. If you look up, you will see some images of the reclining Buddha with Burmese script. Many of the statues in the Cave Phranon are of Burmese origin and probably date back to the Burmese occupation of Lanna, North Thailand, between roughly 1558 and 1774. According to the local guides, Burmese soldiers constructed the statue of the sleeping Buddha.
It is not a reclining Buddha, which shows the Buddha lying on his side, but a sleeping Buddha lying on his back. This unusual Buddha image is called Phra Phuttachao Kassapa. There is some explanation in English at most images and sights, but you might want an English-speaking guide to accompany you. The local guides don’t speak English.
Tham Maa, Tham Kaew and Tham Naam
These are the three sections of the cave that are not illuminated. A local guide will accompany you with a gas lamp. Each of these sections takes between 20 and 30 minutes, depending on your pace. Most people choose Tham Maa, which is the most challenging. There are two narrow corridors but reasonably fit people will get through them on their knees. Tham Maa has several statues and images. The Tham Kaew and Tham Nam caves are more natural and contain very few images. Tham Nam ends at a water source that connects to the pond outside the cave.
I visited all the cave sections that are open to the public in early October 2021. I highly recommend visiting at least one of these caves. It is an excellent experience, and you also support the local people, who work as guides in the cave. More than 70 people are working as guides in the cave. Most of them are women who work part-time. One of my guides was Daeng, a woman of 57 years old who worked as a guide for more than 30 years.
Kruba Srivichai and his legacy
In 1934 followers of the monk Kruba Srivichai constructed a viharn, an assembly hall, close to the cave’s entrance. Apart from this hall, there are many other structures at the temple complex, such as pavilions that contain images of monks, hermits, and Buddha statues. Information on these is hard to find. Besides these shrines, there is also a structure called the Chedi with 25 spires (พระเจดีย์ 25 ยอด). According to the information, followers of the Burmese hermit, U Kanta, constructed this Chedi in 1913. Old photos show this Chedi overgrown with moss and vegetation, but recently a restoration took place.
The Chedis and Shrines of U Kanta
Behind the viharn and statue of Kruba Srivichai, there are three chedis on a rock formation and three shrines with Buddha images. I found an old picture that shows these shrines and chedis. After some research I believe followers of the hermit U Kanta (ฤาษีอุคันธะ), a Tai Yai (Shan) hermit from Shan State in Burma, financed the construction of these shrines and chedis in 1913, in the same year they constructed the “Twenty Five Top Pagoda” (พระเจดีย์ 25 ยอด), which is also at the Chiang Dao Cave Temple. This picture shows four shrines. Of one of them only the Buddha image remains. I think they took below picture after finishing the construction.
Clearing some vegetation
On my first visit in 2021 I found the chedis and shrines totally submerged in vegetation. The shrines were invisible. After having discussed this matter with the abbot I paid a couple of people to clear the vegetation. Of the four shrines only three are still there. After the clearing of the shrubbery I saw that only the Buddha image remains of the fourth shrine. The shrine on the right is in poor condition. Clearing the whole hill with the three chedis would take several days work and I am not sure if that is what the temple wants. I will monitor the situation.
My visits to Chiang Dao
Chiang Dao is only about 1,5 hours drive from Chiang Mai, my hometown. I first visited the Chiang Mai Cave Temple in 1990 and have been back there regularly. Only recently, I started to become interested in the history and the legends of this remarkable place. I have the idea I only touched the surface.
I hiked up Doi Luang Chiang Dao twice, in 2012 and 2015.
Some facts about the Chiang Dao Cave Temple
I would recommend staying overnight in one of the accommodations near the Chiang Dao Cave Temple. It is open from 0700 until 1700 every day. Please dress politely because this is a sacred place for Buddhists. The entrance fee for Wat Phranon for foreigners is 40THB and for Thai nationals 20THB. If you want to visit one of the three other caves, you will pay 200THB for guidance, lamp fuel, cave maintenance, and guide fund. A guide is compulsory. You are not allowed to enter these sections on your own.
I tipped the guide 100THB after the visit of one cave, which seems to be standard. Remember that there are many guides and most of them only have one group per day. If you want to visit one or more of the three subsidiary caves, wear good sturdy shoes. I also recommend bringing your flashlight.
Google Maps shows the location of Wat Tham Chiang Dao.
The Legend and History of the Chiang Dao Cave Temple
Research into the history of the Chiang Dao Cave Temple
The Chiang Dao Cave Temple is a sacred place for Thai people. I am trying to piece together the history of this ancient cave. According to one of our guides, Burmese troops stayed in this cave hundreds of years ago. They left behind the only sleeping Buddha in Thailand. Local guides confirmed this to me.
There are also smaller reclining Buddha images high up engraved in the cave walls with Burmese language text. I have not been able to verify all these stories, but I will try to. What is certain is the Burmese and Shan (Tai Yai) influence, but there are a lot of unanswered questions about the Chiang Dao Cave Temple and its history. Research is ongoing.
The Legend of Wat Tham Chiang Dao
I found many references to this legend, from Daniel McGilvary, Holt Samuel Hallett to writers of guide books. The legend involves Lawa, the indigenous people of North Thailand. Deep in Doi Luang Chiang Dao, there would be a kingdom called the “Dewa country” and a city of “yaks” (giants), where the great genius Chow Kam Doang the guardian spirit of Chiang Mai, rules. It would take a month to reach this kingdom.
Holt Hallett writes: “After entering the cave and proceeding several hundred yards, you come to a stream, about chest-deep, on the other side of which is an image of pure gold, as large as life. Unless a man has superabundant merit, he will instantly expire if he attempts to pass the stream. A month’s journey through the cave brings you to the Dewah’s country and the city of the Yaks, which is ruled over by Chow Kam Doang. There you have but to wish to obtain all you can desire.” (p,324, Samuel Holt Hallett, A thousand miles on an elephant in the Shan States)
Reverend McGilvary visited the cave in 1876
The oldest account of a visit to the Chiang Dao Cave is from the American missionary Daniel McGilvary who visited Chiang Dao in 1876. McGilvary mentions that there were legends connected with the cave, one of which was the story that the cave was the abode of the great Lawa spirit: “The legend is that no one can cross the stream inside the cave and return alive; and that beyond the stream, under the crest of the mountain, there is an image of pure gold seven cubits high. One enters the cave at a little distance from the stream, and finds first a grand chamber which is a veritable temple, with arched dome, natural pulpit, and innumerable images of Buddha, large and small. This place is regarded as a most sacred shrine.”
McGilvary and his companions came out of the cave alive and didn’t find the image of pure gold. They concluded that the legends were myths and proceeded the preach the Truth of the Gospel.
Below is the picture I took at the “grand chamber” that McGilvary described.
Carl Curt Hosseus visits Chiang Dao
German botanist Carl Curt Hosseus (1878-1950) visited the Chiang Dao Cave in early 1906 and mentioned that the place is more holy among the people than ever before: “everything had been done to beautify this place by government and the people.” He certainly was impressed with the experience: “The rock walls are adorned with gilded Buddha figures and sacred objects. A large Buddha crows the main altar. Even the most down to earth visitor is overcome here by a solemn mood.” Hosseus objective, though, was to climb Doi Chiang Dao, which he did.
He named three of the peaks of Doi Chiang Dao: the Bismark Peak, the Ludwig Hosseus Peak (after his father), and the Damrong Peak (after Prince Damrong Rajanubhab). People forgot those names a long time ago.
Local tourists visit the cave in 1954
Victor Takhli posted a photo series of a group of Bangkok residents who visited the North of Thailand during Songkran in 1954. By that time the covered walkway was already. Overall the surroundings of the cave and the temple seem to be more bare and open than it is now. There were certainly less trees than there are now. The fourth picture shows the Chedi with the 25 spires.
What is clear from these photographs is that the Chiang Dao Cave was already a major tourist attraction in 1954.
The first guidebook for Chiang Mai
In May 1962, Margaretta Wells published the first guide book for Chiang Mai, called “Guide of Chiengmai.” The booklet counted not more than 100 pages, but there was room for a passage about the Chiang Dao Cave. The road leading to the cave was in poor condition, Margaretta wrote. There were a couple of salas (roofed shelters) for picnic, and there was a large spirit house where a woman, called a “Khon Song,” could consult the spirits on your behalf for a consideration: marriage, lottery, business ventures, etc.
For ten baht a chi (nun) would turn on electric lights but you could also carry your torch. A Buddha of white marble “which a hermit named U Kanta brought from Mandalay.” She also mentioned that you could go into the cave for a three-hour walk. She wrote: “Tradition has it that if you walk for thirty days, you will come to the land of the gods.”
She also mentioned the pool full of fat fish, considered sacred and should be left alone. Only feeding is allowed.
Roy Hudson’s Guide to Chiang Mai and the North
I have the 1971 edition of “Hudson’s guide to Chiang Mai and the North.” Roy describes the cave: “There are plenty of stories of “spirits” living in the cave, and also a lovely tale of a Wonderland beyond a stream that stops further progress on foot, where fairies provide food, music and companionship, presumably at rates considerably cheaper than in some Bangkok bars, but this cannot be confirmed, as no one seems to be foolish enough to return!” That was Roy’s sense of humor. We miss him.
Strange enough, Joe Cummings overlooked the Chiang Dao Cave in his 1980s Thailand: a Travel Survival Kit. The cave is mentioned in the much more voluminous 1995 edition, though.
Holt Samuel Hallett, A Thousand Miles On An Elephant In The Shan States (1890)
Daniel McGilvary, A Half Century Among the Siamese and the Lao: An Autobiography, 1912
Carl Curt Hosseus, Through King Chulalongkorn’s Kingdom 1904-1906: The First Botanical Exploration in Northern Thailand. Chiang Mai, 2001
Margaretta Wells, Guide to Chiengmai, Bangkok, 1962.
Roy Hudson, Hudson’s guide to Chiang Mai and The North, Chiang Mai, 1971