The Tunnel Temple and the Smile of the Buddha

Buddha head from Wat Umong

During the Covid pandemic, I had many magical mornings at the Tunnel Temple in Chiang Mai, Wat Umong. The short walk through the small woods, the early sounds of a tropical morning, the moss on the wall, the maze of the tunnel system and the smile of the Buddha.

One remarkable peaceful morning when I went to Wat Umong, first I heard only the chatter of the ladies selling flowers to visitors. They were discussing what lottery number would be best to bet on. I strode the staircase up to the single standing Chedi, and two Thai looking women in white were orbiting the Chedi at a meditative pace. They were undoubtedly in Wat Umong for retreat and meditation, but after their merit-making, they loosened up and took turns to take selfies of themselves and with the Chedi. One of them looked at me and asked in English where I was from. When I said Sweden, she smiled and addressed me in Swedish. – Wow, I live outside Örebro! We just finished our quarantine in Bangkok and came here for a retreat. I haven‘t been to Thailand for years!

After the conversation, I evaluated the likelihood that the only people I would meet in a slightly off the beaten track temple in Chiang Mai would be from Sweden. She wondered if I should buy a lottery ticket with that day’s date or something. Ridding myself of the thought, I walked to my favourite spot in the temple grounds, the gently smiling Buddha.

A head of the Buddha in Wat Umong
The outer wall

The beautiful Buddha head in Wat Umong.

There is a collection of old statues and a bunch of new miniature ones compiled just outside the entrance to the tunnels of the temple. Every time I come, I find a new captivating figure that makes me speculate of the history of; Where was it found? Who made it? What happened to it? And why is it here?

The large and characteristic Buddha head in the temple complex.
This head I just discovered. Or maybe I haven’t seen it with a plant before.

The most famous statue has an inscription text illustrating where it was found and its style. The sandstone Buddha and the figures we can see here were made between 1400 – 1550 AD in the Phayao style. They were brought here from 1968 to 1970 from abandoned monasteries in Phayao province. However, Thai people wouldn’t get Buddha statues to find a home. It is an obvious way to bring bad luck to yourself. So religious items will be brought to the temple.

The Buddha is depicted with long earlobes, a powerful symbol in Buddhism. It says that The Buddha’s ears were permanently elongated. As a prince, his earlobes were weighted with heavy jewellery. But from 29 years of age, when he came to be a monk, he dismissed the material world for spiritual enlightenment.

The smile and face of the Buddha

When I am in a temple, I often reflect on the smile and the face of the Buddha. Where his facial impression comes from. Is the smile representing inner harmony? The true happiness of not only making peace with himself but also the rest of the world? The Swiss artist Alice Boner that lived in Varanasi for 50 years, meant that Buddha statues were “visual aids”, clearly said “focusing points for the spirit”.

No Buddha statues for 600 years

The Buddha wasn’t depicted in human form until six centuries after death. Buddhism was represented by the Buddhas footprint, a Ficus Religious Bodhi tree, a parasol or a stupa. It was never easy in early Buddhism that looked at art as worldly and a sign of luxury to give a face to the Buddha—also adding to the fact that he wasn’t considered a god. Then, early signs of the Buddha in human form is found in caves paintings or on minted coins.

According to Craig Benjamin (Empires of Ancient Euroasia), there are two schools where the loosely formed Indo – European Kushans established statuary. One in today’s Afghanistan and Pakistan, Gandhara with a Hellenistic influence. The other one he describes is Mathura. Once an important hub for trade caravans in India.

These Buddhas , unlike those of Gandhara, are of fuller body, with soft Indian bellies. They look less vain and haughty than the Gandhara Buddhas, and their faces possess a deep sympathy -that hint of a smile, as sorrowful and knowing an emotion as has ever been expressed in stone.

How the Buddha Got his Face. Aatish Taseer, New York Times.

The Tunnel Temple

Anyhow, it is easy to sit and mull over the statue in the Tunnel Temple for a long time. It provides me peace of mind.

Wat Umong itself was initially built as a forest temple outside the inner city of Chiang Mai. First, it was named Werukattaharam, “the eleven sections” of bamboo where monks resided. The initiator is supposed to have been King Mengrai in 1297 AD. According to a tale, one of the kings favourite monks found the city noise disturbing already in those days and preferred meditating in a tunnel.

The king wanted to accommodate the monks that rummaged for seclusion. Therefore tunnels in brick were built for the monks to help them isolate themselves from the outside world.

Or, was the monk mentally unstable?

Another story tells that the tunnels were built so a mentally unstable monk wouldn’t roam around and get lost in the woods. Facts and folktales blend. So it is hard to know the early history of the temple. Furthermore, some research claims that the temple was built around 100 years after King Mengrai was supposed to have ordered it. That would have been under the Lanna King Kuna’s (Guna’) rule.

The Tunnel Temple
Entrance to the tunnels in the tunnel temple
Marigold and a guardian
Guardian holding marigold and jasmine flowers
The Chedi in Wat Umong
Wat Umong’s Chedi

Also, the Tunnel temple was abandoned at a point, probably in the 19th century, and it took until 1948 before the area came alive again. I have heard stories that Japanese soldiers used the tunnels for storage during World War II. But I have never been able to confirm it.

The chedi that I mentioned in the introduction is worth the visit. You walk the short staircase up to the top of the mound.

The Wat Umong area also holds a small museum, sometimes art installations and a replica of an Ashoka Pillar.

There is a pond here, and the small woods are famous for the “talking trees”. The trees hold proverbs in Thai and English full of spiritual wisdom.

Wat Umong has a website where you can read about the Meditation Classes.

Talking trees

Eating in the area around Wat Umong

The surroundings of Wat Umong is also an excellent area for eating and enjoying coffee. In non-Covid times, there was a lovely Sunday market and art feels to the whole area. Still, on many evenings a small and inexpensive food market is on in the area.

There are some places to recommend. Adirak Pizza has some of the nicest pizza crusts in Chiang Mai. At retro-vintage noodle shop Pai – Fah noodles, you can listen to music from the Thai singer Mama Blue and enjoy classic noodle dishes.

The coffee zone with Lamour and other coffee shops in Lan Din is also a fabulous place to hang out.

The Lan Din coffee zone, especially nice in late afternoon and early evening.

Finally, if you are looking for spicy Southern food, don’t miss the next door restaurant to Pai-Fah called Mae Cha Aem. They have Inexpensive and tasty brunch/lunch meals.

Read more about Chiang Mais temples here. I compiled some of my pictures from different temples I have visited over the years in a photographic journey.

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