Mae Chan and the Golden Horse Monastery

Mark Levitin | Live the World

May 29, 2024

Mae Chan, a small town in Northern Thailand, is a nondescript urban settlement that few travelers bother to notice on their way from Chiang Mai to the "Golden Triangle". And while there's truly nothing much to do in the town itself, the hills just west of it hide the most unusual monastery in the country. The monks here don't walk out in morning to collect alms - they gallop through the monastery gate on horseback like charging hussars, and the abbot is the sort of character you only expect to see in a Shaolin movie. In addition, there's a photogenic, geometrically correct tea plantation nearby, and a hot spring to soak in and unwind. 

Wat Phra Archa Tong

© Mark Levitin

Imagine: a rustic Buddhist monastery in the shiny low rays of dawn. A mellow brook, gilded by the sun, bubbles at the gate. Suddenly, the gate flies open, and a cavalry charge bursts out, splashing the still water like a stampede of wildebeest. The riders would pass for an attacking gang of Huns, if not for the monastic outfit - and instead of scimitars, they brandish silvered alms bowls. Admittedly, you won't see this scene anymore - those days are gone, the monastery has been refurbished, the brook spanned by a concrete bridge, and the number of pilgrims bringing offerings on an average day makes collection of alms redundant, so the monks often stay in. But they still ride horses, and the abbot delivers his morning sermon from the back of his steady mount. This is why, whatever original name this place may have had, everyone knows it nowadays as Wat Phra Archa Tong - Golden Horse Monastery. And its history - mainly the history of its abbot, a narrative straight out of an Asian action movie - complements the visual peculiarity.

Phra Kru Ba

© Mark Levitin

Phra Kru Ba, the abbot of Wat Phra Archa Tong, used to be a chaya (northern version of muay thai) fighter. Won a few local championships, got tired of worldly illusion, became a monk – nothing unusual for Thailand. But what happened next sounds more like a movie plot than real biography: as a monk, he took a strong position against the then-active drug cartel of the Golden Triangle, and started preaching to farmers, convincing them to sever all deals with the mafia, and never grow opium. As his fame grew, so did his influence; he became a hindrance for the drug lords. It’s hard to separate facts from myths by now, but ostensibly, a hitman was once sent to kill him – only to be beaten senseless, tied up and dragged to the police station. Don’t mess with chaya! Next, the legend goes, another assassin resorted to poison – but the bulky, muscular body of Phra Kru Ba survived the intoxication, and within a month he was back on his feet, preaching again. Soon, he was venerated as an ajarn, a great teacher. HM Rama IX chose this time to put an end to the drug cartel, and perhaps for such an energetic person as Phra Kru Ba, monastic life without a purpose was a tad boring? Anyway, he bought out a horse that a poor family was going to sell for slaughter – or, as another legend claims, the animal was gifted to him by a respectful worshipper. And the new hobby of Phra Kru Ba was thus established: horse riding. By then, the monastery had grown, there were a few younger monks living with the equestrian abbot. He taught them too. Learning of the great ajarn’s love for horses, villagers donated more of them to the monastery. And this is how it came to be: a cavalcade of Buddhist monks galloping out for alms.

Visiting Wat Phra Archa Tong

© Mark Levitin

The monastery is located less than 20 km away from Mae Chan, but no public transport serves this road. If you start in the morning (and you should, to be there in time for the sermon), you may get a lift from one of the pilgrim families, especially on a weekend. Alternatively, stay in one of the small resorts nearby. The morning sermon looks impressive, with Phra Kru Ba’s formidable figure at the tip of a wedge formation – very much like a cavalry maneuver, except every rider is clad in monastic saffron. Bring offerings – the standard pre-packaged arrangement can be bought in any Thai minimart (it’s a Buddhist country, after all). If you can speak Thai or have someone to translate for you, consider asking Phra Kru Ba for a talisman or a sak yant (magic tattoo) – he is believed to possess a great spiritual power, and he gladly shares it this way. There’s definitely no problem walking around, visiting the stables, taking photographs, but do remember this is a monastery, not a touristy show. Later, take a walk outside: in recent years, the legendary abbot seems to have developed a new hobby – cement sculpture – and the hills surrounding Wat Phra Archa Tong are steadily getting covered in half-finished giant figures out of Buddhist mythology. The chances are you will see Phra Kru Ba working on one of those in the afternoon, when most of the pilgrims are gone.

Other attractions of Mae Chan

© Istock/Anurak Sirithep

Choui Fong Tea Plantation, not far from the Golden Horse Monastery, has become something of a hotspot for Thai Instagram influencers – one of those “check-in” spots. At one area, tea bushes have been planted to form a green amphitheater, and everyone feels the urge to have their shot taken in the center of it. Beyond that, the plantation is quite lovely, and equipped with somewhat overpriced cafes to serve the constant flow of selfie-takers. If you’re not planning to visit Mae Salong further west, it’s worth a peek. Another attraction for domestic tourists is Pa Tueng Hot Spring. There’s the usual array of services and sights here: a semi-natural geyser, a hot mineral pond, geothermal baths to soak in, eggs to cook in the spring itself, where the water comes out boiling, and a lot of rather grotesque, tacky statuary to pose with. For the spring, a few waterfalls south of Mae Chan, and the buses to Mae Salong, it’s more practical to stay in town. Thankfully, North Thailand specializes in cute, if sometimes kitschy, little resorts. Mae Chan even has one hybrid of a vacation resort and a co-living – surprisingly cheap for a co-living, too. 

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