Wat Ban Tham temple in Kanchanaburi: through a dragon’s mouth

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Thailand is sometimes aptly labeled "the land of temples". It is customary for at least one Thai man per generation in each family to enter monkhood. No wonder this country has a great variety of temples and monasteries. Wat Ban Tham, just south of Kanchanaburi in West Thailand, illustrates two local notions at once: the ancient tradition to build monasteries in natural caves, and the relatively new fashion in monastic communities to experiment with cement and paint. In this case, to reach the cave, one has to pass inside the body of a psychedelically colored dragon - entering through his mouth and coming out though... Well, you got it. Since nagas, Thai dragons, just like their Chinese siblings, are much more than just giant reptiles crossbred with a flamethrower. Digested and excreted by the celestial serpent, you can finally descend into the abode of Lord Buddha and, unusually, a female spirit.

© istockphoto/DGHayes

Fertility shrine

An impressive Buddha statue dominates the main hall of the cave. But, the side chamber contains something unusual: a stalactite said to house the spirit of Bua Kli. She was one of the many consorts of Khun Paen, a legendary governor of Kanchanaburi, an epic hero known to have been invincible in battle, irresistible in love, and skillful in magic. When Bua Kli died in pregnancy, Khun Paen extracted the unborn child to make a gumanthong - a powerful talisman that renders its wearer immune to all weapons. Some of the locals say her spirit had become a ghost as a side effect, and now resides in this cave. Worshipers have wrapped the stalactite in colorful ribbons, brought hundreds of toys and items of children's clothes to its base. It is believed that the spirit of Bua Kli can grant plentiful offspring and cure female infertility – a very big issue in family-centered Asian cultures.

© istockphoto/Shuttermon

Limestone hermitage

The area around Kanchanaburi has a lot of caves and, typically for Thailand, many of them are used as temples or monasteries. Once upon a time, the cave monasteries were essentially hermitages, where monks meditated away from the hectic life of laypeople. Wat Ban Tham temple was founded the same way - a wealthy local merchant came across it, found it comfortable enough to serve as a monastic cell, and invited Luang Po Thong, a famous monk of olden times. By now, the modern monastery building, erected next to the cave, houses a couple of dozen monks, and the cavern itself is kept as a prayer hall.

© istockphoto/Porntep-Kawjun


Unless you have your own wheels, be prepared to walk or hitchhike to get here. From Kanchanaburi bus station, regular buses run to the town of Tha Muang. From there, it's approximately 6 km to Wat Ban Tham. There's no public transport. The road first crosses Mae Klong River, then follows it north, passing several other cave temples, also worth visiting. The whole trip from Kanchanaburi and back can also be done on a bicycle - it shouldn't exceed 30-40 km even with a couple of detours. The main cave of Wat Ban Tham is entered through the mouth of a cement dragon and out of his backside, which possibly symbolizes having the illusions of samsara in your mind digested by a superior force. Alternatively, perhaps the resident monks had too much spare time and some leftover cement. Inside, there's a prayer hall in the main cavern, and next to it a spiral staircase leading to a sinkhole further up the mountain. Climb it uncovers a well-maintained path to the summit, passing next to the meditation pavilions, the Buddha statues, and a small natural cave left more or less undisturbed. From the top, there are impressive views of the river and the surrounding rice fields.

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