Of course I didn’t read the manual. I was busy planning to get to this faraway place. Everything else usually reveals itself in time. Right. It’s only on level 6 out of 7 that I vaguely remember having heard about the ascent to the top of the temple mountain being kind of an upward spiral. Climbing one level on excessively steep wooden ladders, walking around on ultra exposed wooden walkways, and repeat.
In a bout of energy I had gone straight up to level 6. Direct approach, no messing around with unnecessary detours. Why? It was possible and obvious. Now there is another of these arduous ladders to the left (Already going up to the top?! Noooo. That would be too early, wouldn’t it?) and some more thought-inspiring planks to the right. Insecurity sets in. It is this moment when I start investigating what might be the “right way”.
“Mai ben rai. It doesn’t matter”, says the young Thai guy. Why would they ever say anything else in Thailand? “There is more than one way.” It must be the mountain! The sacred mountain is speaking to me! “You got it all right, girl. Nothing’s ever wrong. It’s oke. Relax!” I knew, this climbing Wat Phu Tok would be a pilgrimage of sorts. Just expected it to be more of the usual suffer-your-way-up-to-paradise-approach I know from dozens of other hilltop temples all over the Buddhist world. Yes! Of course there is more than one way of doing this.
The guy looks at me with curiosity while I giggle my way further up. Another awakening follows right at the top, while I duck my head walking through the shrubbery. Seems to be the dessicated remains of a dense bamboo forest. Where is the temple? Back and forth, left to right. There should be a serene temple somewhere on the ultimate level, no? With bells and Buddhas, mantras and monks, sparkles and space. Instead there is bush. A bit of an outlook here and there.
“Up here no temple?” I ask my Thai fellow climbers incredulously. (And why again was it that I did not read the manual?) “Nooo, on top no temple”, smiles the happy Dad. “On top only view.” There it is again: The mountain speaks! Only bush here. As above so below. Plus a bit more of an overview. That’s brilliant.
Light-footed I enjoy the full circumambulation of levels 6 and 5 on the way down – taking in all the stunning scenery, stopping at a shrine here and there, my rock-climber’s heart delighting in the somewhat adventurous walkways and stairs. Turns out level 4 doesn’t even offer the full circle and level 3 is not particularly recognisable anyway. Instead there is a significant number of meditation rooms, Buddha and monk statues and kutis for the meditators to live at a considerable height on the 360 metres sandstone cliff.
A monk named Ajahn Juan started to build the indeed spectacular set of wooden stairs and walkways in 1968, when the monastery was founded. As part of the Thai forest tradition the monks preferred places in untamed nature for meditation. Building an ascent of seven levels up to the top of the mountain represents the seven steps to Buddhist enlightenment.
Maybe worth a mention that the height loving monk Ajahn Juan died in a plane crash along with several other highly revered forest monks. The group was flying to Bangkok for the birthday of the Queen in 1980.
The place is still in excellent shape and very well maintained by the remaining temple monks. The whole climb of maybe two hours up and down (three if you savour it) is only scary if you are afraid of heights. There is no fences on the top, where there is view only and total freedom. 😉
If you want to read the manual before you go, visit the excellent source of information that is Thailandee:
Also Mutmee Garden Guest House in Nong Khai offers a whole lot of information on this site as well as many others. If you are planning to go to Nong Khai and beyond, definitely stop there: