In Thailand, a country where the majority of inhabitants are Buddhist, there are temples scattered everywhere, even on mountains which are not that practical to build a worship place.
Welcome to Bueng Kan province, far in the northeastern Isan region.
It’s one of the lesser visited provinces, and you will love it if you are in search for peace, nature, and something off the beaten path.
Without a doubt, Wat Phu Tok (วัดภูทอก) is one of the most unique, thrilling, (and scary) temples in Thailand.
And, above all, a visit not for those who have fear of heights!
More than the temple itself, it is the whole system of bridges and wooden stairs going around Phu Tok, the mountain where the temple is, that makes the visit interesting.
Wat Jetiyakhiri is its official name, although the more commonly used name is Wat Phu Tok (วัดภูทอก), as Phu Tok is the local name for the mountain and, not by chance, Wat meaning temple.
It’s 359 meters high, and the mountain name literally means “lonely mountain”.
The mountain, because of its rugged terrain and remote location has always been an area of wildlife, specifically dangerous snakes.
This also makes it an attractive place for meditation: peaceful, nature, remote, and with an element of danger to overcome.
Monk Ajahn Juan founded the temple in 1968 and began to build wooden staircases, ladders, and walkways throughout the mountain, connecting a variety of shrines and places of mediation.
Eventually the monks constructed seven levels, symbolizing the seven steps to Buddhist enlightenment.
Unfortunately, he died in an airplane accident in 1980, but Wat Phu Tok is maintained and remains a majestic sight still today.
The first three levels take you through the forest below the treeline, passing by big tropical trees.
And this is just the appetizer!
The 5th level of Wat Phu Tok is where you’ll really start seeing lots of temples, shrines, and halls.
Here you have access to a small temple planted on a separate rocky peak with a large rock on the roof, with a magnificent view. This level also houses a cave decorated with Buddha statues, the “temple”, with a large floor where pilgrims can stay overnight (even if now it seems forbiforeigners are not allowed to stay overnight beacause some behaved not properly in the past).
Another flight of wooden stairs up, and you’ll arrive to the famous sixth level, “the most spectacular… and most scary”, according to some.
And in fact, about half of its circumference is made of wooden plank walkways, anchored into the side of the rock cliff, and the other half is on ground.
Moreover, you’ll see the impressive view of the Mekong River basin below, and the green trees of Bueng Kan.
Still higher, the seventh level. There’s no wooden walkways or shrines to see here, but it’s just the top of the mountain, and if you go up in the correct spot, you’ll have more great views. It is often said that the 7th level is closed to the public but you can actually access it at your own risk, there is just a sign (in Thai) warns you against the many snakes living up there. Good luck!
Author’s notes: When you arrive in the car park at the bottom of the mountain, you have a modern marble chedi containing relics of Ajahn Juan, the monk who started the construction of all staircases and wooden walkways, a pond, a sanctuary and a small door from which the staircase to climb to the 7 levels of Wat Phu Tok begins.
Then, you will reach a junction: at your left, the easiest path, and therefore the less attractive one that goes directly to the 5th level where the shrine is located, and at your right the way to the slower ascent, mainly made of wooden walkways hung on the side of the mountain.
I advise you to take the right path! as the walkways suspended above the void is the best of visiting the place. In addition, you will have great views of the mountains and surrounding countryside.