The infamous monks of Tha Ton

By way of an ageing , fan-cooled and yet beautifully decorated bus whose metallic interior is so well polished one could almost shave in it, we make our way at break-neck speed from Chiang Mai to the town of Tha Ton.

As we do so, we wind our way through hilly, forested terrain before emerging again onto the broad, fertile plain of the Fang valley, hemmed in by jagged mountain ridges on both of its flanks and its head.

Wat Thaton, Fang valley, Mae Ai, Thailand

The 0.5 looks out over the Fang valley from the lower complex of Wat Thaton

Tha Ton is the just about the most Northerly town in Thailand and is also the place where the Mae Kok river tumbles out of the Burmese gorges it has been aggressively carving its way through to begin its long, snaking journey to Chiang Rai and onwards, eventually to join the mighty Mekong system further downstream.

The town is a fairly anonymous affair. One main street and a pair of riverbanks each populated with a splattering of guesthouses and eateries (disappointingly, the one we chose for our anniversary dinner was all out of snapping turtle) with menus aimed at a primarily domestic market.

Reflecting the Mae Kok as it broadens and begins to meander, life is noticeably slower here.

Wat Thaton praying statue

Religious "stuff" on a hill, Tha Ton, Thailand.

There are no tuk-tuks to flag down and even the passing of a saangthaew is a commentable enough event.  If you want to get about, you either need your own transport or you walk.

Following the Ko Lanta incident, we walk.

The reason for our stop is not only to provide a staging post for a river boat trip to Chiang Rai, but to visit the picturesque and perfectly sited Wat Thaton whose dispersed complex of Temples, giant Buddhas and imposing stupa peer down upon the town from their various lofty perches on the wooded hillside above.

The Wat is a place of learning for novice monks whose flash of orange robes in the tropical sun make them stand out even as they discretely attempt to water the gardens, wash the dishes, or dry their clothes.

The novices are an interesting bunch.

A novice monk mindfully undertakes the daily chores, Wat Thaton.

A novice monk mindfully undertakes the daily chores, Wat Thaton.

Watching them horseplay is a fine experience as despite their devout appearance, you quickly realise that behind the shaven heads and religious uniforms, they are still a bunch of kids just doing what kids do all over the world.

We pass one novice as we climb up towards the stupa on top of the hill, and as we do so, the 0.5 notices a tattoo upon his forearm.

The tattoo wasn’t typically ethnic in appearance, nor did it have much mystique, written as it was in English.

His tattoo simply spelt “Infamous”.

Monk Tattoo, Wat Thaton

"Infamous". The tattoo of choice for Theraveda Monks...

This in itself told much about the back story of this teenage novice who despite a lack of English, was clearly affected by the long arm of Western pop-culture.

Pushing on up and reaching the Thaton stupa, we were both struck by how beautiful it appeared against the crisp blue canvas of sky, the 0.5 commenting on how it took the appearance of several stacked teacup saucers.

The highlight for me was the inner chamber of the bulbous stupa, a white dome that I could see doubling as the private quarters of a space ship captain in some sci-fi movie or other.

The new stupa atop of the hill at Wat Thaton

The new stupa atop of the hill at Wat Thaton

Inside the dome, the acoustics rivalled the whispering gallery of St Paul’s cathedral, and “The Boy” was quite bemused to hear his voice reverberate and then softly dissipate as the echo faded.

The view from the top of the stupa was memorable.  Tha Ton sat steeply below, the river and plain stretching as far as a mountainous chain in the distant east, and on the opposite side, wooded hillsides, tribal villages and a Burmese Army station no more than a couple of kilometres away marking the border between Thailand and Myanmar.

This area is little more visited than twenty years ago as people on a voyage of exploration nowadays choose to swing east at Chiang Mai and enter Laos for their fix of mountains, rivers and Mekong culture.

That arrangement works fine for me, because in Tha Ton, for the first time in Thailand, I felt like I was a real backpacker again.


About misterkelvin

I searched, I failed. And then I accidentally found one in Ubud.
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