Thailand is often dubbed "the land of temples", which is technically true, but somewhat meaningless. It is like calling a Christian state "the land of churches", or a modern megalopolis "the land of shopping malls". Travelers quickly get "watted out", and after a dozen of inevitably exquisite and undeniably historical Buddhist structures, assume that enough is enough. But, if there's still room in you for one more temple, the underground sanctuary of Tham Khao Luang is a good choice. It is big. It is still semi-natural. It is not too touristy. It is in Phetchaburi, a lovely old town that deserves a stop anyway. And it is, after all, underground, which is always nice - exotic, photogenic, and full of ambiance.
Descending into the depths of Tham Khao Luang is like crossing the border between two worlds. A spiral staircase takes you from the blistering hot, bleached landscape of the hill above into the dimly lit domain of stalactites. Here and there, Buddha statues occupy the natural cavities in limestone walls. The main attraction awaits at the bottom: a giant hall with rows of smaller Buddhas surrounding a massive image of Sakya-Muni. This cavern has a sinkhole in the roof, and around midday, a beam of sunlight filters through it. Between February and April, it illuminates the largest Buddha, but during the other months, the view is no less impressive and highly photogenic. This is your opportunity to take that prize-winning shot. The next chamber contains some chedi (Buddhist stupas), and then the cave gets natural until the very end, where another old statue sits behind a small altar: either Buddha or a reusi (Thai sage), it is hard to tell in the darkness. Ancient rusty stairs lead through another sinkhole to the top of the hill, but the path down from there is usually too overgrown for anybody without wilderness hiking skills.
The cave temple itself is often empty or watched over by a single monk. Sometimes a few Thai tourists or worshipers wander in, rarely - a foreign traveler. A group of monks lives in wooden huts on the other side of the hill, down a walking trail. A turn-off from this trail leads to a smaller group of caves occasionally used as shelters by hermits. At the time of research, there was only one resident hermit, extremely communicative, and talkative. Since he only spoke Thai, a foreigner's visit would not let him stray from the path of blissful solitude, although not for lack of effort. Even more sociable are the macaques invading the parking lot in front of Tham Khao Luang. Feeding the furry creeps is believed to improve one's karma, and this has definitely boosted their boldness (and body fat). Do not be put off by those obnoxious primates, remember you are a much bigger monkey and - snarl back. For those who arrive in their own vehicles, locals at the parking lot rent out stuffed toy crocodiles to put on the roof of the cabin. The toys scare the macaques away, otherwise, they might damage the car.
Tham Khao Luang is four km away from downtown Phetchaburi. A regular tuk-tuk should bring you to the entrance for 20 THB per person, or it should cost about double that to hire one for yourself. You can walk or cycle, too. Soft drinks and snacks are available at the parking lot. There is no entrance fee to the underground sanctuary - it is a functioning cave temple, not a tourist attraction. For the same reason, refrain from rock-climbing in the cave, however tempting the stalactites and sinkholes may look for the purpose.
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