When you arrive at Chiang Dao Cave (ถ้ำเชียงดาว), the first thing you will see is the famous Wat Tham Chiang Dao (วัดถ้ำเชียงดาว) Buddhist temple complex. Wat Tham Chiang Dao is a must-see if you are in Northern Thailand. It is a mere 1.5 hour drive from Chiang Mai city, so seeing this unique place is easily done in a day trip.
People have been worshiping here for hundreds of years, and the temple complex surrounds and even extends into the cave itself. The cave and surrounding temple are all nestled into the base of the green and often misty foothills of Doi Luang Chiang Dao, a limestone mountain in the Chiang Dao Wildlife Reserve that at 2,195 meters is Thailand’s third largest. You can feel the clean and cool mountain air as you near Chiang Dao, and at the temple complex it feels refreshing to be so near to nature.
The first thing you see when you turn into the Chiang Dao Caves parking lot is a sign pointing you left to the cave and other sites. This sign shows the main attractions you will view within the temple complex, and is written in both Thai and English.
Behind the sign is a small temple with intricate carvings around the outside. This temple is sealed off by a gate, but you can still get some very nice pictures and see the carved walls.
Before you go left and follow the sign, first take a moment to visit the temple to the right, which has a large statue of Phaya Naga, the serpent. You can walk all around the outside of this temple and view the carvings and temple building in front.
Cultural Note: If you would like to approach the temple, remember to remove your shoes and bow down to your knees. When you leave, take care not to turn you back to the statues.
The Temple Complex (On The Way To The Cave Entrance)
Once you follow the blue sign to the left, take the first right to go up to the washroom. It costs 5 Baht per person to use, which they use to pay for cleaning and the electricity.
Above and along a path from the washrooms you will notice many living huts. This is where the monks who reside at Wat Tham Chiang Dao live. You may also see many monks walking around the complex. They are easily identified by their brilliant orange robes. However, please be respectful and refrain from taking any photographs of the monks. This temple complex is their home and place of worship. Although there are many tempting photo opportunities it is always disrespectful to photograph the monks without first asking for permission.
If you take your time to walk around on your way to the cave entrance, you will discover many hidden things that add a magical nature to the place. Carved into the rocks are statues of worship. There are even two bulls carved from rock beneath the steps that lead up to a statue of Buddha.
Wat Tham Chiang Dao Outdoor Temple Complex
As you continue to make your way toward the cave entrance, you will come across more things to see. There is a large temple, stone carvings, an ornate Buddha nestled into the side-hill. The temple complex is an active place of worship. You are likely to see candles lit as offerings, people praying and monks going about their business.
Personal Offerings At Wat Tham Chiang Dao
Near the entrance to the cave, you will find two places were you can make personalized offerings. These are to the the animals of the Zodiac and to the weekday Buddhas. To offer to your Zodiac animal, find the animal for the year you were born. To offer to the weekday statues find out the day of the week you were born. You can then offer some money to this statue.
If you would like, you can make an offering at any one of the other temples or statues. There are flowers and other offerings from the ladies who run stands along the left hand side of the walkway. Take note that when giving flowers, it is considered very bad luck for you if you smell the flowers yourself.
The Temple Fish Pond
Past the Zodiac statues, you will find a fish pond. It is fed by water that trickles down through the cave and accumulates over time at the base. The pond has a blue tint, and is filled with carp. For good luck, you can pick up a bag of fish food for 10 Baht to feed the fish. They are quite large and come to enjoy your offering with lots of splashing and with gulping whiskered mouths.
Inside The Cave…
Once you leave the outdoor temple area and enter the cave, there are still many shrines and statues to see. There are many areas of worship inside the cave. You will find statues, alters and various offering places. Remember that the inside of the cave is still considered a temple, so it is important to dress modestly. There are sarongs for rental at the entrance to the cave. These are for women who need to cover their shoulders and legs exposed by shorts or short skirts.