The Buddhist temple of Wat U-mong is located a short distance from my home in Chiang Mai, and is connected to me in a number of differing ways.
On my initial visit to Thailand in December of 2000, the first Buddhist temple that I visited here in Chiang Mai was that of the Wat Umong ['wat' is the Thai word for temple, and 'u-mong' means 'tunnel']. It is a little known "forest temple' located in the outskirts of the city, nestled against the sides of Mount Doi Suthep, and rarely seen by most visitors.
According to local history, Wat Umong was built in about 1300 A.D. by King Mengrai of the northern Lanna Kingdom, for the learned monk Jan. This was not to be the usual ornate temple building, but rather monk Jan insisted that labyrinthine caves be dug into a rock outcropping at a considerable distance from the new city, on top of which was placed a tall chedi [stupa]. His reasoning was that the small cells within the tunnels would furnish a quiet place in which monks might meditate. At some point during the 700 years since its construction, the Wat Umong was abandoned and nearly forgotten. It was only after 1948 that restoration of the ruins of the area began to be accomplished. It has become a fully functioning temple once more, with more than 50 monks and nuns in residence, and its 50 acres of densely wooded grounds, with a placid lake, is a quiet, restful place to visit.
My personal connection with this temple began many months, perhaps centuries, before I had even considered visiting Thailand. And this first trip to Thailand in December of 2000 involved a number of synchronous events.
In March of 2000 I was teaching at the ITESM university in Córdoba, Mexico. Had a beautiful home there in that high mountain valley, loved the area, and had planned to spend the rest of my life in the state of Veracruz. I awoke one morning and knew that I had been dreaming, but could only remember the odd phrase "What a moon", which seemed to be connected to a dream and which I dutifully recorded in my daily journal.
A month later some friends called from California and suggested that we go to Thailand in June in order to celebrate a friend’s 50th birthday. I had little knowledge of Thailand, and never before considered visiting there, but immediately agreed and we began to make plans for our trip together. Plans which came to naught when a month later they were forced to cancel the plans.
In the meantime I had received a postcard from a former colleague at the University who had returned home to France and was supposed to be traveling in Africa. Instead he sent me a postcard from Thailand. Jean-Luc was visiting in the northern city of Chiang Mai. Another friend emailed from the U.S. and mentioned the death of a friend of her family, a young man who was originally from northern Thailand. Then in the exchange of emails with a fellow, whose name I had gotten from a list devoted to ancient Chinese art, I discovered that he was not located in China as I had erroneously supposed, although he was indeed of Chinese ancestry, but lived in Bangkok, Thailand. When Tong found that I had been making plans to visit his country, he warned that June was not advisable for visiting due to the extreme heat and humidity.
Suddenly I had been assailed a number of synchronicities involving Thailand. But following Tong’s advice, I decided to indefinitely delay my plans for going to Thailand, and instead spent the summer vacation period in California and Oregon.
When I returned to Mexico in September, and the fall semester, I still had a nagging desire to visit Thailand. Months before, in April and May, I had spent considerable time on the internet and even put together a tentative itinerary which included visiting major temples and museums in Bangkok, seeing the ruins of the ancient cities of Ayutthaya, Sukhothai and spending time in the northern city of Chiang Mai. So I got back on the internet and almost immediately found a very inexpensive airfare on Japan Air Lines. A round trip fare from San Francisco to Bangkok, on the exact opposite side of the world, and which unbelievably was cheaper than my Mexicana airfare from Mexico City to San Francisco. I immediately booked passage for the long semester break in December, along with a friend in California who had decided to join me. We decided on utilizing my original itinerary and would spent a month there.
During the second week of that December visit, as our guide pulled the car into the wooded entrance of the Wat Umong, there was something about the soft way in which he pronounced the name of this temple that suddenly made a small click in my mind and I remembered the expression from my dream of months before. Of course! It hadn’t “what a moon”, but rather “wat umong”!
As we entered the major tunnel entrance, and I saw the altar at the far end with the seated figure of the Buddha, I had an uncanny déjà vu experience. I knew that I had been here before. It was almost as if I could remember helping to construct and dig out these very tunnel walls.
Then shortly before leaving the Wat Umong complex I noticed a solitary monk standing in a remote pavilion. He was lost in thought, or meditation, and seemed to be just staring off into the verdant greenness, perhaps contemplating eternity. He never turned around, so I never actually saw his face. When I got back to Mexico this photo became my favorite of the more than 700 which I had taken.
I must admit that I was completely entranced by the beauty of Thailand, the friendly, helpful attitude of the people, the delicious food, the climate, the music, the abundant art — it had been the perfect vacation.
Within six months I was back in Thailand. My friend in Bangkok had informed me of a new government policy which made immigration quite easy for retired people, and I decided that I might like to spend the rest of my life in this incredible country. On this second trip I headed directly to Chiang Mai since I had felt most comfortable in this part of the country. After settling in I contacted a young Thai fellow that I had met on the previous trip. He was the manager of a restaurant, very friendly, and spoke English quite well. He introduced me to a number of his friends and they decided to become my personal guides.
One afternoon I was showing Jua the photos on my laptop that I had taken on the previous trip. He seemed especially taken with the photo of the solitary monk at the Wat Umong and asked exactly when it had been taken. I showed him the date which was on the photo and after doing some mental calculations he announced that he believed that he might be the monk in the picture. Then he attempted to explain something about the monk’s sandals, as well as his hair, but I didn’t really understand. He asked if I had a magnifying glass, but I showed him that it was easy to do a zoom and enlarge the photo. I had been a bit perplexed until he carefully explained that in November he had been ordained as a monk at the nearby Wat Ram Poeng, which was a couple of kilometers down the road from the Wat Umong. His ordination was just for one month, and was in commemoration of the death of his mother the year before.
He related that on the next to last day of his stay at the Wat Ram Poeng he had some spare time and decided to walk down to Wat Umong, since he had never been there before. Along the way the strap on his sandal broke and a shop keeper along the way had bound it with some black tape. As I did a zoom on the photo, the tape repaired sandal was quite visible. He went on to explain that his hair was long, for a monk, since he was ending his ordination period. And when I met him some days later on the other side of town at the restaurant, I didn’t even notice his somewhat short hair.
The synchronicities connected with the Wat Umong have continued during my six year stay here in Chiang Mai. And just yesterday, in searching on the internet for the construction dates of the Wat Umong I encountered this bit of information about the monk responsible for its construction. “Monk Jan’s Pali name was Canda, which means ‘moon’.