Yesterday I had the urge to go for an explore and I picked out two wats (temples) to visit about an hour’s drive from our home in Si Bun Ruang. Having now seen both of them  (and one we didn’t plan on seeing) they stand out a little from “normal” temples and one of them has made its way onto my must do list for visiting friends and family.

Finding places to visit in our part of Thailand in the north-east is often best achieved using Google Maps and the sometimes wonderful photo option available when you click on a label as illustrated below:

Click on any of these labels and you might strike it lucky with some additional information.

Right click the tag and then click on the What’s Here? and you will get the GPS coordinates for the location.

I say “sometimes wonderful” because often many of the points of interest listed will only return a blank or a Google street view if you click on them rather than anything useful. However those that attract more visitors or have more support in the local community often have photos (often just selfies) which give you a clue as to whether they are worth a visit or not (mostly not!). Some even have reviews. I am a contributor to Google Maps and add my photos and a review to the places we visit. Google are great in that they provide regular feedback such as this one for my photos, which help keep me motivated to contribute:

The reason Google Maps is so useful in finding places is that the English internet is hopeless in providing any information outside the big attractions (Trip Advisor top 10) in the region. There are a few farang sites such as Udon Map HERE, which are intended mostly as a useful resource and outlet for locals who live in the city of Udon Thani itself rather than those of us who want to explore the surrounding area. Their “Things to Do in Udon Thani” forum for example reflects the general interests of farang locals as you can see:

The trip you are joining us on today takes you from our home province of Nong Bua Lamphu into Loei, the province to the west (left on a map) of us. The reason I had selected this area to search for temples was that we drove through the region when returning from a trip into the hills outside Loei with some of my Thai family a couple of weekends ago, an amazing day out that you can read about HERE and HERE. Late in the day I took this photo and promised myself that I would come back to explore this stunning landscape at some stage – wouldn’t you?

Yesterday was the day and our trip started by driving south from Si Bun Ruang on highway 228. We then turned west onto smaller back roads with only the two GPS coords as a guide to get us to the destinations I had selected. Driving the rural roads of Isaan is such a pleasure this time of year because we are in the wet season and the landscape is so lush. We are also moving into the rice season so mixed in with other crops are vivid green of newly sprouting rice paddies. The other surprise is that the Si Bun Ruang area is very flat but head 30 minutes to the west and you hit amazing outcrops of rocks that, when combined with the green lowlands, give a photographer plenty of opportunities to fill up the memory card. Gaun is very patient as I constantly stop to capture a landscape that she has seen for most of her life!

As you can tell we have been getting good rains this year after several years of drought. A small moo ban (village) on the right and a backdrop of hills in the far distance.

One of my photo stops. The hills aren’t high but they are very irregular, which gives them added interest. This is on a small rural road called 3007 off the 228 south of Si Bun Ruang.

We actually got lost even using GPS because I was using the wrong coordinate format but there’s no wrong destination in Thailand. All that happens is that you end up seeing more of the countryside than planned and as a retired guy time is not one of my concerns! Relax and keep an eye out for other opportunities to enjoy while you work your way back to where you thought you should be 🙂

Photographed on the wrong road.

And I wouldn’t have seen this if my coords were correct. Spot the farmhouse roof in the distance to give you an idea of scale.

Thailand is full of the unexpected like this shrine in the middle of nowhere on the side of the road.

I am always open to following signs to unknown destinations when travelling. Mostly I am disappointed with the end result but sometimes we find a gem. I spotted a sign to a cave temple (well Gaun told me that is what it said) and so on the way back to our planned destination we called into Wat Tham Suea Mop 17°02’50.6″N 101°55’42.9″E.

Wat Tham (cave) Suea (tiger) Mop (?)

If you were relying on Google Maps to give you an insight into whether this temple was worth your time you might be disappointed and this is a great illustration of the frustrations of discovering interesting places in a Thai world. You will see my photos shortly (and I will be adding them to Google Maps shortly) but the single photo on the information page is this one:

Not too helpful in telling me if this is a place worth stopping for. Good for Facebook, which is where it should have been posted.

My photo. That’s more useful…….not one selfie in sight.

This is a bit of a jumble sort of wat in its layout and structure but it was unusual enough to be worth a drop in if in the area.

The settling right against the hills, the roofline and silver Buddha statue all combined to make it a little different from others.

On the left you will find these moss-covered steps leading up to the cave. Burial containers on the left, which Gaun wasn’t happy about because of the ghosts! After cremation bones are placed inside these.

The entrance to the cave,

We would have explored further but you needed a flashlight or two as no fixed lighting was provided. The caves are extensive according to the monk because they have had children go in there and get lost. Bring a long string! I wouldn’t mind coming back with lights for a better look.

It is always a delight to unexpectedly come across a temple like this one hidden away in the back roads of Thailand. Not one tourist in sight!

With my GPS fixed (or more correctly put – the operator fixed) I was confident we were on track to find our first planned wat stop of the day. I saw this one on Maps and although the information attached to it was pretty useless the satellite view looked promising:

“Buddhist Temple” as a label doesn’t give you a lot to go on.

Translating the Thai to phonetic English is usually a waste of time. Enter your best guess of spelling into a Google search and you will get nothing helpful. It looks like a big something in the middle of a lake on a hill. What more do you need to add it to your list?

Marked in red. You will see the temple I wrote about before Tham Suea Mop on the left at the bottom of the hill. You can see why it looked interesting hidden away in the hills as it is.

Gaun’s translation of this place (วัดป่าวิเวกภูเขาวงศ์) is Wat Phu (hill) Thum (cave) Pa (forest) See Talat and you will find it here 17°02’47.8″N 101°56’34.0″E. The drive to the wat takes you on a lovely treed concrete road that winds up the hill.

The view as you rise above the plain.

I am not sure what the function of this place actually is. None of the extensive buildings were open to the public and apart from two monks and three nuns, all sweeping the road, no one else was in sight. It was a huge development that would house hundreds with more buildings under construction but no people. Maybe it is a teaching or retreat centre. The development in itself wasn’t outstanding other than being very striking against the green backdrop of trees and hills. The main thing that I noticed was just the size of the place in the middle of a rural area with no major population centre. Who thinks up these places and where does the vast amount of money come from to build and maintain them?

If you look at my first Google Map photo this is the object that is sitting in the middle of that lake. Work in progress.

Another building to the left of the construction site.

This photo gives you an idea of size. All of this huge forecourt area is concreted.

Seems a bit much for two monks and a few nuns doesn’t it? The spot of orange in the far distance on the right is a monk who is sweeping this area!

And a single nun who was busy sweeping leaves from this massive entrance driveway. A lifetime’s work.

As you can see comparing the size of the piles of gravel and sand to our pick-up there is a lot more building about to happen shortly.

The Buddhist construction related industry must form a large proportion of the overall building statistics in Thailand and the transfer of money from donations into new Buddhist structures mindblowing.

Wat number two for the day was just down the road (rural road 4016) situated on one of the odd small outcrops of rock you can see sticking up in fields in this part of Isaan.

I wanted to go because a farang had added a few photos (thank you Michael Riederer whoever you are) to Google Maps and the views from the rock looked worth seeing for myself. This place ended up being a total surprise and it is that aspect of it that makes this wat worth the visit.

A closer view. The temple is halfway up the rock as is the sala (hut) lookout on this side.

The entrance to the wat. 17°04’00.5″N 101°56’38.6″E

The steps leading up to the monk’s area on the left and the lookout on the right.

Part of the walkway to the sala. It doesn’t look much but is surprisingly sturdy.

And the sala at the end of your climb.

Worth the effort? I think so. The hills bordering the road in the background.

Looking down on the entrance track to the wat.

The view to the left of the sala.

Not spectacular in size but the hills are full of character.

We started to head back down the stairs with some nice landscape photos that in themselves would have made the visit worthwhile when we were stopped by a monk who seemed to appear from nowhere and he and Gaun got chatting. We were then invited to see the cave (I hadn’t realised that there was one), which is sealed off from the outside by an ugly blue wall of metal sheeting to the left of the stairs.

The cave entrance is behind those bells.

What you will find inside is what makes this place unusual. The main cave is set up as part temple and part living room for the single monk who has lived and worked here for eight years. A lovely and friendly guy. I don’t think he sees too many people so he likes a chat and was very excited to show us around. If you visit this wat the monk will be most likely be working underground so bang those bells in the photo above until he arrives (he told us that).

This is the the main cave. The Buddha shrine is on the left and then the monk has two TVs on the right and his sort of lounge room seating area at the back.

If you thought this was the end of the tour you’d be missing the very best bit of the whole temple. The monk took us on an explore of what he has been working on for the last eight years where he has been opening up passageways and caves deep under this level. It is a magical experience to share his joy in showing you his creation.

Heading down to a stairway to the lower levels.

This is a shot taken at the end of our trip when we were going up but this is part of the stairway used to climb down into the lower caverns.

At the bottom more passageways.

Opening into this wonderful area. There were huge borders in this area the monk has broken up and you can see the pieces on the floor.

How wonderful and TOTALLY unexpected. What a magical place. Everything has been brought down that stairway by hand.

The monk turning on more lights.

I needed a tripod to really capture these low light photos. I will be back. Great stalactites.

Further on through another passageway there is a small cave the monk has opened up for this mini Buddha shrine. The monk meditates here.

A joint photo. He has made a little concrete step so it looks as if you are suspended on the wall.

We talked him into getting his photo taken. He was more interested in making sure we got good shots of the caves.

Coming out of the caves and it still isn’t over. We were taken through to the rear of the top-level cave and then onto the other side of the hill. There’s an opening to a large deep cave here complete with bats that the monk is planning to give access to at some stage. Just beyond that we climbed a steep metal stairway to an area where he wants to build another viewing sala and you can see why.

Going up.

He has the best of both the underworld and views like this.

I was full of admiration for this monk. Although the place looks like a mess from the outside once you get beyond that you become involved his world, a space that expresses the passion he must have to be working solo on this enterprise for eight years. The caves are not world beaters but it was the surprise element that made this such a worthwhile experience. That and meeting a man on a mission. What we so often deal with these days is bland and average or less so it was uplifting to see an individual doing something unusual for the love of it.

I thought this poster was pretty ugly until Gaun told me it says something like “Have you taken the time to smile today” and then it seemed it fit in with this monk.

I only add these last few photos as we left the wat as the skies had cleared to blue for a brief time.

A great afternoon out and about. It shows that there’s more in the back roads of Isaan than you might think from reading the farang tourist sites.

Thanks for joining us on this trip.