Wat Phra That Pha Ngao – A Little-known Millennium-Old Temple in Chiang Rai


The Wat Phra That Pha Ngao is a little-known temple located in Chiang Rai, Thailand, that dates back over a millennium. The temple is perched atop a mountain. The temple features a chedi (stupa) believed to contain a relic of a monk who has attained enlightenment, if not the Buddha, as well as a beautiful view of the surrounding landscape.

According to legend, the temple was built by a king who was looking for a suitable location to enshrine a relic of the Buddha. After discovering the location atop the mountain, he had the temple built and enshrined the relic inside. The temple has undergone several renovations and expansions over the centuries, but the original structure remains intact.

While the Wat Phra That Pha Ngao may not be as well-known as other temples in Thailand, it is a hidden gem worth visiting for those who appreciate historical and religious sites. The challenging climb up the stairs is rewarded with stunning views and a sense of serenity that can be difficult to find in more crowded tourist destinations.

When you come to Thailand, you almost cannot avoid hearing the names of various temples that begin with the word “Phra That” (pronounce as “Pra Tad”). For example, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Wat Phra Si Rattana Satsadaram (or Wat Phra Kaew) in Bangkok, Phra That Phanom in Nakhon Phanom province.

What does “Phra That” mean, then? In a narrow sense, the word “That” refers to the various parts of a human body (including bones and other internal organs) that remain after cremation. Since the bones are what is clearly visible, we can say that “That” is the bones of a person that remain after cremation.

The word “Phra That” has a similar meaning to “That,” but with a special feature: it refers to the various parts of the body of a person who has attained enlightenment. Such a person has a pure mind without defilement, and “Phra That” refers to the sacred relic that remains after cremation.

The term is used to refer to the relics of the Buddha himself and the arahants, or monks who have attained enlightenment. These relics are extremely rare in Buddhism and considered sacred.

When we combine “Wat” and “Phra That” together, we get the word “Wat Phra That” which is used as a prefix for temples that contain a pagoda containing the bones of a monk who has attained enlightenment.

As of 2021, there are about 40,000 temples in Thailand, and 727 of them are classified as Phra That. Chiang Mai has the highest number of Wat Phra That with a total of 97, and Chiang Rai comes second with a total of 76.

This blog will be about Phra That Pha Ngao Temple, which is located on the west bank of the Mekong River in the village of Sabkham, Wiang sub-district, Chiang Saen district, Chiang Rai province. The temple covers an area of 743 rai (approximately 290 acres) and consists mostly of small hills stretching from Ban Jampi to Ban Doi Chan and ending at Ban Sabkham.

The name of the temple comes from the appearance of a large rock on which the pagoda or “Phra That” sits. The word “Pha Ngao” means the shadow of the rock. This large rock is similar in size and shape to a stupa. When the sun shines on it, it creates a large shadow. Therefore, the local people call it “Phra That Pha Ngao,” meaning “shadow of the rock.”

However, according to the studies the temple had a different name in the past. The locals called it “Wat Sopkham,” which was located on the bank of the Mekong River. This temple is believed to have been built around 453-464 AD. Over time, it gradually deteriorated and was undergone several renovations until it eventually suffered near-complete destruction due to the force of water.

Image: คนเก็บภาพ กินเที่ยว
Image: Jarankorn Panmano
Image: Museum Thailand
Image: Museum Thailand
Image: Museum Thailand
Image: Museum Thailand

Then the Buddhist community then built a new temple, which is located far from the original site. The information of when the new construction took place is not clear but it is believed to be a few hundred years ago. Within the temple, there are three, namely Phra That Pha Ngao located on the top of the rock, followed by Phra That Chomchan, and only the remains of a 5-meter-high stupa.

In that area, the temple has built a church, and further up the hill from Phra That Chomchan is the location of Phra That Chedi Sattayam, which is only the remains of a 5-meter-high base. The temple has built a large pagoda enclosing the Phra That. However, the remains of Phra That Chedi Sattayam are still visible inside the pagoda.

The important and ancient Buddha image at the temple, known as “Luang Pho Pha Ngao”, is between 700-1300 years old. It was discovered in March 1976, after the temple ground had been cleared, and a large wooden pole was excavated. Everyone was excited and happy when it was discovered that beneath the pole, there were ancient bricks arranged nicely and covered with some kind of plate.

When the plate was lifted, a very beautiful Buddha image was found. Archaeologists analyzed that the Buddha image was between 700-1,300 years old which matches the estimated age of the original temple.

The Buddha image is Buddhist Chiang Saen Art that was influenced by Sukhothai art. The image is a sitting Buddha in the posture of meditation with an egg-shaped crown, a bun-shaped topknot, and a broad face of approximately 1 meter wide and 1.5 meters tall. The statue is located at the center of the temple hall, which the villagers built and enclosed since the recent discovery of the new Buddha image.

It was agreed by all villagers to name the Buddha image as “Luang Pho Pha Ngao” and changed the temple name from “Wat Sabkham” to “Wat Phra That Pha Ngao” since then.

Besides enjoying the beauty of the surrounding areas and admiring the ancient site, within the temple there is also a new landmark of Chiang Saen called “Pha Ngao Sky Walk,” which allows us to enjoy beautiful views from the 25-meter-high and 70-meter-long walkway.

The Sky Walk is located on a high cliff overlooking the Mekong River, offering a wide panoramic view for taking beautiful photos of Chiang Saen, the Mekong River, and neighboring countries such as Laos and even distant Myanmar.

Image: คนเก็บภาพ กินเที่ยว

The structure is made of steel, built on a concrete foundation and piles. It is also an octagonal glass suspension bridge with a 12-meter central span, 25 meters high from the ground and a 3.85-meter wide, 9.9-meter long walkway connecting them. It has entrances and exits connected by a road around the stupa.

The bridge is made of a total of 70 meters of glass and metal, with a length of 35 meters on each side, and a width of 3 meters, covering a total Skywalk area of 460 square meters. The material used to make the glass bridge is a three-layered tempered glass, 48 mm thick. The anti-fall wall material is a two-layered tempered glass, 20 mm thick for each layer. Both materials have been tested and meet the standards as required.

The Sky Walk was opened for the public since October 2022. It is in service every day from 07:30-18:00 hrs. (except for rainy days, heavy fog, or wet and slippery ground) with a service fee of 40 baht per person and limited to 100 people per round.

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