The seven levels of circular walkways, meditation caves and platforms that comprise Wat Phu Tok, rise precariously 200 metres above the Mekong River floodplain. Sometimes referred to as the Stairway to Heaven the temple symbolises the seven steps to enlightenment, and was the inspiration of Buddhist monk Ajaan Juen.

The first step, for a traveller, is getting there. I’m approaching from the riverside town of Beung Kan, which is more appealing than Lonely Planet’s description of it. The intention is to catch a bus to Siwilai (pronounced ‘see-vee-lie’) Mekong River, Beung Kanand from there, a tuk-tuk to the temple, but miscommunication about bus schedules throws plans askew – I’m confronted with a 90 minute wait till the next departure and uncertainty about the last one returning.

Aht, a tuk-tuk driver, tries to sell me his more expensive alternative. He spruiks he was a monk in Nong Khai, speaks English, unlike other drivers, and can escort me around the temple.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Other drivers say me: ‘Aht, why you not charge one thousand baht?” he claims with a pained expression as though his 800 baht was a special price. But it’s the going rate from here.

“How long will it take you to drive there?” I ask, thinking it could be slow-going by tuk-tuk.

“An hour. Maybe fifty minutes.”

I still prefer the bus. He says it will wait around for other passengers and not leave on time. He exaggerates what tuk-tuk drivers will charge in Siwilai.

I take what he says with a grain of salt: white lies are part of the tuk-tuk hard-sell – but he seems okay otherwise. “Let’s do it,” I say, and climb on board.

“First I have business,” he responds and drives off in the opposite direction we’re meant to go.

With tuk-tuk drivers there’s always a sting in the tail.

Following a search, he locates two people he’d taken to see a doctor earlier who will come part of the way. The ‘two’ soon evolve into four, three women and a young girl. They load the tuk-tuk with food bought from the market. Laos woman, Beung Kan

Aht introduces us. They’re from Laos. He says they haven’t been through customs and are in trouble and staying in his village. Other tuk-tuk drivers might not understand. This has me thinking they’re like refugees, but meaning is being lost in translation.

The shopping tour continues and Aht adds another ‘ten minutes’. At one point we’re back near the bus stop and I consider bailing out, but by now I’m curious about this digression’s destination.

Laos girlWe finally make our way to the highway, but the one to Nakhon Phanom, not Siwilai because Aht’s taking a different route. To avoid bumpy roads he rationalises, but also to accommodate the extra passengers.

Thailand and Laos share much in common, but Laotian is more like Isan linguistically so my limited Thai is of little use here. The co-passengers are friendly though, in a quiet Laotian way, and share the curiosity that also besots many Thai women – marital status. In this case, mine.Laos woman

After awhile we detour through a village beside the Mekong, meandering along dirt roads and tracks pot-holed with pools of water. We stop at the last house by the edge of the river (that I later find belongs to Aht). The Laotians unload their shopping and follow a path to meet a boat taking them back to Laos. They aren’t fugitives at all; they’d just come over for ‘business’. Shopping refugees.

Fish farm
This man owns the fish farm below. Aht introduced us and he invites me to return for a fish meal.

We backtrack to highway 212 …a good road but virtually every vehicle is a 4WD pick-up nearing at pace and overtaking by squeezing between us and approaching traffic. The tuk-tuk is out-of-place in this environment, open and exposed to elements – natural and man-made.

After a petrol stop and a right turn into another well maintained road with a few minor tuk-tuk testing inclines, Wat Phu Tok comes into view coiling an isolated outcrop at the end of an escarpment of red rock.

Wat Phu Tok escarpment

We turn into a lesser and bumpier road then into a side road, passing stalls selling fresh herbs, and finally into the temple grounds. It’s taken us more than one and a half hours.Wat Phu Tok

 

Aht says he’ll wait here. Gone, apparently, is the offer to be a guide, but I’d already assigned that ‘grain of salt’ territory and don’t mind, preferring to explore undistracted. To be honest, even though he’s agreeable enough, I also doubt the depth of his knowledge.

There are some signs pointing the way, but little else in the way of instruction as should be expected – this is primarily a temple, not a tourist site.
There are some signs pointing the way, but little else in the way of instruction as should be expected – this is primarily a temple, not a tourist site.

 

 

 

Steep wooden stairs introduce the initial stages. It’s muggier here, despite the shade, or because of it – the rock emits heat, the rainforest its blanket. Sunlight occasionally filters through the cloud and trees.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

 

The cliff face is naturally grooved with horizontal bands, and into these the walkways, shrines and meditation caves are built.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI don’t progress far before encountering a young Thai girl sitting with whom, I presume, is her grandfather. She’s waiting for her mother. Her name is Editha. She’s lived in the US for several years and appropriated that accent and slang.

Wat Phu Tok She claims not to know Thai, and her grandfather doesn’t speak English. I gain the impression she’s leading him more than the other way around.

We leap-frog each other on the way up.

She’s somewhat serious, a little precocious, though gradually becomes chatty revealing a childhood spark.

At shrines she rushes in excited and curious, but doesn’t follow protocol, and her grandfather calls her back.

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Reaching the 6th level a tiled path offers a choice of going left or right. We chose the former and come across stairs leading to the 7th level, but a view further on looks promising so we pursue it and arrive at a feature the temple is most famous for – a timber walkway clinging speculatively to the cliff face. It’s more precarious than I imagined, more exposed to the abyss.

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A steep narrow path leads down through dense vegetation to this shelter, which I didn’t investigate, but probably offers a different perspective to the walkways.

 

 

 

“If someone jumped from here would they die?” Editha wants to know, a little too precociously.

 

I’m reluctant to give a categorical answer. “Probably”, I reply and, to myself, wonder why she asks. She leans against the makeshift railing too fearlessly for her grandfather’s liking, and mine. He pulls the plug on their expedition. They say goodbye and disappear down a stairway.

That leaves me to face the walkway alone. It’s definitely unnerving – the rickety boardwalk that is, not the aloneness. Not for those suffering vertigo. Gaps in the planks reveal a straight drop into the void. Timber struts impaling the rock support the structure, but barely seem capable. No building permits were applied for here. Though, the most likely risk, for inattentive types, is tripping on a raised plank or head butting a rock. For those looking out rather than down, sublime views reach to the horizon.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAjaan Jeun saw the task of building the temple as a form of meditation; each level completed another step toward nirvana.

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Apart from wondering how he erected the structure, ‘walking these planks’ can inspire contemplation about deeper motives behind its design …is it to shake one’s hold on life? That we cling to it like this walkway clings to the rock wall, but our grip is equally tenuous? Apart from it being a test of faith in priestly construction, the walkway challenges you to let go and discard fear.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFortunately this mind-wandering doesn’t result in my sudden exit from the land of the living and I’m not ghost writing this.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the top of the stairs to the 7th level a dirt track leads to a short, steep section made more difficult by overnight rain. It could be the ‘scramble to the top’ referred to in the guide-book, but I imagined something more obviously a rocky summit, so follow the path that continues past, to see where it leads.

Eventually, after burrowing through bamboo thickets, it loops around to a summit, but apart from a boulder with a Thai inscription there isn’t anything to announce it as the end. The view is no better than already encountered, and the area is overgrown with vegetation to the extent you wonder if it’s actually the final stage. Is this what nirvana represents? Nondescript, neutral, natural, nothing-special nothingness? If contentment is the absence of desire the 7th level being free of material icons is probably apt and intentional. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs for the Thai inscription …I don’t know what it says, though given Buddhist maxims and translations of Thai into English it could be whimsically cryptic to the point of being meaningless; which is meaningful if you consider life to be absent of meaning.

While Ajaan Jeun survived the heights of Wat Phu Tok, aeronautically fate dealt a different hand and he died in a plane crash some ten years after completing the temple. He reportedly reached enlightenment first. There’s a mausoleum dedicated to him at ground level.

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The Mekong can be seen in the distance – a narrow band of water.

Ignorance, as they say, is also bliss – apparently, I discover later, there are cobras up here.

Retracing steps a fork in the path presents another choice. Does the other way lead down to stairs and a wooden walkway? Experience says it’s better to go the way you know. Besides I’ve been exploring for over two hours and am conscious of Aht waiting and of my desire to return with time to spare.

View of Wat Phu Tok temple grounds
The mausoleum is on the left.

I haven’t seen anyone since passing a group of young Thais on the rickety walkway. At this point, I’m still not entirely sure I’m on the right track. I know it will get me back but perhaps there’s a better way. I encounter Thai girls helping two French women struggling up the steep scramble. The former confirm there’s only one route down, though I’m not entirely sure they understand my question. The French want to avoid the steep scramble on their return and ask if the way I take is safe. I say it is then further on wonder if I should have warned them to tread warily around the brief rocky sections. But you have to follow your nose to some extent in life, trust your instincts, go with the flow.

Descending further …students from Siwilai want to chat and practice their English. Four turn into six and pretty soon it’s like the whole class is in attendance.

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At first there were four, but more turned up the longer we spoke.

I continue down not realising they follow. The girl who did most of the talking wants me to slow down: “Have you had lunch?” she asks. “Not yet,” I reply, unsure if it’s an invitation. But my mind is focused on the return. Then we’re separated when they stop for passing monks.

I wait briefly at the bottom, but see Aht in the distance so return to the tuk-tuk. I joke that I got lost because I didn’t have a guide. Aht says he walked the planks once, but it was scary and never wants to do it again.

I later read that as one completes Buddhism alone that’s how one should approach the summit.

We return via Siwilai because Aht wants to see what the road is like now. He asks directions along the way. The tuk-tuk jolts and jars on the pot-holed surface struggling with its own tenuous grip on terra firma.

Three of the students overtake on a motorbike yelling, smiling and waving, taking life in their stride, daring it with a fatalistic eye. I look out for them further on, but they’ve gone with their own flow.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

At Siwilai we join the highway between Udon Thani and Beung Kan, another good, wide road, but with more general traffic and less 4WD’s than Highway 212.

We arrive back in Beung Kan with enough time to enjoy half an hour of quiet before dance music in the temple fair next door brings everyone back to earth.

 

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An excursion to Wat Phu Tok; another step on the path to travel nirvana.

NOTES:

(See below and slideshow for more photos)

If you’re coming from Nong Khai consider hiring a motorbike (or car) and doing it as overnight trip. By the time you pay for buses and tuk-tuks it will cost about the same, maybe even less, and you’ll have more flexibility to do things in your own time. Beung Kan is not as far from Nong Khai as it appears on the North East Thailand map. It’s around 120 kilometres. Roads are good (apart from the approaches to the temple – pot holes are easier avoided by motorbike though).

I read suggestions about doing it as a day-trip by bus from Nong Khai – you could, but you’d be constantly on the move. The Nong Khai to Beung Kan bus (B100) took 3hrs for starters. You’d need to allow at least 12 hours.

The tuk-tuk from Beung Kan was about 1 ½ hours each way. The route Aht took via Highway 212 is actually the best approach – a little shorter and along better roads. The route via Siwilai is mostly for those relying on public transport.

The bus timetable from Beung Kan to Siwilai: 5.00, 6.00, 7.10, 8.30, 10.00, 11.10, 12.10, 13.40, 15.00.

If fear of heights is an issue it’s possible to climb the temple and avoid the timber walkways.

The Maenam Hotel (Thai script) in Beung Kan is also better than described by LP. The rooms I saw were spacious with ample light, and had tables and chairs, things you don’t always find at the budget end. Rooms were B450 with a river view or B400 without. The main negative being that a fairground in the adjacent temple starts pumping out loud music from about 4pm, so request a room on the opposite side if that’s still a factor. It’s within walking distance of the bus stop. Tuk-tuks try to charge B40 from there, but B20 is probably closer to the mark. B30 meets them half way.

There’s new place a short walk upstream from Maenam that has clean, modern rooms, though for a higher price, and a cafe out the front. I think its name is Laongpirom (going by their WiFi log-in).

END NOTES

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