A passage through the dragon’s mouth takes you to two impressive caves and a mountaintop chedi affording tremendous river views at Wat Ban Tham, and if you don’t mind the steep climb, this is the mountain-cave temple that we suggest above all others in Kanchanaburi.
The “Village of Caves Temple” has been a site of Buddhist activity since at least the early Ayutthaya period, perhaps as long ago as the 12th century. Resident forest monks oversee nine caves in total, though most visitors only hit the two largest on their way up the mountain.
The journey begins with a steep set of stairs between balustrades depicting naga serpents. Then comes an enormous dragon with swirling eyeballs daring you to keep climbing into its mouth and up through a human-made tunnel punctuated by murals. On our visit, sunlight pierced through the windows as monks applied a fresh coat of red paint to the stairs.
Just beyond the dragon tunnel, the first cave enshrines an ancient U-thong style Buddha image known as Luang Por Yai Chinnaraj. Seated in the Subduing Mara posture, it’s placed at the back of a large cavern that stays cool thanks to air flowing through the front entrance and out a second hole in the limestone. A monk sat ready to splash visitors with holy water.
From here the stairs become steeper and turn to steel as you climb through a massive crag. On the other side, a rocky trail fastened with concrete steps continues up to the second cave, Tham Man Wijit, hosting a shrine to the hermit Ruesi along with colourful ribbons and metre-long stalactites that grab the eerie glow of red, yellow and blue lights. We emerged into the cool outside breeze sweating heavily due to the hot, stagnant air inside.