Khao Luang Cave, Phetchaburi, Thailand
There’s a sudden commotion in the cave. A monkey has snuck in and is scurrying across the rock floor to the corner where the large Buddha sits. The monkey makes a grab at a bit of food that’s been left on the altar as an offering. Before it can make off with the loot, a woman nearby spots the furry thief and throws a water bottle at it. “Ai ai ai ai,” accompanies the lob as the woman screams. The monkey drops the food and races from the cave toward the light coming down the staircase.
The monkeys are one of the hazards of visiting the Khao Luang Cave in the Thai city of Phetchaburi. As you approach the entrance – up a hill, across a carpark, along a path, and down some stairs – hundreds of monkeys watch you expectantly. Visitors are one of the best sources of food and the animals are looking for any sign that you might have something edible that can be easily grabbed with a combination of stealth and cheekiness.
But once inside the cave, you’re safe from the furry marauders. This is a sanctuary that the animals respect (and have been frightened away from). The Khao Luang Cave is a spiritual place, a calm asylum, an opportunity for the locals to connect with a higher being.
The cave complex is filled with Buddha statues of different sizes and in different positions. Some were laid by King Rama IV, the ruler of Siam (now Thailand) between 1851 and 1868. As you walk in, the first statue that catches your eye is the large gold Buddha where the monkey had launched its earlier stealth attack. A group of about three women is tending to the altar in front of it, keeping things clean and selling offerings to the families and couples who are visiting.
Along the other walls are rows of smaller statues. Some are dressed in orange robes with small bowls of incense placed in front. On the opposite side of the cave from the main altar, another Buddha (again gold) reclines in a robe.
The highlight of the cave, though, the feature which takes it from beautiful to spectacular, is the large hole in the roof which allows the sun to stream through. The rays light up a circle on the ground and create a glow across the whole space. The smoke of the incense, floating in the still air, looks caught in the light like moths in a lantern. It’s as though some supernatural force is forming a futuristic teleporter up into the heavens along this luminous beam. Perhaps that force is the large gold Buddha which sits just behind the glow and looks on with a knowing and comfortable smile.
Phetchaburi itself, as a town, is not one of the most popular tourist locations in Thailand. Although it’s only a couple of hours south of Bangkok, it’s close enough to similar towns which are on the beach and attract the crowds. But it is somewhere worth stopping for a day or a night – if only to see the Khao Luang Cave. There aren’t many places like this in the country and this is the most dramatic example you will see.