Wat Tilok Aram: The 500-Year-Old Underwater Temple of Thailand
Submerged beneath an artificial lake in Northern Thailand is a 500-year-old temple known as Wat Tilok Aram. A stone inscription records that King Tilokkarad commanded Chao San Hua, the King of Muang Phayao, to establish the temple in 1476 – 1486 as an offering to the greatest king in the region. The temple stood for nearly five centuries until an irrigation project in 1939 inundated the temple, along with more than 10 other ancient sites.
The artificial lake of Phayao
The Wat Tilok Aram temple sits below the surface of Phayao Lake (Kwan Phayao), a freshwater lake that covers an area of 1,980 hectares and is surrounded by picturesque rice fields to the west and south.
The artificial lake was created to improve irrigation in the area. Since then it has become the largest freshwater fish habitat in the north and has been recognized as one of the most important wetlands in the country. Sadly, this was at the loss of a number of historically important sites, including the temple of Wat Tilok Aram.
Phayao lake, Thailand (Wikimedia Commons)
The reign of King Tilokarat
The sunken temple of Wat Tilok Aram is described as being built in the era of King Tilokarat, the 10 th king of the Mengrai dynasty, who ruled over the kingdom of Lanna, a kingdom centered in present-day northern Thailand from the 13th to 18th centuries. King Tilokarat is attributed with bringing about a ‘golden era’ in Lanna, expanding its territory and initiating the mass construction of temples and shrines throughout the region.
One of the temples commissioned by King Tilokarat that can still be visited today is Wat Chet Yot, a Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai.
The temple of Wat Chet Yot, Chiang Mai, Thailand (Wikipedia)
The submerged temple of Wat Tilok Aram
The temple of Wat Tilok Aram is another of King Tilokarat’s commissions, built between 1476 and 1488. The temple once sat on the bank of the Ing River before it was submerged by the irrigation project in 1939.
It is described as being 15 meters (49ft) wide by 35 meters (115ft) long, though the details of its construction and its current state are largely unknown.
Today, a floating platform with the statue of a Buddha sits directly above the site of the sunken temple. On the full moon day of the 3rd, 6th and 8th lunar month, a candlelit procession on Phayao Lake takes place at dusk. People make offerings on the platform of flowers, incense and candles.
The floating platform above the sunken temple of Wat Tilok Aram (Visit Phayao)
The platform above Wat Tilok Aram (Encyclopaedia Thai)
The Buddha on the lake
A local legend exists in the region of Phayao regarding the origins of the Buddha statue that currently sits atop the floating platform.
“Once, someone was in the lake fishing when heavy rains suddenly came. Because he was afraid of the rain, he seek shelter near a big tree. But the wind was so strong that it toppled the tree. The man glimpsed the head of the Buddha (but not the entire statue). He told others and a chanting ceremony was held to invite the Buddha to emerge from the lake. The chant went on for 7 days before the Buddha was successfully removed from the lake.
This Buddha had been underwater for over 300 years and yet the face remained intact with no scratches or damage whatsoever. One night, a government officer dreamt that the statue wanted to return to the lake where it came from. Thus the statue was taken back to the middle of the lake.” Yin Teing.
The Buddha statue of Lake Phayao (Encyclopaedia Thai)
Will Wat Tilok Aram rise again?
For the last 5 years, plans have been underway to restore the ancient temple of Wat Tilok Aram. It has been proposed to enclose the temple within a walled structure and then drain the water in order to conduct the restoration and transform it into a cultural tourist attraction in the region.
However, the plans are not without their opponents. Fine Arts Department director-general Arak Singhitkul disagreed with the proposal and believes that draining the water would result in severe erosion to the brick work, requiring even more restoration work.
Culture Minister Khunying Khaisri Sriaroon also disagreed with the attempt to restore the temple, saying it would also affect locals who relied on fishing to survive and posed a threat to Phayao Lake’s ecosystem.
If it is proven that the restoration work can be done with minimal impact on the environment, the plan will be allowed to go ahead and Wat Tilok Aram will emerge from the depths to be revealed once more.
Kwan Phayao (Phayao Lake). Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). Available from: http://www.tourismthailand.org/See-and-Do/Sights-and-Attractions-Detail/Kwan-Phayao-Phayao-Lake--4329
Wat Tilok Aram. Visit Phayao. Available from: http://visitphayao.com/en/destination/watthilokaram
Oldest Underwater Temple in Kwan Phayao. Yin Teing. Available from: http://thailand.yinteing.com/2009/10/10/oldest-underwater-temple-in-kwan-phayao/
Ministry officials pour water on temple project. The Nation. Available from: http://www.nationmultimedia.com/2007/06/05/national/national_30036031.php
Bt1-billion bid to restore 500-year-old temple runs into legal wall. The Nation. Available from: http://www.nationmultimedia.com/2007/06/03/headlines/headlines_30035872.php
Kwan Phayao - Phayao lake. Northern Thailand. Available from: http://a.northernthailand.com/phayao-attractions/161-kwan-phayao-phayao-lake.html
Wat Tiloke Aram. Encyclopedia Thai. Available from: http://www.encyclopediathai.org/sunthai/north/phayao/WatTiloke.htm