Phu Tok

The stairway to heaven at Wat Phu Tok is the extraordinary achievement by one man in his own journey towards spiritual enlightenment. The stairs are a vast collection of wooden ramps and ladders that ascend this strange dark rocky outcrop in seven levels, thus symbolising the seven traditional steps towards enlightenment. (Click for map)

Encircling the rock, the walkways offer spectacular views over the Isan plains.

Rising nearly 200 metres from the Maekong flood plain, the rock is naturally etched in deep horizontal bands. Into these Ajan Juan built his wooden platforms on posts driven into the rock face; steps connecting each band.

The arduous work of building the stairway, was seen by the venerable monk as a form of meditation in itself. The creation of each level, a further personal step towards nirvana beyond.

There are in fact only six wooden stages. For the seventh level is the very top of the outcrop... up a rocky scramble, which like Buddhism itself, one must complete alone.

The stairs are not that hard to climb, and are kept in fairly good order. However, during the rainy season some sections may become a bit slippery.

The first three levels take one up through spectacular forest below the tree line, passing by deep cuttings and huge tropical trees with their buttress roots.

Level four takes you through a passage actually within the rock (see right) and level five brings you out out into a cave adorned with Buddha images and a wide polished floor where pilgrims may pass the night. (see below). The wooden gallery at its front affords spectacular views over the plains to Laos.

Sadly, foreigners are no longer allowed to stay overnight here, as one couple 'acted improperly'. However, at some stage this ban may be reversed.

The gallery on level five also possesses the bizarre addition of a skeleton in a glass case. Said to be that of a young man who died of cancer in his twenties, it carries the Buddhist message of impermanence.

For a man unfazed by heights, Ajan Juan's own death was curious; for, 20 years ago, he was killed in a plane crash on his way to Bangkok to celebrate the Queen's birthday.

Pictured right, at the foot of the outcrop, is the mausoleum, built by the King to commemorate the life and work of Ajan Juan.

Wat Phu Tok is on the far eastern side of Nong Khai Province, some 4 hours by bus from Nong Khai Town. Close to the riverside town of Bung Kan, it is possible to get there and back within one day from Mut Mee and makes a great trip out.