Legend says that at the top of Khao Khitchakut, a holy mountain located deep in the Chanthaburi province near the Thai-Cambodia border, there is an actual footprint of the Lord Buddha. It’s believed that visiting the footprint equates to appearing before the Lord Buddha and those who make the trek are granted 1 wish. These spiritual beliefs are what draw thousands to make the climb every year.
Besides the distance, roughly 10km in total, what makes the climb even more elusive is the short window of when the mountain is open; 3 months each year starting from Chinese New Year to Magha Puja day (roughly late January to early April). It’s possible to enter the park at anytime of day during that period to make the climb, however, it’s become customary to start the trek close to 12am and climb through the night to watch the sunrise around 6am in the morning.
Looking to get off the beaten path and experience something local and traditional, I arrived in Chantaburi with my buddy Turner Barr around 4pm ready to climb. Once in town we walked around, ate and killed time until our 11:30pm departure to begin the pilgrimage. From the bus station our journey began with a 30 minute ride to a temple near the base of the park. Here we jumped in the back of a pickup truck which took us up 8km to the mid mid-mountain starting point. The ride up is vertical, bumpy and drivers fly up and down, dodging other trucks and trees, loading and unloading passengers all night long and into the morning.
At mid-mountain we hopped out and were ready to climb the stairway to heaven, pay our respects at the Lord Buddha’s footprint and write our wishes on the red silk scarf at the end of the trail.
The first 2 kilometers of the hike was an experience in 5 senses of devotion. Seeing faithful pilgrims of all ages walking up the trail was motivating. The bell-lined trail let out a constant ring as climbers tapped coins, three times each, on the sides of hundreds of bells along the way up.
The smell of incense and fragrant flowers (marigolds and carnations) sprinkled about the path made portions of the climb feel like we were walking directly into a temple.
At stops along the way there were areas to pray in front of small shrines, as well as perform other Buddhist rituals. More smells of flowers and incense filled the air in these areas.
We reached the giant boulder and Buddha footprint around 2:45am. Being perched atop the plateau, among the masses praying, chanting and trying to get close to the Buddha’s footprint to make their offerings was a surreal experience.
Touching the holy rock and placing pieces of gold leaf on the sharp, jagged boulder gave a feeling of reward after a long climb. There were a few places to pray, sleep and do other spiritual rituals on the mountain top. One area even offered a spoonful of holy herbal oil and a short blessing given by a monk. Feeling in the moment I decided to give it a shot…not exactly what I’d expected.
From here we had another 4.5 km to go to reach the sacred wishing scarf at the end of the trail. Before continuing on we stopped at a lookout point to see the giant boulder and watch the masses of people praying. The mystery of the mountain only increased from this vantage point.
The narrow path, which is literally cut through the forest, climbs up and down the mountain passing by many smaller shrines. Here, followers continue to demonstrate their spiritual devotion by making offerings and performing additional acts of religious significance.
Our climb ended close to 5:30am. Locating a black magic marker we cut our way through the hoards of people and made out way over to the scarf. With feelings of accomplishment we wrote our wishes on the scarf. We still had an hour til sunrise so we climbed up on a large rock facing east toward Cambodia with other climbers, relaxed and waited for the sun.
Unfortunately the mountain was socked in with fog and we were unable to see the sunrise, but being there was still a good feeling. After realizing the sun wasn’t going to peak out from the clouds, we grabbed our bags and made out way back down the mountain. On the way down we were like salmon swimming upstream against a continuous flow of climbers ringing bells and making their way up the mountain. If you’re looking for an off the beaten path experience, and you’re in Thailand between January and April, then this is it! Happy climbing and best wishes!