Krabi’s population is split roughly 60 : 40 into Buddhists and Muslims, who live peacefully together in a model of religious tolerance. Muslim communities are concentrated mainly around the coastal areas, such as Ao Nang and Ao Nam Mao. It is thought the religion was brought to the south of Thailand by sea gypsies from Malaysia around 500 years ago.
The Buddhist population mostly live inland, either in Krabi Town, which is majority Chinese Buddhist, or in rural areas where they work the land. There are subtle differences between the lifestyles of each group; however, for the outsider, it is still fairly easy to spot whether a village is Muslim or Buddhist, simply by looking for the presence of a temple or mosque.
Temples and mosques (or ‘wat’ and ‘masa-yit’, as they are called in Thai) are more than just places of worship. They are at the very heart of the local community they represent, providing guidance and education, as well as a social centre for festivals, ceremonies and charitable events. The central mosque, located just out of Krabi Town on Highway 4 heading north to Makro, plays host to many markets selling Halal food and clothing at Eid and Mawlid, for example.
Temples in particular are also a focus for artistic endeavour. Even in the most humble, you will find unique examples of architecture, sculpture, painting and decorative arts and crafts. Most local temples and all mosques are, however, off limits for tourists – unless invited specifically to visit by a local person. Please respect this.
There are a number of temples open to visitors, the most interesting of which is Wat Tham Seua (in Thai: วัดถ้ำเสือ), or Tiger Cave Temple. Set in a beautiful forest, the temple is in fact a famous meditation centre – monks and nuns come from all over Thailand to retreat here. The temple was founded in the late 1970s, by Abbot Luang Por Chamnean Srilasatheto who came to meditate in a cave here. Legend has it that a tiger entered the cave (at the time this area was covered in thick jungle) but did not harm him, thus the temple was created on this magical spot.
The temple is laid out as a small village. The main boulevard is lined with monkeys (keep food and drink out of sight) and ends at a large statue of Guan Im, the Taoist deity revered by Chinese-Thai Buddhists, in whose honour the annual vegetarian festival is held each September / October. From here, you can walk around the nature trail in the Khiriwong Valley, with its maze of caves, or double back to visit the main Tiger Cave and bell tower (the largest in southern Thailand).
For those who are fit enough, a 1260 stair climb leads to the famous mountain-top shrine, for a view that will take away what little breath you have left. Organised tours are available from all agents or, for a less rushed visit, you can easily go independently with a taxi or rented car or motorbike – the site is only a few kilometres outside of Krabi Town. Sunset is a particularly beautiful – and cooler! – part of the day to visit.
In Krabi Town itself, you can find the modern “white” temple of Wat Kaew Gorovaram, perched on the (relatively low!) hillside next to Maharat Road in the centre of town and accessed by an impressive dragon-head staircase. Like Wat Tham Seua, it is a working temple, so you will often see novice monks taking care of the grounds, or – early morning – monks returning from almsgiving.
Klong Thom temple and museum is another wat open to visitors; it is possible to stop off here on the way to or from the hot springs. Slightly further afield is the stunning Wat Bang Riang (in Thai: วัดบางเหรียง), one of the most beautiful temples in southern Thailand. Just over the provincial border in Phang-Nga, it is around 70km north of Krabi Town and possible to visit on a day trip, or en route to Khao Sok, Khao Lak or Phuket. A leisurely visit to the temple will take half an hour or so, although the feeling of tranquility and peace is so pervading, it may be difficult to leave.
If driving to or from Phuket, another temple you may wish to stop off at is Wat Suwana Kuha (in Thai: วัดสุวรรณคูหา), known as the Monkey Cave temple, due to the (possibly frightening) number of monkeys at the temple entrance. Make sure young children are carried; do not carry food or display shiny objects such as cameras and they will leave you alone. Inside are a string of caverns, with an impressive sleeping Buddha and other statues, though the place feels a little shabby and uncared for compared with the other temples mentioned above. A 20 baht donation is requested to enter the cave.
Please remember when visiting any temple to respect certain rules of conduct: cover your shoulders and knees (both men and women); always remove your shoes before entering any shrine; and never touch the monks or nuns. It is also polite to ask before taking pictures of them.