Detours: Tall order

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 December, 2007, 12:00am

At the 300th step I'm panting. It doesn't help that some of the steps are so high I have to raise my knees into the air like a pole vaulter.

The altitude and high humidity add to the fun on my slog to the top of Tiger Cave Temple (Wat Thumsua) in Krabi, a peaceful town on the Thai island of Phuket. The temple underlines that there's more to the island than sleaze and glamour - part of Leonardo DiCaprio's The Beach was shot here and the 1974 James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed on nearby Tapu Island.

I drink lots of water, grip the hand rail and, as gibbons weave past me, heave myself up the staircase built into a wooded valley surrounded by cliffs. I'm beginning to have doubts about whether I will reach the top, take some pictures and make it back for my taxi pickup in 90 minutes.

The distance between the breaks I take narrows. Drenched in sweat, I'm feeling giddy. However, the end comes early because there are just 1,200 steps - not 'more than 2,000' as Frommer's travel guide claims. Thanks be to Buddha - represented with hallucinogenic splendour by one colossal figure (right) and a golden team of clones gleaming in the twilight.

This cuts a contrast with the strip-lit temple carved into the rock below. One observer compared the nether part of the temple to a cross between a cathedral and a junk shop. Spot on.

Here, up on this platform in the clouds, you feel closer to the spirit of the temple's faith, Vipassana. Peddled in the west as a quick-fix cure for stress, Vipassana (clear-seeing) dates back 2,500 years.

Despite the temple's name, tigers are extinct. The last one was glimpsed near the temple in the 1970s. Since then, plantation farmers, poachers and developers have altered the habitat.

Picture mangrove forests offset by rubber and palm-oil plantations. On the horizon lie the inner Andaman islands.

The view is as striking as any I have seen. Even so, I don't have the best vantage point. That spot is occupied by a monk secluded in what resembles a watchtower.

Sternly, he calls out. I retreat a few steps then realise he is telling me to remove my sandals.

Off they come. I toss some baht into an offering trough, hand my water bottle to a Swedish tourist, then chat with monk Pra Pornpitak Mahanaco (left).

Touching his smiling face, Mahanaco, 42, claims he looks 74, but that seems hard to believe. He tells me he reached the summit in just 18 minutes.

Eventually he sends me on my way, but says I'm welcome to make a return pilgrimage some day.

It's a relief to climb down the winding stairs - only to be met by the species that has taken the torch from the tiger, the gibbon. Trying not to make eye contact, I quickly make my way past them.