A spontaneous trip to the hot springs near Chiang Mai was the perfect activity after a crazy week. Between a busy schedule working and writing, one financial fiasco after another (Paypal randomly shut down my account on Wednesday) and feeling under the weather, I needed a break. I didn’t realize there were hot springs near Chiang Mai; Pai had been the closest I knew of.
Muang On Cave
With Jeananne, a friend I recently met in Chiang Mai, we set out for the hot springs after lunch at Guu Fusion. It was a rather impromptu adventure, as we had only talked about it the night before. And it was that morning when we considered stopping at a cave she had heard about on the way. As I’ve yet to rent a scooter this time around in Chiang Mai, I jumped on the back of hers. It was the first time I’ve ridden passenger on a motorcycle for any length of time, and certainly an enjoyable experience.
Other than a few signs on the highway, there’s hardly any indication that the caves exist. In my months of exploring Chiang Mai, I hadn’t heard about them. The directions are simple, taking the 1317 highway about 40 minutes east of town. But at the final road we had to turn on, we only saw a blue sign for Wat Doipothiyarn and some other directions written in Thai. Looking at Google Maps, it seems there used to be a green sign advertising the caves, but alas it’s no more.
After accidentally going into a temple, we found the road leading to the cave. This road isn’t on Google Maps, but has a sign pointing the way. We parked our bike for 10 baht and purchased our tickets for the cave for 30 baht each.
When we arrived, there was a troop of monkeys playing around in the trees. Unfortunately, they didn’t seem too friendly. One bared its teeth, growled and started shaking the tree while looking like it was going to jump and bite me when I got too close. Another baby also looked like it would jump on me, but whether to play with me or bite me was unclear. Either way, I quickly stayed clear of them.
From the parking lot, you have to climb a couple hundred steep steps (187 to be exact) up to the cave entrance, where a Thai will collect your ticket. Then you climb down 132 really narrow steps. By narrow I mean that the ceiling is so close to the stairs that you have to basically slide down on your butt underneath the rock. It’s about 30 feet down to the first level, and then you take another long series of stairs (sliding under the overhead rocks again) to get to the massive lower network of caverns.
As with many caves throughout SE Asia (such as the Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur), temples and shrines have been erected throughout the chamber. There’s a roughly 10-meter long reclining Buddha (a smaller replica of the one in Wat Pho), and a massive stalagmite [pillar from the floor] which has been wrapped in gold fabric and turned into something of a shrine.
What fascinated me most were the hundreds of small figurines placed on rocks and ledges all around the cave walls.
I was amazed at how big the cave was. It’s not to say this is the biggest cave in Thailand; far from it. That doesn’t make it any less impressive. Fortunately (although I’d prefer it otherwise), lights have been installed throughout the cave so you don’t have to bring your own flashlight. There are some to rent for a few baht just in case.
If you take your time exploring the cavern, you’ll probably spend about half an hour there, perhaps more. Also, go slowly down the stairs, unless you’re a speed demon and adventure freak like me. The decline is really steep, and the stairs have a higher step than usual. Once again, this is Thailand where safety features are not as advanced as in other places. Having said that, the stairs are really good quality, and won’t be falling apart anytime soon.
Sankhampang Hot Springs
After you finish at the cave, head just a couple kilometers north and follow the signs to Sankhampang, the best hot springs near Chiang Mai.
It’s another 10 baht to park the motorcycle, and then 100 baht to enter the hot springs. At the entrance you can also buy fresh eggs and bamboo mats, both of which come in handy later.
The hot springs are a lot different than the Sai Ngam hot springs in Pai, and certainly not what I expected to find. Instead of a secluded mountain river fed by a warm spring, the Sankhampang hot springs are sprawled over 40 acres. Food and drink stands line the paths, and beautiful flower gardens are everywhere.
The design of the hot springs was new to me. I arrived with my bathing suit, but the only place to swim was a separate pool which you had to pay an extra 60 baht to swim in. There is also a smaller pool and private rooms you can pay even more for, all of which are fed by the mineral-rich spring water.
At the far end of the park, the hot springs geyser several feet into the air at 105°c. The water is collected and immediately pumped into two pools. You can only stick a finger in for the smallest fraction of a second without getting burned. Instead, these pools are used to boil your eggs. 3-5 minutes for soft-boiled and 10 minutes for hard-boiled, although I heard stories that eggs are overcooked in ten minutes.
From there, the water drains into two small canals that run through the park. Locals (and a tiny handful of foreigners) sit on bamboo mats along the edges of the streams and soak their feet. The closer to the source pools, the hotter the water is. We chose to sit in the small gazebo closest to the source. It was several minutes of quickly dipping our feet over and over before we could leave them in for more than a few seconds.
The water was so relaxing, we stayed there for over an hour. By the end, we could leave our feet in for minutes at a time. The bottom of the streams have small pebbles embedded in the concrete, and from time to time I would walk around and get a massage from the stones.
The hours of the hot springs seem to fluctuate. When we went, they were open from 8 am to 8 pm, with the food stands and restaurants closing around 6. Make sure you bring sandals and sunscreen. If you have a mat, bring that as the concrete banks of the canals can be wet. You can buy a mat at the entrance if you want.
My recommendation is to go in the late afternoon. The contrast of the cooler evening temperatures and the hot water is delicious, and you’ll should also be able to catch an amazing sunset.
How to Find the Muang On Cave and Sankhampang Hot Springs
The 1317 highway, beginning at the Promenade Resort Mall, will take you all the way to both the cave and the hot springs. At the time of this writing, there don’t seem to be any tours other than expensive private taxis. Instead, I’d recommend renting a scooter and riding there yourself. The road is simple, and parking is cheap. Here’s a map you can use to find your way. Click on the star to add it to your Google Maps.
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If you’re traveling with more than one person, I’d recommend using Airbnb. Some locations can be fantastic.
Couchsurfing is my favorite way to stay in a city. Chiang Mai can be a little more tricky to find hosts, but not impossible. I’m currently there myself from time to time.
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