Getting Away – Chiang Mai, Thailand

Getting Away – Chiang Mai, Thailand
Chiang Mai, Thailand

There are great day trips from Chiang Mai that will allow you to get away from the bustle of the big city and wander the countryside.

Stairs inside the Muang On caves near San Kamphaeng

Stairs inside the Muang On caves near San Kamphaeng
Muang On Caves and Roon Arang Hot Springs: Traveling through city traffic on the back of a motorbike can be a harrowing experience, but the Muang On Caves is worth the 30 km of holding on tight. Located 17 km east of San Kamphaeng on Route 1006, the caves are accessible by a steep road. Once there, you can park your bike for 10 baht; admission is 20 baht. A winding Naga staircase leads to the top of a mountain, where a door opens to the caves inside. The Muang On Caves is a temple in the earth; there’s an impressive reclining Buddha on the cave floor. Once you’re finished hiking up and down the hundreds of steps both inside and outside the caves, go relax your muscles at the Roon Arang Hot Springs, a spa resort that gets its water from the hot springs in the area. Entrance to the resort gardens is 20 baht; once inside you can visit their spas or swim in their all-natural mineral pool for an extra cost. If you want a cheap snack, for 20 baht you can buy handmade baskets of four eggs to dangle into the bubbling hot springs with a wooden pole. Watch out for steam and scalding water! After 11-13 minutes, you’ll have perfectly hard-boiled eggs that you can eat with soy sauce at little picnic tables near the snack shop.

The mouth of the Tham Lot caves near Soppong (Photo by Justin Holt)

The mouth of the Tham Lot caves near Soppong (Photo by Justin Holt)
Soppong and Tham Lot: If you’re interested in seeing more caves, hop on a bus to Soppong. It takes six hours from Chiang Mai to reach the small village in the north, but the long ride is worth the scenic mountain views and the huge caverns of Tham Lot (sometimes spelled “Tham Lod”). The natives of Soppong don’t entertain tourists for too long, so there’s not much use for English. However, if you’re willing to do your best with the Thai language, the locals will do their best to accommodate you. We stayed at the Lemon Hill Guest House, a family-run establishment that has enchanting private bungalows near the Nam Lan River as well as a good restaurant near the check-in office. A double room with private bath cost 200 baht.

When you’re ready to sightsee, you can get a motorcycle taxi (100 baht round-trip) to Tham Lot. Make sure to go early – we were the only ones at the cave when we arrived at 10 a.m., but when we returned to the park entrance an hour later, three tour groups were lined up at the ticket booth. It’s 100 baht to rent a guide to take you into the caves, and there’s also a 20 baht surcharge for the boatman who paddles you across the waist-deep waters to the first cavern (they might not mention the cost until the end of the trip, so keep that in mind). If you’re scared of the dark, this tour might not be for you – once inside Tham Lot, it’s so black and quiet that all you’ll hear is your own breathing and the hiss of your guide’s gas lantern.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Weather can affect the outcome of your cave exploration. Tham Lot is made up of three huge caverns. When the water level of the Nam Lan River gets too high, only the first cavern is accessible.

Trekking: The jungles in the Chiang Mai province beg to be explored, and package trekking deals will help you see every sight. You can book these in Bangkok or in Chiang Mai through numerous travel agencies and guesthouses. A friend who stayed at the Richly Guest House said the staff there arranged a three-day trek in Doi Inthanon Park that provided an excellent package. For 2000 baht, she got an elephant trek, two nights accommodation at huts in the jungle and freshly cooked Thai food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. “I would definitely recommend this trek; everybody had a great time,” she said. Guidebooks and BnA are great resources for other trekking ideas. Do remember that trekking is Chiang Mai’s specialty; I advise that you don’t miss out like I did!

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