San Kamphaeng: a day trip from Chiang Mai

Mark Levitin | Live the World

May 29, 2024

Located less than 30 km away from Chiang Mai, San Kamphaeng makes for a great day trip. It may actually be the most diverse, if not the most spectacular: one gets to observe (and possibly learn) traditional crafts, soak in a hot spring, descend into a cave, and enjoy the greenery in between. The overall ambiance is also good - lots of old wooden buildings, slow rural life, and the scenery one expects to see in Vietnam or Indonesia, not in modernized Thailand. 

Bo Sang Parasol Village

© Mark Levitin

Bo Sang is an artisan village mostly famous for its historical craft: parasol making. There are a dozen or so workshops assembling bamboo frames, covering them with cloth or paper, and painting the ready items. The parasols look a lot like those produced and used in Myanmar, and this is ostensibly their origin. According to a local legend, once upon a time, Luang Phor Intha, a wandering monk from Bo Sang, visited Pathein, the Burmese center of parasol manufacture, and thought of farmers working under the scorching sun back home - they could use such protection, he decided. When the monk eventually came back, he taught the craft to his neighbors. The two main parasol workshops in Bo Sang are clearly tourist-oriented but still look traditional enough for a few shots. Smaller ones can be found in the back alleys if you explore on foot. There is also a porcelain factory, and a number of mulberry paper manufactures - another local industry (mulberry paper is the most common material for parasols). All in all, Bo Sang feels a lot more like some rural locality in North Vietnam than on the outskirts of a modern Thai city. Time permitting, it is worth roaming around just to discover whatever hides beyond the next bend in the road - there is usually something interesting every few hundred meters. The village also stages an annual festival in the second half of January - a carnival-like event with parades, ethnic dances, a beauty pageant, and of course, a lot of colorful parasols. 

San Kamphaeng Hot Springs

© Istock/JoZtar

The hot springs of San Kamphaeng consist of two large geysers and a few pools of varying temperatures. Initially, the spring water is boiling, then it gets diluted to reduce the heat - in one of the pools, the popular pastime is to cook fresh eggs (sold on the spot just for this purpose), in another, it is safe to immerse one's feet. There are also simple, slightly underdeveloped onsen-like arrangements here. In short, the hot springs do not look natural anymore, but the place is still not bad for a picnic (customarily including those geothermal eggs) and a warm dip. There is also a swimming pool with slightly sulfuric mineral water, a camping area, a bunch of cafes, and a number of resorts nearby. 

Muang On Cave

© Istock/Tuayai

Thailand is full of caves, and most are equally full of Buddha images. For a religion with a strong tradition of hermits, this is hardly surprising. What makes Muang On Cave unique is a natural holy stupa - a stalagmite believed to contain Lord Buddha's hair in its core. A legend tells of a local naga (magic snake or dragon) exchanging courtesies with Sakya Muni for a while and finally asking for one strand of his hair. Then the dragon crawled into a cave and curled on top of the sacred relic, becoming a rock with hair buried inside. More recently (and definitely), Luang Phor Lee, a famous 20th-century Buddhist sage, used the cave for meditation. The stalagmite, highlighted by directed lamps at the base, looks impressive in the dark cavern. There is religious statuary all over the outer chambers, and wild sections begin deeper inside. It is perfectly okay to explore the cave, but make sure you are prepared for spelunking.


© Mark Levitin

San Kamphaeng is close enough to Chiang Mai to comfortably cover most of its attractions on a day trip. The easiest way would be to hire a motorbike; otherwise, public songthiaews (passenger pickups) leave regularly from Warorot Market just west of the old town, running until about 18:30 PM. There are organized tours as well, but most of them skip Muang On Cave. The only reason to stay overnight in San Kamphaeng would be to escape from the urban environment, perhaps to meditate or write. In that case, there is no shortage of secluded, inspirational resorts. Those intending to undergo a self-prescribed spa treatment in the hot springs might want to stay nearby. The springs' popularity has somewhat reduced the value of local accommodation, but in maniacally neat and technologically advanced Thailand, this does not mean low hygiene, merely a lack of luxury. 

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