The road most travelled to San Kamphaeng, the famed handicraft district on the outskirts of Chiang Mai City, can be heavily populated with tourists _ at times almost unbearably so. However, rather than relying on Highway 1006, there is another option. The bypass road, Highway 1317, features a number of new attractions that are worth a visit.
The road east from Chiang Mai City is being widened to four lanes (or more) in some sections, and workers and bulldozers are busy side by side. But don't let that put you off, there are vast grasslands and rice paddies to be seen along the highway that runs from the eastern outskirts of Chiang Mai to the southern edge of San Kamphaeng.
In the years ahead, this rural area is expected to be the site of Chiang Mai's second airport and probably the terminal station of the high speed train line.
I find this road more interesting than the old, narrow one where communities and handicraft outlets have packed both sides for decades.
Though the other route is rather quiet, there are intriguing attractions situated along the way. One of them is Huan Jai Yong.
Huan Jai Yong means "The House of Yong Heart". The owner is a descendant of the Yong people, an ethnic group which migrated about 200 years ago from a town of the same name in what is now Myanmar. Their lifestyle is similar to that of the Lanna people, though there are differences between the dialects, written languages and religious ceremonies.
- San Kamphaeng is 13km east of Chiang Mai City via Highway 1006. Wood carvings, silverware, ceramics, silk, cotton and lacquerware outlets can be found along the road. Highway 1317 is relatively empty.
- San Kamphaeng Hot Springs is 34km from Chiang Mai City. A chartered red bus from there costs about 200 baht.
San Kamphaeng has a number of Yong communities and their skill at creating lacquerware is part of the reason the area has become a major souvenir manufacturing site.
Situated in a simple wooden, stilt house, Huan Jai Yong looks like an ordinary local-cuisine restaurant serving authentic Lanna dishes. But once you step into its backyard, you will be impressed with its contemporary art gallery comprising a main central building and surrounding pavilions.
While his wife runs the restaurant business, owner Lipikorn Makaeo, who is an art lecturer, has developed the gallery to display his work. Rotating art exhibitions and pieces for sale always lure art lovers to stop by this place.
A stone's throw from the restaurant, another artistic place lies hidden in a complicated soi. For those who find elephants fascinating, Ban Chang Nak is place to be.
Chang Nak means numerous elephants, and on entering the house it is immediately clear why the name is appropriate. Ban Chang Nak is home to hundreds of beautiful wooden elephants created by local carvers.
The serene house greets all visitors with a replica mammoth made with thousands of wood chips. On the ground floor, artists work slowly, as if they were creating masterpieces of carved elephants.
Ban Chang Nak belongs to Phetch Viriya, a local artist who has devoted himself to the pachyderm to raise awareness of the present need to preserve the giant creature.
On my visit, the housekeeper walks me around, showing hundreds of elephant carvings occupying every corner of the house, while bas reliefs of elephant heads carved from black woods decorate the wall.
Unlike carvings available in other places, each wooden elephant here is composed to represent natural mannerisms. You can see carvings of elephants at work, playing, sitting, etc. Very few of the carvings look exactly like one another.
Drive a little further along this road and you will find yourself in Mae On, a quiet subdistrict in the embrace of mountains. The most impressive view of Mae On is from the mountain, which you can climb on the way to Muang On Cave. The cave itself is captivating with many Buddha statues and a pagoda-shaped stalagmite inside. It is believed that the stalagmite keeps a relic of Lord Buddha's hair inside.
After ascending 147 steep concrete steps, you reach a small entrance. On seeing this, you may be slightly underwhelmed, but don't underestimate its size _ once you get through, you will be amazed. The central cave is rather large, and there are numerous chambers to explore.
After the hike, one way to restore your muscles is to put your legs in the warm stream that runs from San Kamphaeng Hot Springs. Less than 5km from the cave, the springs are a pleasant destination where families can spend nice weekends together in the serene garden, watching the jets spurt as high as 10m in the sky, dangling their feet into the stream or taking a dip in warm mineral water. For holidaymakers, San Kamphaeng Hot Springs is a kind of local onsen.
The water is as hot as 105C, so visitors love to prove the heat by boiling eggs, which can be ready for picnic meals in a mere three to five minutes.
This easy trip around San Kamphaeng can be a nice day out if you are looking for something other than the typical shopping on offer in Chiang Mai's usual tourist places.
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About the author
- Writer: Peerawat Jariyasombat
Position: Travel Reporter