The bright spots illuminate formations and small vignettes
The Muang On Cave system in Mae On, Chiang Mai’s neighbor 30 kilometers to the east sits under a modest, tree-topped mountain swathed by rice paddies just a short hop down the road from San Kamphaeng Hot Springs. Often overlooked by Chiang Mai’s foreign visitors, the cave draws Thai families and individuals to its cavernous spaces that display spiritual shrines with a fusion of animistic and buddhist traditions. With an approach to natural spaces and the visitors that frequent them so different from those in the US, the Muang On Caves offer a glimpse into Thai culture absent from more popular attractions.
The twisty entrance to the cave’s mouth, protected by a pair of naga
With a modest sign indicating the turn off from Route 1317, the entrance to the caves sits up a small winding road. A few rows of vendors run parallel to the steps, hawking young coconuts, bottles of water, and small snacks of the meat-on-a-stick variety. Go a few steps further and you’re at the base of of Naga-flanked staircase that leads to a platform where a few stewards sell inexpensive tickets and rent flashlights (you don’t need one). You have the option to go into the caves, or ascend a narrow and impossibly long staircase to the top of the mountain, where you should be treated to beautiful valley views, so long as it isn’t burning season. Lots of monkeys live in the surrounding trees; they’re fun to watch, but don’t feed them!
…he let me use this picture
The hike into the cave is a hike. Staircases are steep, rock openings rather narrow, and isn’t for those with bad feet, knees, hips, and backs. While it’s certainly doable for a person in mildly good health who exercises some degree of caution, the safety features a westerner might expect are absent in some places. Visitors have a high degree of freedom to walk wherever they might want to go, explore dark corners and alleys. Had I worn grippier shoes and a headlamp, I would have had myself a proper, yet independent spelunking adventure.
Stalagmite chedi allegedly protecting the hair of Buddha and a ladder within the caves
What astounded me, first and foremost about the caves in Mae Sot, was the entirely different approach to showcasing the natural features to visitors. Caverns and caves with public access in the United States tend to be organized to showcase natural elements and ancient cultures. Those that I have visited have narrow walkways that herd visitors along a predetermined path meant to lessen degradation to the area. Chains, barriers, and warning signs abound, while displays educate visitors on the natural processes that led to the cave’s existence and their role as shelter for humans many generations past.
Various vignettes in the cave’s corners
The Thai take on the phenomena is much different. The cavern is enshrined, sacred, a perfect home for relics to live among various spirits. Muang On’s great spaces include several altars to the Buddha, making it sort of a naturally-formed temple. Legend has it that the Buddha himself came to this cave. While he was meditating within the caverns, a giant serpent demon, or naga, who lived inside took human form and gave him offerings. When the Buddha moved on, he left his hair, and the cave itself built a chedi on top, to protect and honor the relic. The serpent eventually became part of the cave himself, and his form is still evident on the rock walls.
Snakes underneath the serpent formation and Buddha passing into parinirvana
Where creative minds see a formation of an animal or an image of the buddha meditating, a shrine pops up underneath. Herds of small ceramic animal figurines hide in corners under stalactites bearing their shape. Groups of dolls dancing sit in front of a lady’s figure looming in the shadows of bowing walls. Cobras line up under the serpent’s form. A large stalagmite becomes a chedi. Figures of Buddha loom in many corners. The vignettes under the rock forms recall the strong history of Thai animism; the figurines in pockets of the cave are the same as those in many spirit houses.
I could have crawled into other caverns through the spaces behind me wearing the shirt I am wearing in like every photo on this website
Muang On’s caves are probably missed by international tourists because there is not set bus service going between Mae On and Chiang Mai, and because the caves in Chiang Dao, 70 kilometers north of the city, have a guidebook write-ups and an established reputation. However, a visit to the caves would make a great day trip in conjunction with a trip the hot springs. Work up a sweat climbing down the cave and up the mountain stairs and wash it all off with a dip in the springs!
Burning season in Thailand meant terrible mountain top views
Getting To Muang On Cave
If you’re in Chiang Mai and would like to visit the Muang On Cave, it will be easiest to do it on a motorbike. You can rent one at many places around the city, but there’s a larger concentration near Thapae Gate on the east side of the old city. If you walk through the gate into the old city and take a left on to that first street bordering the gate, you’ll be headed in the right direction. It’s called Thanon (Street) Moon Mueang. You should be able to get a rental for 200 baht/day. You can also probably hire a songtheaw (red taxi truck), but that will cost you a lot unless you pack it full of people.
To get to the hot springs you’ll want to get on the highway surrounding the city, route 11. From here, follow the signs for San Kamphaeng and Route 1317. After 45 minutes to an hour on the bike, you’ll see the turn off for the cave on your left.
Directions from Thapae Gate to Muang On Cave can be found here.
Things to do near Muang On Cave
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