The small town of Doi Saket, twenty or so kilometres NE from Chiang Mai, is quite a surprising hidden gem of a place. (On the map at left the Chiang Mai Province is shown and Doi Saket is about half-way up on the right-hand side of the black area) I lived in Chiang Mai for more than a dozen years and never quite managed to veer off the highway to Chiang Rai to explore this place … that is, until a month or so ago.
I was looking for a quiet place that was clothing optional for a few days’ holiday away from my permanent holiday, and found an excellent place tucked away in the lovely Doi Saket.
Imagine Chiang Mai (soon to be rebranded as Imagine Encore – a Resort for Men) is a delightful little resort with just five well-appointed villas overlooking rice fields, the swimming pool, and carefully tended gardens. Many birds of all sorts swoop and sing as they dive for nibbles in the rice fields or ponds of the resort. The resort is behind very private walls in a walled garden so privacy is guaranteed.
The owner and manager, Khun (Mr) Apinun, is a generous and welcoming host who offers guests huge breakfasts and shares his local knowledge with guests and drives them to local attractions.
A dip into hot waters …
One of the great local attractions, the San Kamphaeng Hot Springs, is just a short drive away from the resort. A modest entry fee of THB 40 (about two dollars) gives visitors access to the very pretty gardens and the steaming pools and rivulets of the spa, with people dangling feet in the warm and (supposedly) therapeutic waters or doing the (apparently compulsory Thai thing) of boiling eggs in the waters.
Lots of massage therapists offer clients relaxing head and neck twists and twirls, and the public hot baths are steaming and heaving with corpulent and skinny guests. For an extra THB 500 (about US$15) guests can reserve private cabins with their own en-suite showers and deep tubs full of smelly hot (supposedly) therapeutic waters, which is what we did. In the private cabins guests can control the temperature of the water – and the amount of clothes they wear or do not wear.
Beware: artisans at work
The wearing of clothes is pretty well mandatory when visiting the Bor Sang umbrella- and fan-making factory – just another short drive from Imagine Chiang Mai. This little village has long been a favourite of mine where local craftsmen take lengths of basic bamboo and paper made from mulberry leaves and turn them into delightful works of hand-made art. I used to think it was the best artisanal place in Chiang Mai until I found the Doi Saket Chiang Mai Celadon factory.
Celadon and its crazy crazed glazes is one of my favourite forms of ceramics: it is smooth, subtle, unique – and suited for everything from elephant-carrying candle-holders to full dinner services.
Artisans work here under the direction of MD Tassanee Yaja to create magnificent pieces – and, of course, elephant candle-holders. The process is explained by Thai-English wall charts, and the artists proudly display their clay carving, glaze-painting, and mould-breaking skills. The centrepiece of Chiang Mai Celadon is a magnificent old teak house that is in its own right worth a visit.
One day Apinun and I visited the huge Mae Kwang reservoir – source of much of Chiang Mai’s water. A year or two ago I visited this lake and with Thai friends took a small boat to explore the waterways – and to doff our clothes to swim in the lake. Sorry, Chiang Mai: some of the dust from my feet may have ended up in your bathtub.
A new bridge – a rather perilous wobbly creaking iron bridge – now crosses the lake and Khun Chai, my friend, tells me that it has halved the travel time from Chiang Mai to his home village to the north.
Travelling in Doi Saket is a pleasure.
The town is quite small – fewer than 70,00 people call it home – and there are good things to do in the town itself.
DS offers banks, restaurants, clothing stores, atmospheric old tobacco curing barns looking like the remnants of a lost city being consumed by an all-encompassing jungle, a great Tuesday night Night Market and some magnificent giant trees lining the streets.
Temple on a hill
Towering above the village is Wat Prathat Doi Saket – a temple believed to date back to 1112 although there are few signs today of this ancient history. There is a school attached to the temple – a school full of noisy novitiates and long-suffering monks trying to instil into them some basic knowledge of Buddhist tenets and contemporary education: for many poor people, the education offered at temples is a crucial part of growing up.
The temple also has an unusual zoo.
I saw an old monk feeding free-roaming black pigs, and a caged monkey merrily chewing on a pair of gold-framed spectacles: beware the perils of getting too close to any caged primate! Or to any caged pirate, I guess … Elsewhere in the zoo were peacocks, alligators (or were they crocodiles? I could not tell by their tears), pigeons, geese, swans and some rather contented-looking chickens.
… and speaking of food …
Doi Saket has plenty of food on offer – either at the night market or at the very pretty little Chalerm Sri teahouse on the corner. But for me the best discovery was Pizza Plus owned and driven by the delightful Bangkok couple Sine and his wife Eve.
I had dinner at this restaurant on two evenings – marvelling at the eclectic decorations and basking in the warm welcome from muchly-moustachioed Sine (portrait at left). Both meals and the wines served were excellent and a welcome addition to a traveller’s “foodie destination” map.
There used to be a great English / Thai place called The Country Cabin nearby that served huge traditional Sunday roasts – lamb, beef, chicken with Yorkshire puddings and heaps of fresh vegetables – but it has sadly closed now. The Rössli Swiss restaurant at Vivo Bene offers a good meal by the pool, but it is not quite the same as the full English bun fight formerly offered at The Country Cabin.
Doi Saket is superb
With a place where you can find excellent food, a couple of places where you can sunbake and swim naked, with some wonderful artisans hard at work making pots and brollies and bowls and fans and plates and (perhaps) spittoons, where you can boil an egg in the natural hot springs, and where my friends Basil and Ram live: why seek any other paradise?
Text and photographs © Christopher Hall January 2020
Journey December 2019
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight
- Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship