[This story originally appeared in Koktail Magazine issue 2.]
Not long ago, I’d have to fly six hours from Bangkok to Tokyo and pay a tidy sum for a stay at an onsen ryokan in a suitably rural setting outside the Japanese capital. But recently, I heard about a tranquil cultural retreat in the lush hills of Chiang Mai province that provided a convenient alternative.
When I finally made the trip north to Onsen @ Moncham, I found that the essence of the experience remains largely the same as in Japan: visitors enjoy long soaks in hot mineral baths with a view of the outdoors in a semi-remote, natural setting while sleeping in graceful accommodations and feasting on professionally prepared Japanese cuisine.
The mountain ridge at Mon Chaem is famed for crisp, cool weather and inspiring views of peaks and fog. But over the last decade, the construction of dozens of resorts has meant that most views are dotted with resort rooftops and tent villages. Perched at the edge of its own pocket valley at 1,200 metres, Onsen @ Moncham offers a microcosm of the environment such that once you’ve passed through the stone gates and are inside the large, lushly landscaped compound, it’s as if you have Mon Chaem to yourself.
Inspired by Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto and designed to blend harmoniously with the surroundings, the modern yet elegant Japanese-style interiors and surrounding gardens were conceptualised by architect and National Artist Kritsada Rojanakorn, who has also worked on Six Senses Ninh Van Bay in Vietnam and The Grand Luang Prabang in Laos. Bubbling streams run through the grounds spanned by charming arched bridges where I paused to admire rock gardens and flowering plants during morning walks on my two days there. Most of the latter reach peak bloom during northern Thailand’s cool season—December to February—when temperatures reach a bracing 10-12°C during the evenings and mornings. Guests are encouraged to walk around wearing yukatas, Japan’s lightweight summer kimonos, which are provided with the accommodations.
The focus of the resort, a Japanese-style onsen, uses mineral water pumped from deep underground which is said to boost blood circulation and purify the skin with an ionic content of copper, magnesium, zinc, calcium and sulfate. Meanwhile, the cosy and comfortable yu-kukan, or bathing environment, aids in harmonising mind and body by blending calming architecture with the surrounding landscape.
As at most Japanese onsen, a row of low-mounted shower taps and stools stand alongside the indoor pool where guests may wash up before and after bathing. I really enjoyed this part of the post-onsen ritual, scooping cool water (hot water is also available) over my soap-lathered body while perched on a stool. Overnight guests are permitted unlimited access to the onsen between 8am and 10pm. At the moment, it’s closed to day visitors, but management says it will re-open in March at a reasonable cost of 750 baht for all day.
As in Japan, the onsen features separate baths for men and women. Each has two bathing pools, an indoor pool with a view through its glass walls and a second pool outdoors shaded from direct sun by a pavilion roof. Even though every room in the resort was occupied, I found only two other men in the onsen when I spent an hour bathing there my first afternoon. In contrast with Thai hot springs where it’s common to bathe fully clothed, guests at Onsen @ Moncham are asked to remove all clothing before bathing to preserve Japanese tradition and as a symbolic way to leave behind daily stress. Women may wear special bathing underwear provided by the resort although we were told that few opt to use it.
The onsen's restorative waters contain a combination of copper, magnesium, zinc, calcium and sulfate ions
Each of the well-curated 16 rooms and suites contains a cosy wooden onsen where one can enjoy the same waters in complete privacy. The more expensive suites also feature decks with a second outdoor onsen equipped with bubble jets. Ryokan-style sleeping areas consist of comfortable futon-style mattresses on raised wooden platforms.
All units boast private slate-tiled patios and hardwood furnishings. Spacious bathrooms contain Japanese-style washlet toilets with heated seats and cleansing sprays plus all the modern conveniences of an international resort.
On my first night, I inhabited a Grand Mountain View room overlooking the gardens with views to the hills flanking the resort. The 45 square metres of indoor space allows for up to four guests. Grand Terrace Suites up the living space to 60 square metres with the addition of an outdoor terraced area perfect for coffee time or family dinners. On my second night, my temporary home was the 75-square-metre Grand Imperial Onsen Suite, which featured a firm latex mattress, private outdoor jet onsen and an oversized balcony with sweeping views. Two, three and four-bedroom suites ranging from 90 to 380 square metres are also available.
Rounding out the Japan-in-Chiang Mai experience, Onsen @ Moncham offers three dining and drinking venues. Mee Zü Nam, open 7am to 11pm, serves as the main eatery for most guests, presenting an extensive menu of Japanese, Thai and European dishes emphasising natural ingredients according to season and local availability. Although I stuck to sake by the pitcher, complete sake and wine pairings promise an added dimension. Hi De Nobu is housed in its own charming indoor-outdoor building and is inspired by Japanese izakaya with stools lined up in front of a bar with a view of an open kitchen. For a full-on Japanese culinary experience, this is the place to enjoy traditional small plates, sakes and premium cocktails. The third outlet, Ko Sake, offers a subtly-lit lounge vibe and good collection of Japanese whiskies and sake, perfect for pre-dinner drinks, small meals or a nightcap before bed.
Reservations are strongly suggested, especially on weekends. While the lack of international tourists gutted most of Thailand’s hotel business, Onsen @ Moncham actually saw occupancy rise to as high as 95 per cent during Covid restrictions, drawing on domestic tourists who, like myself, had no choice but to travel within Thai borders. Luckily, there’s a little piece of Japan nested in the northern mountains.
Onsen @ Moncham, 293 Pong Yaeng, Mae Rim, Chiang Mai