Written by Joe Cummings
“The Japanese Issue”, August-September 2023
A few years ago, you’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. Luckily nowadays, there’s a little piece of Japan nested in the northern mountains of Chiang Mai province that provides a more convenient alternative.
At Onsen @ Moncham, I’ve found that the essence of the experience remains largely the same as in Japan. Here, 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.
Mon Cham’s mountain ridge location is famed for its 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 at least partially obscured by hundreds of 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 had Mon Cham 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. Bubbling streams run through the grounds, spanned by charming arched bridges, where one can pause to admire rock gardens and flowering plants during morning walks. Peak bloom occurs 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 accommodations.
The resort’s primary focus, 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 in Japan, the onsen features separate baths for men and women. Each gender has two bathing pools: an indoor pool with a view through glass walls and a second pool outdoors shaded from direct sun by a pavilion roof. Even when the resort is fully booked, the onsen remains peaceful and uncrowded. In contrast with Thai hot springs, where it is 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 I was told that few opt to use it.
As at most Japanese onsen, a row of low-mounted shower taps and stools stands 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 for 750 baht per person all day.
Newly opened this year, Onsen in the Garden is a private mixed-gender oasis that offers a large warm onsen pond with a waterfall, hot bath, cold bath, and relaxing Japanese-style roofed pavilion. The garden onsen is available to couples or families for 2,500 baht for 90 minutes and includes refreshments. A swimsuit is required if shared with other guests.
Each of the well-curated 24 rooms and suites also contains a cosy wooden onsen where one can enjoy the same waters in complete privacy. The more expensive suites 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 our first night, we 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 our second night, 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. Mi | Zü 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. Meanwhile, Hi De | No Bu is housed in its own charming indoor-outdoor building inspired by Japanese izakaya, with stools lined up in front of the bar, with a view of an open kitchen. For a full-on Japanese culinary experience, this is the place to enjoy traditional small plates, sake, and premium cocktails. The third outlet, Ko | Sake, offers a subtly-lit lounge vibe and a 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.
Onsen @ Moncham
293 Pong Yaeng, Mae Rim, Chiang Mai 50180
Get notified about all our bite-sized food and drink content.
Get notified about all our bite-sized food and drink content.