Winter mornings in Chiang Mai start off quite cool; sometimes with clouds straddling Doi Suthep mountain which is just west of the old city. As the day warms up and the morning fog gradually disappears; the gleaming golden stupa of the Wat Phra That temple comes into view as a few golden spots glimmering halfway up the mountain.
The first thing most new visitors to Chiang Mai do is going up Doi Suthep (Mount Suthep) and visit the Buddhist temple complex. It takes about half an hour to travel up there and Doi Suthep is an obvious goal for a day tour.
If you want to do a Doi Suthep tour you can just take a taxi or songthaew up there for the afternoon; there is no need to rent a scooter. If you want to go further, to Mae Rim and the Queen Sirikit Botanical garden the best option is to rent a scooter or motorcycle and go by yourself.
Start by going up north on the 107 highway for about 20 minutes; turn left on the 1095 and follow the signs to Samoeng. You are now driving on the famous twisty Samoeng Loop.
Panorama of Doi Suthep mountain covered in clouds.
Motorcycle rides - the Busy and the Easy ones.
The highways around Chiang Mai are busy and rather dangerous for inexperienced newby drivers; many cars go at speeds of 80 to 100 km/hour and sometimes much faster. For example, every mile or so there is a U-turn place right on the highway - with drivers waiting to make a turn and watching the traffic coming at high speed at them. A motorcycle or scooter is easily overlooked so you have to watch the crossings and U-turn spots very carefully.
- The busy road to Pai.
- The Samoeng Loop - some road are better than others.
- Private museums, old houses and whacky wats.
Chiang Mai motorcycle routes to national parks.
1] The busy road to Pai.
Many young backpackers travel by scooter on their first long motorbike trip to Pai; which may not be the best choice if you are an inexperienced driver. The road to Pai (nr. 1095) is a 130 km long drive; it is very twisty with it's 762 turns and is a quite daunting mountain road for beginners - and even for experienced motorbike riders it is not a routine ride. There are few viewpoints and there is a lot of traffic; for example, the many minibuses travelling to Pai which usually drive at high speed. In short: it is not safe and not for beginners!
The Samoeng loop on the other hand is a much better road which has much less traffic and many interesting things to see: there are for example great viewpoints, elephant parks, and a famous botanical garden (QSBG; see below). And there are fewer potholes as well.
And keep in mind that the road to Pai is famous for all the wrong reasons. Twisty, potholed, and it is classified as one of the most dangerous roads in Thailand. A few years ago (2016) the road was widened in some places so you can now easily overtake that slow driver; who is trying fruitlessly to go uphill on an underpowered scooter with his girlfriend on the back.
But the proper superelevation (road banking) of the curves is still missing on most curves - the road curves have almost no banking. So the cornering needs to be done with foresight and care - and experience. Unfortunately, experience is what you get - just after you need it.
The superelevation (road banking) of a curve.
2] The Samoeng Loop - some road are better than others.
The Samoeng loop is one of the most magnificent drives in Thailand; 100 kilometers of nearly perfect winding mountain road. And for the most part it does not have too much traffic. The Samoeng loop has what drivers call "Perfect Curves". The superelevation (positive camber or road banking) of the curves is just right, the road is smooth, the scenery is great; all you have to do is let the bike lean into that perfect curve and open up the throttle. No worries; just power out of it.
The Samoeng loop map, including Mae Rim.
The route is around Doi Suthep mountain.
karte vom Samoeng route, Samoeng route map
Why not start your route in the morning and from Chiang Mai head north on the busy highway 107. The Dara Pirom Palace Museum in Mae Rim is worth visiting, the museum is a large historic wooden mansion which was home to the famous Lanna princess Dara Rasmi (or Rasami), who was one of the consorts of Chulalongkorn, King Rama V of Siam.
Mae Rim is a small village on the highway 107, an has a few posh hotels and resorts. Follow the "Samoeng" sign and turn westward on road nr. 1096 through Mae Rim, and very soon you are in the beautiful Mae Sa valley.
There is a tribal village on the 1096 road called Baan Tong Luang. It is set up for tourists, since hill tribes do not live together in one village. This village has no less than 7 hill tribes: Akha, Karen, Lahu, Lisu, Padaung, Hmong and Kayaw tribal people. These hill tribes do not live near a large modern town like Chiang Mai; they are called hill tribes for a reason, and their villages and original way of life in the hills and mountains have mostly vanished, though you can often spot tribal people in markets.
Obviously, these hill tribes never live together, so it's a bit of a tourist trap. One of the tribes is the Padaung or Longneck women tribe; these Longneck women are refugees who originally lived in a remote area in Burma near Loikaw. Nevertheless, if you want to see all tribes in one fell swoop then this is an opportunity. Entry fee is 500 baht.
In the Mae Sa valley there are a few elephant parks; once past these the road gets much quieter as it continues west towards Samoeng; you can drive through the beautiful valleys and mountains on a scenic twisty road dotted with villages, temples and forest.
Further on is the Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden (QSBG; www.qsbg.org) which is a famous mountainside arboretum and garden. Within the park area are gardens, glasshouses, and trails through the rainforest. The large glasshouse complex on top of the mountain is a conservatory for a wide collection of tropical plants, cacti and orchids. Since 2017 there is also a treetop walkway through the rainforest with a length of more than 400 meters. The Botanical Garden is quite large and situated on a steep mountainside, so you may want to enter by car or motorcycle; but walking up is also possible.
QSBG map / Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden map.
Source: QSBG folder (2016)
Once in the garden a 3,6 kilometre loop road runs around the interior. This road is on Google Streetview; as well as some of the walking trails, like the trail through the Palm Garden. Even the inside of the main glasshouse can be visited on Streetview. There is a tram service/open air bus service that runs within the garden.
Entry fee prices for QSBG are: Adult: 100 baht; child: 50 baht; Adults with a Thai ID card: 40 baht, car (additional) 100 baht.
Senior citizens (over 60) and disabled persons: free.
The new treewalk through the QSBG Forest.
After the Samoeng Forest viewpoint you come to a T-crossing where you turn right for a 5 to 10-minute drive with just a few hairpins through the strawberry fields of the Samoeng valley; and stop at the small village of Samoeng. Here there is not much to see, but you can have a lunch break in Supanee's restaurant.
The Samoeng Forest viewpoint on the road to Samoeng village.
After lunch return to the T-crossing; keep on going straight and follow the many twisty turns on the nr. 1269 road back to Chiang Mai. There are a few amazing downhill stretches here which are even better than the first half of the loop. And the best thing: there is very little traffic here. The full "Samoeng loop" around Doi Suthep is about 100 kilometers and takes about 3 hours on a motorcycle or scooter. The roads are in good order, the traffic is light and thus it is easy by scooter. Or motorcycle.
3] Private museums, old houses and whacky wats.
Unusual and off the grid places
After a few days in Chiang Mai you may have been up to Doi Suthep, and seen the famous temple. And your will have done a temple tour, small or large; for an afternoon or a few days, depending on your interest. Seen the folklife museum. Fed the pidgeons at Thapae square. Sampled some of the the many different restaurants, the traditional Thai and Indian food, the fusion food, the many small vegetarian places, the modern Japanese restaurants. Now you're looking for something else to do.
Chiang Mai is also an important cultural city and a center of Lanna art; it can be traditional art or modern art. The area around Chiang Mai has many unique museums, apart from the well known official ones. Some smaller or private museums are very interesting but relatively unknown; here are a few examples.
- The MAIIAM Museum of Contemporary Art opened its doors in 2016. The Museum houses the Bunnag-Beurdeley familyís permanent collection. MAIIAM is located close to the village of San Kamphaeng, 12 km east of Chiang Mai. Just before the museum is Bo Sang, the umbrella making village with many handicraft shops, cafe's and some small eateries. Entrance fee is 150 baht; seniors 100 Baht.
MAIIAM Museum of Contemporary Art.
- The Secret Terracotta Garden is not so secret anymore but a very beautiful and quiet walled garden in the old town. This amazing emerald green garden, just north of Chiang Mai Gate, is in fact a terracotta arts studio called Baan Phor Liang Meun. The shaded garden is completely filled with clay copies of Khmer, Hindu and Thai gods. Shiva, Ganesh, Krishna, Khmer lions and many other statues from neighboring countries sit peacefully side by side. Since a few years there is a small coffee shop and restaurant; called Clay Studio Coffee.
Like many other sights in this list it is a bit hard to find because its on a small side street of Prapokklao road, to be precise on Prapok Klao Road, Soi 2. No entrance fee.
Since 2016 they have also opened a romantic, artstic eatery/restaurant: The Faces Gallery & Gastro Bar. That means the garden is getting smaller. And since 2019 they have also opened the new Phor Liang Meun Terracotta Arts Hotel, in the same style as the garden. It is an upmarket hotel, located just across the road from the Terracotta Gardens.
Update October 2019: The Clay Studio Coffee cafe has moved from the garden location to an indoor location on the opposite side of the street - the garden statues have been removed and thus the Secret garden is no more! The owners seem to want to focus their energy on the new hotel.
- The Dara Pirom Palace Museum is half an hour drive north in Mae Rim village. The museum is not a palace in the Western sense, but a historic wooden mansion; a teakwood Victorian style house which was home to the famous Lanna princess Dara Rasami (also: Dara Rasamee or Dara Rasmi) (wikipedia.org), who was one of the consorts of Chulalongkorn, King Rama V of Siam. Dara Rasami was the daughter of Inthawichayanon (born as Prince Inthanon), the 7th Ruler of Chiang Mai from 1870 until 1897. Doi Inthanon was named after Inthawichayanon. Dara Rasami was also a pawn in the annexation plans of Britain in the 1880-ties, which King Rama V of Siam tried to prevent. The admission fee is 20 baht per person.
- Lanna Traditional House Museum - This collection of teakwood houses is an open-air museum, and part of the Centre for the promotion of arts and culture, Chiang Mai university (CMU). It is not far from town, located between the old city and Doi Suthep on Doi Suthep road. Entry fee is 20 baht.
Lanna Traditional House Museum - Chiang Mai university.
- Lanna Architecture Center is located at the crossing of Rachadamnoen and Prapokklao road, and certainly worth a visit if you don't want to go all the way to the Traditional House Museum. The admission is free.
- Wat Ket Karam or Wat Sra Ket is a small but nice temple on the eastern riverside road, and it has its own little museum.
- Wat Ket Community Traditional Museum is located inside the Wat Ket temple grounds; it is a somewhat dusty collection; varied items that mostly date from the early twentieth century and perhaps the late nineteenth; like textile, photographs, statues, phones, radios, swords and daggers, old currency and household items. The black and white photographs of old Chiang Mai are interesting. An eclectic collection of beautiful, weird, interesting, bizarre, religious and artistic objects. No entry fee but there is a donation box.
- The Wat Ket area has many interesting old houses which have been turned into galleries and cafes. Some of the trendy restaurants are very popular at night, and in the afternoon there is a beautiful view of the Ping river to enjoy.
- the McKean Rehabilitation Center and Hospital is not a museum but an interesting and historic place. In 1905 Dr. McKean got permission to establish a leprosy colony or leper asylum on a large island in the Ping river. Now the colony has been renamed to Dok Kaew Gardens and turned into a retirement home. The hospital, colonial houses, church and the many small dwellings for the leprosy patients are still there, between the many large trees, and surrounded by teak plantations.
There are plans to modernise the area, and create a McKean Rehabilitation park.
McKean is about 10km south of Chiang Mai, just past the ancient city of Wiang Kum Kam. Just south of McKean's entry gate you can drive past some quaint houses and the quirky Suebnathitham Church which seems to be protestant.
- Wat Jed Yod is probably one of the least visited major temples because it is located outside of the old town in an inconvenient place. Jet Yod translates to "seven peaks" and refers to the seven chedis which top a structure in the temple complex. It's a very unusual temple building because it is a copy of the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodhgaya in India. It was built in the fifteenth century to host the Eighth World Buddhist Council.
Wat Jed Yod is located on the highway which loops around Chiang Mai; it is next to the Chiang Mai National Museum; the logical route would be: visit Wat Jed Yod (Wat Ched Yot), do a short stretch on the highway, and turn left into the National Museum. English signs are not there, so you might want to use a smartphone with GPS map to find both spots.
A horse statue not far from Wat Ban Den.
- Wat Ban Den is about an hours' drive up north on the way to the Sticky Waterfall (Bua Thong waterfall), just east of Mae Taeng in the small Inthakin village. It is a relatively unknown Wat and not signposted in english so you'll need a GPS map to find it.
Wat Ban Den is one of Chiang Maiís most remarkable and surprising temples; and one of the largest temple complexes in Chiang Mai province. The complex contains a large number of structures including an ordination hall, a viharn, a meditation hall and several other buildings. A few large mythical Naga serpents guard the Wat on each side of the stairs, and all over the temple grounds are white lion figures called Singha.
As you probably guessed from the Naga serpent photo below; the wat is relatively new. It was completely renovated in 1988 by the abbot Kruba Tuaengg, who aimed to establish a Buddhist wat with spectacular effects.
A Naga statue in Wat Ban Den.
Other motorcycle tour possibilities.
- The Mae Tha fault loop, between 110km and 160km. Through Mae Takhrai National Park on different sections of the Mae Tha fault. (cmpark.htm National Parks)
- The famous Mae Hong Son loop, 600km. From Chiang Mai to Pai, Mae Hong Son, Mae Sariang and back should take at least 4 days.
- And many more trips and loops are possible; to hot springs, ancient elephant trails, ancient cities (Wiang Kum Kam, Wiang Tha Kan) and botanic gardens.
Remote route through the villages around Chiang Mai.
Links on Wikipedia and Wikivoyage
- www.qsbg.org - Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden (QSBG).
- norththailandbirding.com - QSBG for birders.
- Tweechol Botanic Garden is a large modern garden/arboretum; very different from the QSBG garden. Tweechol is for a large part an artificial topiary garden: sculpted foliage in the form of deer, dolphins, dinosaurs, dragons and gorillas. There is also an arboretum, herb garden, a small petting zoo and a cactus garden. Tweechol Botanic Garden is part of the Horizon Village & Resort, about 30 minutes driving toward Doi Saket. Entry fee is 85 baht per person and 75 for a bicycle.
- Don Yen arboretum - An arboretum past Doi Saket.
- And there are many (smaller) arboretums, botanical gardens and specialized Medicinal Plant gardens in and around Chiang Mai.
Motorbike route links
Any comments or improvements? Please mail me at : bytelife AT gmail.com
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All photo's copyright © 2016-2019 Roelof Schierbeek, Netherlands.