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Last update: May 7, 2021
National Parks in Chiang Mai Province.
Doi Suthep is the prominent mountain to the west of Chiang Mai; with the famous Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple halfway up the mountain. What most people don't realize is that there is much more to see in the parks on the other side of town; east of Chiang Mai are Mae Takhrai and Chae Son National Park. The mountain range of Chae Son is so far away that it is only visible on clear days and from a higher vantage point, like the higher floors of a hotel.
Doi Suthep mountain is also the focus of Doi Suthep National Park; the area of park is more or less the full mountain. Doi Suthep is a relatively small mountain; that is why Doi Suthep National park is quite small compared to other national parks around Chiang Mai.
Many people visit Doi Suthep or go down south to Doi Inthanon; but only very few go east to the quiet roads through the vast forested mountain ranges. That is a real shame.
How to get there: One can drive up by scooter or songthaew (public transport pick-up) to Wat Phra That temple on Doi Suthep in half an hour; and for most tourists that is all they see of the National Parks in Chiang Mai Province. To visit the temple, one needs maybe one hour for the temple, and an hour for the royal Bhubing palace. And the time needed to go up and down the mountain, so about three to four hours total.
Doi Suthep and Doi Inthanon National Park are by far the most popular day-tours - most tourists have it on their To-Do list. Why? Because Doi Suthep is very near to Chiang Mai town; and Doi Inthanon is the highest mountain of Thailand. If you want to avoid the crowds then try to avoid these parks on weekends; especially on Sundays when the local Chiang Mai population all drive up Doi Suthep mountain to visit Wat Phra That. The parking lot will be full and there will be a crowd around the temple.
How to get there: The top of Inthanon National Park is about 110 kilometers away; which will take about two hours driving. It is a long drive on mostly busy highways until you get close to Doi Inthanon.
Up north and a bit closer than Doi Inthanon is the strangely formed Chiang Dao mountain, the 3rd highest mountain in Thailand and famous with birders and trekkers. And east of Chiang Mai and much closer are Mae Takhrai and Chae Son National Park. For some reason these parks are not on the tourist radar and largely undiscovered.
Doi Suthep, its temple and royal palace are unmissable, Doi Inthanon however is just a large mountain with a few stupas on top. It looks like a large hill as you approach it, in Thailand it just happens to be the highest peak. In Myanmar, which has much higher mountains, it would not be considered anything special. If you want to see a beautiful, stunning mountain, then drive to Chiang Dao Wildlife Sanctuary; which is in the opposite direction as Doi Inthanon. Chiang Dao mountain is just a bit lower than Doi Inthanon, but overlooked by most tourists.
And finally, have a look at a famous motorcycle trip around Doi Suthep National Park here: Samoeng Loop (the legendary Samoeng Loop ).
The new National Park - Mae Takhrai.
Unexplored Hot Springs and Cool Mountains
Doi Suthep is either busy or crowded (on sundays), but there is an unexplored side of Chiang Mai to the east: Mae Takhrai and Chae Son National Park. If you want to see hot springs, small coffee and tea plantations and grand mountain forest scenery then go eastwards to Mae Takhrai and Chae Son. And because these parks are large and much less than 1 percent of tourists travel there one can enjoy plenty of birds and butterflies instead of busy roads.
Mae Takhrai National Park is surrounded by high mountains with an altitude of 400 to 2031 meters; this national park includes rain forests and mountains of limestone. There are hot springs, small lakes and reservoirs surrounded by densely forested hillsides. By the way, the thai word "takhrai" means Lemon grass.
Mae Takhrai is the largest park around Chiang Mai, with 1114 square kilometers; though this is difficult to see on the existing maps of the Thai National Parks. It also has three separate entrances. The headquarters is right on highway nr. 118 to Chiang Rai, and there is also a visitors' center and nature trail at the village of Mae Takhrai further south. Entry is free.
Mae Takhrai Park is also home to "Flight of the Gibbon"; a zip lining experience in the beautiful mountain rainforest; though actually it is not rainforest but evergreen forest. The mountain jungle of Mae Takhrai has much larger trees than the small Doi Suthep Park which is not suitable for zipline adventures. Jungle Flight is another Eco-adventure company that does abseiling, nature walking and zip-lining in Mae Takhrai park. Jungle Flight and Flight of the Gibbon are both in the same park and in a similar forest and seem to be comparable.
Mae Takhrai has been an unregistered National Park for many years; but it has been approved in 2016 and will be gazetted (registered) by Royal Decree in 2016. It does not appear yet on Google Maps.
The 110km Mae Takhrai loop.
To see the less visited parks and pristine nature of Chiang Mai province, head east towards Mae Takhrai and Chae Son National Park. In less than an hour's drive (about 35 km) on route 118 you can be in Mae Takhrai National Park. A bit futher on, about 45km from Chiang Mai is the entry to Chae Son National Park on route nr. 1252; though the headquarters is much further away on a long drive on route 1252 through the high mountains and coffee plantations of Chae Son park.
The Mae Takhrai loop (see map below) follows the valley of the Mae Tha fault line. Starting from Chiang Mai it is about 110km; but a longer loop following the fault line further south is also possible. A loop through Chae Son National Park is a lot longer.
Start from Chiang Mai on the 118 highway, turn sharp right at Ban Pong village. Go south on route nr. 3005, at the village of Huai Kaeo pass through the village, and make a left turn into road nr. 1230 into Mae Takhrai Park. There are no clear signs for the park, but one of the many signs says "Ban Khun Tha". Khun Tha is a village near the visitors center of the Mae Takhrai park. The road nr. 1230 (red on the map) used to be a small dirt track, and has only in 2017 been newly constructed and asphalted.
Follow the road past small villages and pretty soon you will get to the viewpoint. Continue on the twisty but very quiet and easy road through Mae Takhrai park, and at the next crossing turn right onto road nr. 1229 which brings you to Mae On and to the nicely winding fast road nr. 1006 through small villages back to Chiang Mai. San Kampheang is a nice place for a lunch or coffee stop.
Most National Parks have a Nature Trail, which usually starts at the headquarters. The Mae Takhrai headquarters is at the northern point of the park; beside the highway nr. 118 to Chiang Rai; 35km from Chiang Mai. There is also a walking trail near the visitors center on road nr. 1230, which starts around Mae Takhrai Reservoir and follows the stream. This secondary visitors center is easy to miss, perhaps use a gps-map to find it.
The Mae Tha fault line.
The Mae Tha fault is a curiously curved trace easily visible with Google Earth or Google Maps. A geological Fault line is the fracture along which the mountains have been displaced by an earthquake; a geological fault often becomes visible if there is a river or stream flowing though the valley that has been created. The curved Mae Tha fault line is visible because it is a valley used for rice planting; it starts approximately 30 km to the north-east of Chiang Mai at the village of Ban Pong; and then makes a 140 KM long curve though 100 degrees.
The Mae Tha fault intersects the villages of Mae Tha and Mae Takhrai. The Mae Takhrai National Park consists of a number of forest and mountain areas around the Mae Tha fault; because the villages and rice fields are not part of the park it looks like a strange patchwork of unconnected areas. At the southern end of the Mae Tha fault is Doi Khun Tan National Park. The Mae Tha fault is not very active - but it is the source of the many hot springs around Chiang Mai. There are about 60 hot springs in Thailand and many of them are in the vicinity of faults.
The most commercial hot springs are just east of San Kamphaeng not far from the Mae Tha fault, and there are also hot springs in the visitors center of Chae Son NP. The hot springs around Ban Pong are right on the Mae Tha fault.
Si Lanna, elephants and Bua Tong waterfall.
Si Lanna or Sri Lanna National Park is not very spectacular, most visitors go for boat trips on Mae Ngat lake (Mae Ngad reservoir), which is the main attraction. The headquarters is next to Mae Ngat dam, but you can ignore it and go straight to the lake. Overnighting on a houseboat is about 500 to 1000 Baht. One can do a forest walk along the lakeside of about 2 Kms, for that the entrance fee is 100 Baht for foreigners.
In the same direction as the Mae Ngat dam, and not too far from it, is the unique Bua Tong waterfall, the "sticky waterfall" made of calcium, which is quite popular. And the unique Wat Ban Den is on the way to the Sticky Waterfall, about an hours' drive up north. Wat Ban Den is not signposted in english.
And if you are interested in elephants: just beyond Mae Taeng village is the "Mae Taeng river valley", and here are a few elephant parks located almost next to each other. The first elephant parks are in a narrow valley; but after driving through a narrow road the valley suddenly opens up into a broad valley surrounded by mountains through which the Mae Taeng river slowly meanders in a large "S" shape.
In this beautiful valley the Elephant Nature Park is located, the largest ethical park in Thailand. Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is closed to casual passers-by, so one can only look from outside the park. Some of the other parks can be visited.
How to get there: highway 107 is the obvious choice, but it is a very boring, straight, fast and busy highway. If you take the 1001 road, it is also rather straight, but less busy, and not the usual traffic jams close to Chiang Mai town.
Chae Son National Park.
Chae Son National Park is pronounced as "Jae Sorn" by Thai people. This is one of the most beautiful National Parks in Thailand; and with an area of 592 square kilometers much larger than Doi Suthep National Park. The mountain range that runs north-south through Chae Son forms the border between the provinces of Lampang and Chiang Mai. Doi Langka is the highest mountain of the range at 2031 meters. The high mountains and cool temperatures make Chae Son Park very suitable for growing coffee and tea, and small plantations are dotted along the road along with a few remote villages.
Chiang Dao Wildlife sanctuary and Chiang Dao mountain has foreigner fee of 200 baht. Just like Doi Inthanon, the entry fee is only payable when you go up the mountain, not at Chiang Dao cave and the surroundings.
The Chae Son coffee loop is well known among motorcycle riders, but not on the tourist radar at all. On the motorbike one can enjoy the beautiful scenery, and quiet empty mountain roads. You will soon discover grand forest valleys and vistas and enchanting remote mountain villages. On some routes you'll rarely see other cars - perhaps a villager driving a small motorbike is the only person you will see.
How to get there: The headquarters/visitors center of Chae Son NP at the village of Chae Son is easily reachable from Lampang; from Chiang Mai however it is a more than 2 hour trip up the highway 118 and then the mountain road nr. 1252 right through Chae Son park.
The highway 118 has a very large sign over the road pointing to Chae Hom, which is the 1252 road. This road passes though an altitude range from about 600 - 1400 metres. That means guaranteed cool temperatures at that altitude; and lots and lots of twisties for motorcycle riders.
Most of the park areas are absolutely fee!
Many National Parks charge entry fees of between 100 to 300 Thai baht at the Visitors center. However, most of the national parks are absolutely free to drive though, they usually only charge an entry fee at the area around the visitors' center where the Nature Trail is.
So, avoiding entry fees is really easy: visit the park, but not the visitors' center. For most of the parks, 95% to 100% of the park area is free, with the exception of Doi Inthanon, which has a checkpoint at the foot of the mountain.
If you only want to a quick drive through Doi Inthanon park from Chiang Mai to Mae Chaem on the Mae Hong Son loop, they will wave you through. If you want to visit the top of Doi Inthanon, which is the best part, you will have to pay the entry fee of 300 baht.
Chae Son National Park only charges an entry fee at the area around the Visitors center; the entry cost is 200 Baht for foreigners. This visitor area is a very small area of the park, where the hot springs are. There is also a trail, which passes by the Chae Son Waterfall; a 6-level waterfall. There are some eateries and snack stands, and picknick opportunities. If you are just passing through, for example from Chae Son town to Mae Kampong/Chiang Mai, and not using the Visitors center, they will probably let you pass without paying (you have to ask, nicely).
Below is a map of the visitor area of Chae Son National Park. Since the park is much closer to Lampang than to Chiang Mai, it attracts a lot of Thai visitors.
In Thailand the National Parks use dual pricing, and foreigners usually have to pay 5 or 10 times as much as locals to enter a park. The Thai entry fees are shown in Thai script, and thus not obvious to the western tourist. The Visitors center of a park is usually a busy, touristy area, with some kind of highlight of the park, like a nature trail, a hot spring or a waterfall. By avoiding it you get a real idea of the national park, and skip the rather high foreigner entry fee. The only thing you miss out on: the thai restaurant and snack area ... big deal.
And what do you pay the entry fees for? A wonderful walk on the nature trail? Well, Doi Inthanon has some good nature trails, but at many of the other, lesser parks the signage can be very inconsistent or sometimes completely missing. The maintenance of these trails is often completely ignored. Some visitors get a bit lost or completely lost. Take your offline gps-map with you, just in case, or walk back if you start to get lost. Perhaps before you get completely lost?
National Park links on Wikipedia and Wikivoyage
Entry fees are only for the visitors centers/camping area of the park. Most of the parks mentioned below can be entered for free, except Doi Inthanon NP where a large part of the park (the mountain itself) is payable. Doi Khun Tan NP is quite small and is also payable. Mae Takhrai, Khun Khan, Khun Chae and Si Lanna are free. Doi Suthep is only charges a fee for the visitors center/camping ground which is quite hidden and not near Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Driving times are from Chiang Mai to the National Park, one way.)
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All foto's copyright © 2020 R.Schierbeek.