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Loops & Parks in Chiang Mai    
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Last update: May 11, 2022

Loops through Parks around Chiang Mai.

A travel guide to the parks around Chiang Mai.

  1. Doi Suthep and the Samoeng Loop
  2. Mae Takhrai Park and the Takhrai loop
  3. Jae Sorn Park and the Cool Coffee loop

National Parks around Chiang Mai
Loops through parks around Chiang Mai:
The Samoeng loop, Takhrai loop and the Chae Son loop.

More remote loops and parks.

Introduction.

Here is a list of the National Parks around Chiang Mai. The closest one, Doi Suthep park, is the prominent mountain to the west of Chiang Mai; with the famous Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple visible as a gleaming dot halfway up the mountain. Doi is Thai for mountain, so Doi Suthep means Suthep mountain.

What most tourists don't realize is that there is much more to see in the parks on the other side of town; for example, not too far east of Chiang Mai are Mae Takhrai and Chae Son National Park. The high 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.

distance todistance todrivingentry fee
Nr.National Parknearest entry (km)HQ (km)timebaht
1Doi Suthep102040 min200
2Mae Takhrai40501 hr0
3Chae Son5090>2 hr200
4Si Lanna55551 hr100
5Khun Chae60601 hr100
6Doi Inthanon80top: 1102 hr300
7Doi Khun Tan90901 hr100
*HQ = headquarters, this is often the main visitor center.    
Usually an entry fee is charged at the area around the visitors' center.    

National Parks around Chiang Mai
Map of National Parks around Chiang Mai.
Carte touristique, Karte von Doi Suthep, Mae Takhrai,THakrai, Doi Inthanon, und Chae Son.

1] Doi Suthep.

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 from your hotel to the mountain, so about four hours all-in.

Entry fee: Doi Suthep is only charges a fee for the visitors center/camping ground and not Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

Hot tip: the temple is always busy, but on Sunday's half of Chiang Mai goes on a trip to the closest attraction: to Doi Suthep mountain.

 

The Samoeng Loop - some roads are better than others.

Samoeng loop, 100km. Duration: 3 hours, including a stop.

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 goes around Doi Suthep mountain, and has lots of nature, mountain views, a botanical garden, royal projects and a few elephant parks.

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.

Samoeng loop map
The Samoeng loop map, including Mae Rim.
The route is around Doi Suthep mountain.
karte vom Samoeng Schleife, 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. Entry fee is 20 baht.

Mae Rim is a small village on the highway 107, and has a few posh hotels and resorts. Follow the "Samoeng" sign and turn westward on road number 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 is 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.

There are two Royal Projects on the Samoeng loop, these are non-profit organizations; founded by King Bhumibol. The Royal Projects aim is to help hill tribes achieve a better life, to prevent the destruction of natural resources (prevent deforestation), and to increase the amount of alternative agriculture. Some of these projects, like the one on the side of Doi Mon Cham mountain (also: Mon Jam), have become tourist attractions. Here one can do touristy things like kart riding, ziplining, or admiring the views over the vegetable and strawberry fields.

During the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, hundreds of thousands of the 2,8 million foreign workers in Thailand — of which those from Myanmar make up the largest share, returned to their home countries after losing their jobs. Many of the Padaung Longneck women, who made a living in Chiang Mai by selling traditional clothes and handicrafts, and were posing for photos, have returned to Myanmar.

Samoeng signboard
A surprising elephant crossing on Samoeng loop.
In Chiang Mai elephants have always right-of-way.

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) which is a famous mountainside arboretum and garden. This is the largest and best botanic garden in Thailand, set against a mountainside in a large forest. More here: QSBG Garden.

Soon you go up into the mountain, and this northern side of the mountain is always cold. You did put on enough warm clothing for the ride?

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.

Samoeng signboard
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 number 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.

Samoeng signboard
Artistic cottage park on Samoeng loop.

And if you keep your eyes on the left side, after the long downhill stretch there is some kind of bungalow park, with a lot of very small artistic holiday cottages, which is worth a visit. It is called Phu Jaya Clay House, and seems to cater mostly to Thai tourists. There are no signs, so it is easy to miss. The room rate for the very small cottages is well over 200 euros, and perhaps that is why there seem to be few visitors here. Worth a look around anyway.

Next to Phu Jaya Clay House is the very nice Royal Rose Garden, which sells roses and coffee. The official entrance to the rose garden is just a bit further down the main road. Entry is free.

There are more resorts and coffee shops on the way back, like the Belle Villa Resort Chiangmai, and the large The Doi Resort and Restaurant, which is right on the roadside and has good cappuccino, nice cakes, and a wonderful view.

National Parks around Chiang Mai
Three Motorbike loops through Chiang Mai's National Parks:
The Samoeng loop, Takhrai loop and the Chae Son loop.

2] Mae Takhrai Park.

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 number 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.

road through Mae Takhrai Park
The road through Mae Takhrai Park - one visitor a day.

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.

Mae Takhrai NP
The somewhat hidden entry to Mae Takhrai Park at Huai Kaeo.

 

 

The 110km Mae Takhrai loop.

Mae Takhrai loop, 110km. Duration: 3 hours, including a stop.

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 kilometer) on route 118 you can be in Mae Takhrai National Park. A bit further on, about 45 kilometers from Chiang Mai is the entry to Chae Son National Park on route number 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 110 kilometers; but a longer loop following the number 1252 road further north is also possible. Keep on going on the 1252 road, and you can do a lot longer loop through Chae Son National Park.

Mae Takhrai loop map
The 110 kilometer Mae Takhrai loop.

A clockwise route from Chiang Mai could be:
Drive northeast on the 118 highway, turn sharp right at Ban Pong Din village. Go south on route number 3005, which must be one of the most scenic twisty roads around Chiang Mai. Ricefields and villages, and quick sharp turns on a winding little road, what more do you want on a motorbike? At the village of Huai Kaeo pass through the village, and make a left turn at road number 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 further down the 1230, probably near the Khun Tan railway tunnel. This road number 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 number 1229 which brings you to Mae On and to the nicely winding fast highway number 1006 through small villages back to Chiang Mai. San Kamphaeng 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 number 118 to Chiang Rai; 35 kilometers from Chiang Mai. There is also a walking trail near the visitors center on road number 1230, which starts around Mae Takhrai Reservoir and follows the stream. This secondary visitor center is easy to miss, perhaps use a GPS-map to find it.

road through Mae Takhrai Park
Rice fields on route number 3005 to Mae Takhrai Park.

 

The Mae Tha fault line.

The Mae Tha fault is a curiously curved valley, easily visible with Google Earth. 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 Din; and then makes a 140 kilometer long curve though 100 degrees.

Mae Tha fault line
The Mae Tha Fault line around Chiang Mai.

The road number 1230 follows a large part of the Mae Tha fault line, and the 1230 road passes through 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 Din are right on the Mae Tha fault.

 

 

3] Jae Sorn (Chae Son) National Park.

Chae Son is pronounced as "Jae Sorn" by Thai people, and they don't understand "Chae Son". This is one of the most beautiful forest parks in Northern 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 coffee, tea and banana plantations are dotted along the road.

Chae Son National Park
Hot spring and boulder field in Jae Sorn (Chae Son) National Park.

The Chae Son loop is 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 most routes you'll rarely see other cars - perhaps an occasional meeting with a villager driving a small motorbike.

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 number 1252 right through the national park.

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. The hot water that emerges from the springs can be around 70-80 °C, which is a bit too hot for bathing. The hot water flows down to a few other ponds, and cools down to lower temperatures. One can take a dip or a bath in some of the smaller pools. There are also a number of huts next to the springs for private bathing.

Chae Son National Park map
Map of the visitor area of Chae Son ("Jae Sorn") National Park.

More: www.thainationalparks.com

 

The Cool Coffee loop.

Chae Son Coffee loop, 180km. Duration: 5 hours, including a stop.

Drive northeast on highway 118 for about 50 km towards Chiang Rai. Here the highway 118 has a very large sign over the road pointing to Chae Hom. Turn sharp right into the 1252 road. This mountain road winds through forests and ridges at an altitude of 600 - 1400 metres. That means guaranteed cool temperatures.

Off the busy, monotonous highway number 118, the scenery now changes abruptly. High trees border the quick turns of the small mountain road. As soon as you enter the forest the road starts to climb steeply, and the air cools down quickly.

Chae Son National Park
The road starts to climb steeply.

You are now entering the high ground where coffee and tea is grown. And bananas, lots of small banana plantations dot the roadside. These plantations are maintained by the few small villages, sometimes just hamlets of a few simple houses with corrugated iron roofs, that are situated in these high mountain ranges. Chae Son is cool enough to support coffee and tea plantations. Driving southeast along the number 1252 road, it will take at least 1,5 hours to get to the Chae Son Visitors center.

Chae Son National Park
Mountain road number 1252 through Chae Son park.

Close to Chae Son town, turn off the 1252 into the Chae Son National Park entry, which is clearly indicated. 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. If you don't intend to go to Visitors center, you can tell the people at the checkpoint (see map), and they will let you through without paying the entry fee. (No one will stop you from having a drink or quick snack at the park though ;-)

There is also a hiking trail, which passes by the Chae Son Waterfall; a 6-level waterfall. There are eateries, snack stands, and picknick opportunities.

Note hat the southern part of the Chae Son loop is a small concrete road with some very steep sections. One needs to apply full braking for some long stretches. This part is not suitable for a scooter.

 

 

More remote loops and parks.

The Mae Hong Son loop.

The legendary Mae Hong Son loop starts from Chiang Mai on a very twisty road to Pai, then to Mae Hong Son, down to Mae Sariang and back to Chiang Mai. It should take at least 4 days to do the 600-kilometer loop. The next three itineraries are options: one can do the full loop, or a shorter and perhaps better version.

Mae Hong Son loop options
Map of the Mae Hong Son itineraries.
Plan, Carte, Karte, kaart van MHS.

Best of the loop: Up and Down to Mae Hong Son.

Start off driving north on the 107 highway to Pai, and turn left on the well signposted 1095 road to Pai. After a night in Pai, drive 110 kilometers to Mae Hong Son over a high mountain pass. Stay in MHS, next day back to Pai to visit another night market there. Return to Chiang Mai.

An alternative route with less traffic is the 3009 shortcut. After you have passed the turnoff to Samoeng (the 1096), just 1km past Mae Rim, at the traffic light, turn left. You can now follow a rural road, the 3009, until it joins with the main 1095 road to Pai. Same distance, easy to follow, curvy but no sharp turns and much nicer than a busy highway. And it takes at most 5 or 10 minutes longer than the highway. Only on a fast big bike there may be a significant speed advantage by taking the highway.

Distances: 
130 km: Chiang Mai - Pai
110 km: Pai - Mae Hong Son
480 km total (return)
Duration: 3 nights, 4 days.

On the way from Pai to MHS you pass through Soppong, a small village that is close to a few famous caves, like Tham Lot cave. Soppong is also called Pang Mapha, which is the old name of the village, situated along the bank of the Yang River.

If you stay in Mae Hong Son town, the Doi San Fah viewpoint is just half an hour away. It is a small and steep road up, and maybe one of the twistiest roads in the north.

There is a 200 baht entry ticket for the Namtok Mae Surin National Park, but if you ask nicely, you can probably just pass and visit the viewpoint. After all, 200 baht for a very short visit is a bit steep, isn't it? If you want to visit longer, and do the Mae Sakut Nature Trail, you have to pay up. The Mae Sakut Nature Trail is 7,5 km; a walk of about 3 hours.

The famous Mae Surin waterfall is at the other side of the national park, way down near Khun Yuam. This high waterfall may be worth the entry ticket.

viewpoint
Map of Doi San Fah viewpoint in Mae Surin National Park.

This road is so twisty because it is an old elephant trail, and it was the first direct road from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son. Because it was too steep for cars, the Japanese created a new road through Pai to Mae Hong Son during World War 2. The current road nr. 1095 to Pai follows the Japanese road. WARNING: better not try this with a scooter. The last part up the mountain is twisty and very steep, and once up there a U-turn is impossible, so you are committed to drive all the way up to the viewpoint.

The Short Loop

From Mae Hong Son continue south on Route 108. At Khun Yuam take Route 1263 east to Mae Chaem, a small village with only a few guesthouses. The next day, cross over the mountain pass of Doi Inthanon. If you don't intend to visit Doi Inthanon, you can tell the people at the checkpoint, and they will let you through without paying the entry fee to the national park.

From Doi Inthanon it is a straight drive up highway 108 back to Chiang Mai. This is a busy and boring straight highway, with some traffic jams in the villages as you get close to Chiang Mai, so a slightly longer route along the "canal road" nr. 3035 is a lot better and faster. Follow the 108 for about 22 km, and turn left at the sign "Mae Wang" to take the 3035. From there it is about 40km along the "canal road" to get to Chiang Mai.

Distances: 
130 km: Chiang Mai - Pai
110 km: Pai - Mae Hong Son
165 km: MHS - Mae Chaem
130 km: Mae Chaem - Chiang Mai
535 km total
Alternative route (green): 50km longer
Duration: 3 nights, 4 days.

The Full MHS Loop

From Mae Hong Son continue south on Route 108, pass Khun Yuam and follow the 108 all the way to Mae Sariang. Stay in Mae Sariang, and the next day continue east on the 108 to Chiang Mai. The 108 road east is a lovely quiet mountain road, until you have passed Ob Luang national park, and reach Hot. At Hot turn left on the 108 highway, which is a busy and straight two-lane highway.

An alternative route with less traffic is to drive up to Mae Chaem, and from there turn east and take the route across Inthanon park. This is 50km longer, so it's up to you if you want to see Doi Inthanon, or take the shorter, regular route which passes by Ob Luang National Park, which is also a pleasant park to visit, take a break and perhaps do the walking trail.

Distances:  
130 km: Chiang Mai - Pai
110 km: Pai - Mae Hong Son
165 km: MHS - Mae Sariang
195 km: Mae Sariang - Chiang Mai
600 km total
Alternative route (green): 50km longer
Duration: 3 nights, 4 days.

Pai map
Pai, thailand map (Mae Hong Son province)
Pai, thailand carte, Straßenkarte von Pai,thailand

The South: Doi Inthanon.

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.

 

The North: 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 kilometer; the entrance fee is 100 Baht for foreigners.

National Parks around Chiang Mai
Map of Si Lanna National Park and Bua Tong waterfall.

In the same direction as the Mae Ngat dam, and not too far from it, is the Bua Tong waterfall, the "sticky waterfall" made of calcium, which is quite popular. And while you're at the waterfall, walk a few minutes towards its origin: Nam Phu Chet Si, the spring with amazingly blue water. It is signposted.

And on the way to the Sticky Waterfall is Wat Ban Den. It is a relatively unknown temple, just east of Mae Taeng in the small Inthakin village. Yes, its is relatively unknown by westerners, but the Chinese tourists, who have discovered Chiang Mai a few years ago, certainly know about it. It is not signposted in English so you'll need a GPS map to find it.

Wat Ban Den is one of Chiang Mai’s 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, so one has to be prepared for a bit of special "Disney effects". Wat Ban Den is open 8am – 5pm everyday. No admission fee.

Wat Ban Den Naga
A Naga statue in Wat Ban Den.

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. Take the wide road 5 kilometer past Mae Taeng village which veers off to the left. The first elephant parks are on the wide main road; but after driving a while the road becomes narrow, the forest deeper, and you may ask yourself: where is this twisty road going? Is it worth going any further?

Elephant Nature Park
Elephant Nature Park, a look from outside the park.

Then suddenly, the scenery opens up into a broad valley, surrounded by mountains through which the Mae Taeng river slowly meanders in a large, lazy curve. On the grassy plain some animals are grazing. What are the little dots in the landscape?

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, like Mae Taman (Maetaman) Elephant Camp, Thai Elephant Home, and Mae Taeng (Maetaeng) Elephant Park.

Elephant Nature Park
Elephant Nature Park, zooming in on the elephants.

How to get there: highway 107 is the obvious choice to go to ENP or Mae Ngat lake, but it is a very boring, straight, fast and busy highway. For ENP, go up the 107 highway, go past Mae Taeng village, and 5 kilometer further take the wide road which veers off to the left.
For Bua Tong waterfall the 1001 road is a bit better than the 107 highway, it is also rather straight, but less busy, and not the usual traffic jams close to Chiang Mai town.

Why go there: Driving more than 2 hours just to see a waterfall is a long trip, but visiting a few more places while you're up there makes it worthwhile.

 

Chiang Dao mountain and wildlife sanctuary.

Up north and a bit closer than Doi Inthanon is the strangely shaped Chiang Dao mountain, the 3rd highest mountain in Thailand and famous with birders and trekkers. For some reason it is 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, Doi Inthanon would not be considered anything special. If you want to see a beautiful, stunning mountain, then drive to Chiang Dao. This mountain is just a bit lower than Doi Inthanon, but very much undiscovered.

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, the hill temple and the beautiful scenery at the base of the mountain.

 

Free passage through the parks.

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. This "Pass through" principle also works for Chae Son National Park.

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 hiking trail, which passes by the Chae Son Waterfall; a 6-level waterfall. There are eateries, 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).

Dual pricing in Thailand.

Dual pricing systems are usually intended to make foreign tourists pay more than locals. Thailand is not the only asian country using dual pricing; the Taj Mahal for example has a 40 Rupees entry fee for Indian nationals, and a slightly higher 1000 Rupees fee for foreigners.

In Thailand many museums and all 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.

Entry fees are only for the visitors center and 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.

Youtube videos

Mae Takhrai National Park
Panorama viewpoint in Mae Takhrai National Park.

 

 


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