Doi Suthep is the prominent mountain to the west of Chiang Mai; and the center of Doi Suthep National Park. 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 high vantage point. Almost all tourists go westward to Doi Suthep Park or to Mae Rim to visit the Botanical Garden; and very few go east to the quiet roads through the vast forested mountain ranges. That's a real shame.
The popular tourist tours
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. Doi Inthanon National Park will also be busy. They have even put an escalator on top of Doi Inthanon ... only in Thailand.
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.
Map of Doi Suthep, Si Lanna and Mae Takhrai National Park.
Karte von Doi Suthep, Si Lanna und Mae Takhrai Nationalparks rund um Chiang Mai.
Quiet roads in Mae Takhrai and Chae Son park.
To see the best parks and nature of Chiang Mai head east towards Mae Takhrai and Chae Son National Park. In less than an hour's drive you can be in either Mae Takhrai National Park or a bit futher on in Chae Son National Park.
On the bike one can enjoy the beautiful scenery, and get to places that are difficult or impossible to reach by car. You will soon discover very quiet roads, 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.
Many National Parks charge entry fees of between 100 to 300 Thai baht, but Mae Takhrai is free and most of Chae Son National Park is free. Chae Son National Park only charges an entry fee at its quite small area around the HQ/visitors center where the hot springs and waterfall are; the entry cost is 200 Baht for foreigners.
The road through Mae Takhrai Park - one visitor a day.
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.
At 1114 square kilometers Mae Takhrai is the largest park around Chiang Mai though this is difficult to see on the existing maps of the Thai National Parks. It also has three separate entrances - which are not connected. The headquarters is at the village of Mae Takhrai.
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; though Jungle Flight is cheaper. noplacetobe.com/travelblog - (Jungle Flight versus Flight of the Gibbon)
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 this year (2016).
Chae Son is an registered National Park though it does not appear yet on Google Maps. The headquarters/visitors centers of both parks are indicated on Google Maps.
A somewhat hidden entry to Mae Takhrai National Park.
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 the Chiang Mai basin at the town of Ban Pong; and then makes a 140 KM long curve though 100 degrees.
Mae Tha Fault line.
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 - what is active though is 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.
Chae Son National Park
Chaeson National Park is also pronounced as "Jae Sorn". 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 suitable for growing coffee and tea, and small plantations are dotted along the road along with a few remote villages.
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 long trip down the Hwy 11 to Lampang and then the Hwy 1157 up north to Chae Son NP headquarters which is a total of 160km. But fortunately there are other smaller roads that make a visit from Chiang Mai possible.
One of the remote trails.
National Park links on Wikipedia and Wikivoyage
Botanic Gardens and arboretums.
- www.qsbg.org - Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden (QSBG).
- The Tweechol Botanic Garden has a large arboretum.
- The Huai Kaeo Arboretum is situated next to the Chiang Mai Zoo.
- And there are many (smaller) arboretums, Botanical gardens and specialized Medicinal Plant gardens in and around Chiang Mai.
A bit of off road driving - not suitable for scooters.
(This trail is not in Mae Takhrai or Chaeson National Park)
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All foto's copyright © 2016 Rolf Schierbeek, Netherlands.