& motor loops
Last update: May 25, 2023
A travel guide to the parks around Chiang Mai.
This is an overview of the national parks around Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. The closest one, Doi Suthep park, is the prominent mountain to the west of Chiang Mai; with the famous Wat Phra That Doi Suthep visible as a gleaming dot halfway up the mountain. Doi is Thai for mountain, so Doi Suthep means Suthep mountain.
Doi Suthep is very close to Chiang Mai. Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain of Thailand, is at least two hours driving away (110km). There are a few more parks that are worth a visit, for example, not too far east are Mae Takhrai and Chae Son 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.
And the good news is: all of these routes through national parks are free. Most of the national parks are absolutely free to drive though, they only charge an entry fee at the area around the visitors' center.
Distance table of national parks and entry fees.
For entry prices see : Free passage through the parks.
Loops through parks around Chiang Mai.
The highways north and south are busy roads, but the mountain ranges to the east and west of Chiang Mai are great for motorbike cruising. For the Samoeng loop you will have to start with a stretch on the busy highway 107 northwards, or the highway 108 southwards.
More remote loops and parks.
1] Doi Suthep.
Doi Suthep mountain is also the focus of Doi Suthep National Park; the park area is more or less the full mountain. Doi Suthep is a relatively small mountain compared to the mountain ranges to the east of 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 Doi Suthep 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 park only charges a fee for the visitors center/camping area.
Hot tip: the temple is always busy, but on Sundays half of Chiang Mai goes on a trip to the closest attraction: to Doi Suthep mountain. The parking lot will be full and there will be a crowd around the temple.
The Samoeng Loop - twisties for the Easy Rider.
Samoeng loop, 100km. Duration: 3 hours, including a stop.
The Samoeng loop in Thailand is a breathtaking 100-kilometer drive with winding mountain roads. It is renowned for its "Perfect Curves," which are well-banked, smooth, and offer stunning views of the surrounding nature. Unlike the busy road to Pai, there is minimal traffic to worry about. The loop winds around Doi Suthep mountain and takes you past a famous botanical garden, royal projects, and a few elephant parks.
The road's excellent condition and lack of traffic make it an ideal Easy Rider route. All you have to do is lean your bike into the curve, open up the throttle and enjoy the ride.
Why not start your Samoeng sojourn not too early in the morning and head north on the busy highway 107. After about 15 kilometers, turn left onto road 1096, which will take you through the lush green countryside and towards the hills. There is a large "SAMOENG" sign over the 107 highway.
Mae Rim is a village on the highway 107, and has a few posh hotels and resorts. 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.
A few kilometer down the 1096 road there used to be a tribal village called Baan Tong Luang. This village had 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.
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. Admission to the village used to cost 500 baht, but it has been closed since the pandemic outbreak.
There are two non-profit royal projects on the Samoeng loop, both founded by King Bhumibol, with the aim of helping hill tribes achieve a better life, preventing deforestation, and promoting alternative agriculture. One of these projects, located on the side of Doi Mon Cham mountain (also known as Mon Jam), has become a popular tourist attraction. Here one can enjoy activities like kart riding, ziplining, and admiring the views over the vegetable and strawberry fields. There is also a large glamping area on the mountain, which is popular with Thai tourists.
As you enter the beautiful Mae Sa valley towards the small town of Samoeng, the road begins to twist and turn. 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.
A bit 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 a few more hairpins turns, drive through the strawberry fields of the Samoeng valley and arrive at the small village of Samoeng. Here there is not much to see, but you can have a lunch break at Supanee's restaurant, or drive a bit south and visit Samoeng-Center Coffee in the Park.
From Samoeng, return to the T-crossing; keep on going straight on road 1269, which will take you along the ridge of the mountains and offer great views of the valley below. There are a few amazing downhill stretches here which are even better than the first half of the loop. As you continue on this road, you'll pass through several small villages, each with its own unique charm.
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.
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 driving by scooter or motorcycle.
2] Mae Takhrai Park.
Unexplored Hot Springs and Cool Mountains
Doi Suthep is either busy or crowded, but there is an unexplored area to the eastern side Chiang Mai: Mae Takhrai and Chae Son park. Mae Takhrai park is known for its picturesque rice fields and hot springs. Visitors can trek through the park's forest, or bathe in the natural hot springs. And because these parks are large and very few tourists travel there; one can enjoy plenty of birds and butterflies instead of busy roads.
Mae Takhrai park is surrounded by 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, although it is not clearly indicated on existing maps of the Thai national parks. It 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.
Mae Takhrai Park is also home to "Flight of the Gibbon"; a zip lining experience in the beautiful mountain rainforest around Mae Kampong. 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 near Thep Sadet that does abseiling, nature walking and zip-lining in Mae Takhrai Park.
Mae Takhrai has been an unregistered national park for many years; it has been approved and gazetted (registered) in 2016. It does not appear yet on Google Maps.
The 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 highway 118 you can be in Mae Takhrai national park.
The Mae Takhrai loop (see map below) follows the half circle of the Mae Tha fault line; the fault is visible as a valley around Chiang Mai. Starting from Chiang Mai it is about 110 kilometers.
A clockwise route from Chiang Mai could be:
Drive northeast on the 118 highway, go past Doi Saket, and 12 km further you reach Ban Pong village. Ban Pong is a very common village name in Thailand. The navigation is a bit tricky, because there are 2 exits close together.
There are 2 exits for Ban Pong, the first is for Ban Pong Kum; the second is for Ban Pong Din. Take the second exit for Ban Pong Din; just past a walkway overpass bridge. One needs to go to the center line of highway 118, cross the busy road, and turn sharp right into the road to Ban Pong Din.
Once in the village of Ban Pong Din, take the first small road right and you may come across a surprising house in the shape of a Japanese temple. It is private, but so large that one may catch a glimpse of it from the roadside. Someone has spent a fortune on hardwood beams to build this fantastic replica.
If you can't find the "Japanese temple", look for the Don Yen arboretum, a medium sized arboretum. This arboretum is open to the public, and part of a low-key private bungalow resort.
Once out of Ban Pong Din and past the hot springs, continue south on road 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 about 500 meter further make a left turn into road number 1230. There are no signs for Mae Takhrai 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 to the viewpoint 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 entrace of the park. Slowly wind your way up the hills 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.
3] Chae Son (Jae Sorn) 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 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.
The Chae Son loop is not on the tourist radar at all. Driving along the twisty, quiet mountain road, amidst beautiful scenery. you'll rarely see other cars - perhaps an occasional meeting with a villager on a small motorbike. Small, remote mountain villages are nestled in grand forest valleys.
How to get there: Below is a map of Chae Son park and the headquarter and visitor area on the eastern side. 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.
The Chae Son 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; which means guaranteed cool temperatures.
Off the busy, monotonous highway number 118, the scenery changes abruptly. Tall trees line the sharp turns of the narrow mountain road. As soon as you enter the forest the road starts to climb steeply, and the air cools down quickly.
You are now entering the high ground where coffee and tea is grown. The cool climate in Chae Son is suitable for growing coffee and tea, as well as small banana plantations tended by local villagers living in the mountains. These plantations are maintained by the people of small villages, sometimes just hamlets of a few simple houses with corrugated iron roofs.
Driving southeast along the number 1252 road, it will take at least 1,5 hours to get to the Chae Son Visitors center. Close to Chae Son town, turn off the 1252 into the Chae Son park visitor center (see map), which is clearly indicated. There is an entry fee of 200 Baht for foreigners at the visitors center and immediate surrounding area of Chae Son park.
This visitor area is a very small area of the park, where the hot springs are located. If you don't plan to go to the visitors center, you can tell the people at the checkpoint, 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 ;-)
The visitors center is a large area where hot springs flow into a number of ponds on a grass field covered with rocks. There is also a short hiking trail leading to the 6-level Chae Son waterfall. While the hot water that emerges from the springs can be around 70-80 °C, visitors can take a dip or relax in some of the smaller pools at lower temperatures. There are also huts next to the springs for private bathing.
There are eateries, snack stands, and picknick opportunities at the visitors area.
Note that 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.
After one of these steep stretches one passes through the charming village of Mae Kampong. It is a small village of just over 130 houses, which has become a model for ecotourism and community tourism in Thailand. At an altitude of 1300 meters, Mae Kampong is ideal for growing tea, and coffee cultivation. Today there are a few cafes in the village, where they serve locally grown coffee. Flight of The Gibbon, a famous zipline operation, is located in Mae Kampong.
How to go from Chiang Mai to Mae Kampong with public transport? From Warorot Market (Chiang Mai’s central market), vans depart regularly for Mae Kampong for 150 THB. The trip lasts 1,5 hours.
The Mae Hong Son loop.
The legendary Mae Hong Son loop starts from Chiang Mai on a very twisty road to Pai, then a scenic route to Mae Hong Son, down to Mae Sariang and back to Chiang Mai. It usually takes at least 4 days to do the 600-kilometer loop. The next three itineraries are some options and shortcuts: one can do the full loop, or a shorter and perhaps better version.
Best of the loop: Up and Down to Mae Hong Son.
Start off driving north on the 107 highway, 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, and 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, turn left at the traffic light. You can now follow the rural 3009 road, 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 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)Alternative route: the 3009 shortcut from Mae Rim. 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. Warning: do 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.
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.
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.
The Short Loop
From Mae Hong Son continue south on highway 108. At Khun Yuam take road 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 totalAlternative route nr. 4009 through Mae Surin NP: 1 hour extra. Duration: 3 nights, 4 days.
The Full MHS Loop
From Mae Hong Son continue south on highway 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 totalAlternative route (green): 50km longer. Duration: 3 nights, 4 days.
Where to stay in Pai.
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