Photo: Enjoy the views.

Mae Sa Valley

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The popular and picturesque Mae Sa Valley lying a short distance north of Chiang Mai is something of a microcosm of Chiang Mai, (and perhaps Thailand’s), tourist industry covering everything from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Photo of Mae Sa Valley

The sublime is the stunning scenery and landscapes; the ridiculous is the tacky array of overpriced roadside attractions lining the valley. Certain attractions are good; the Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens for example, others such as the Jungle Coaster decidedly whacky, while others like Tiger Kingdom are downright abhorrent. Here’s a brief run down on what to expect.

The valley of the Mae Sa—an oversized stream rather than river—leads off the Fang highway, number 107, in Mae Rim District and winds its way around the north side of Doi Suthep, Doi Pui National Park. A sealed road, 1096, follows the valley to a crest, before dropping down to Samoeng Village. Combined with the descent to Hang Dong this route also forms our suggested one day Samoeng Loop motorbike ride.

It’s too far for bicycles and a motorbike is the ideal means to explore, though plenty of guesthouses and travel agents do offer Mae Sa packages if you don’t have your own transport. (600 to 800 baht seems a fair price not including entrance tickets). You are however then at their mercy as to which sites they consider visit-worthy. Beginning with the regrettable Tiger Kingdom near the Mae Rim junction these sites and attractions continue intermittently the length of the lower valley up to the Mon Cham turn off.

To cut out the dross we’ll ignore the monkey shows, snake and alligator farms, cobra shows, Long Neck Karen village, one or two unreconstructed elephant show camps and the shooting range. (Don’t worry, that still leaves a lot of decent stuff!)

Making regular appearances along the route are orchid and strawberry farms. The latter are fine and in season, (Dec-Feb) you can pick your your own or try out strawberry juice, wine, shakes. Bearing in mind the Botanical Gardens are just up the road and you can also see wonderful orchid displays for free at the Kamthieng garden market back in town it might be an unnecessary entrance fee and those can mount up if you do the whole valley. The cheapest we saw was 30 baht entrance but the best looking site, Sai Nam Phung Orchid, with a neat wild specimen collection, charges 100 baht. Most orchid farms come with garden shop and cafe though it does seem every building along the route that isn’t a roadside attraction is a coffee shop anyway, so expect no shortage of those.

Next up is a clutch of ATV spots. X Centre offers a wide range of activities aside from ATVs including bungee, paintballing, drift karts, xorb balls and trail bikes plus a fun mini-golf course. They also have a very good cafe serving local and Western options with the latter being particularly good value indeed. The bar, if you need some Dutch courage before your jump, is also one of the cheapest around. There’s a pleasant terrace as well as indoor seating area and the bar/restaurant seems to be very popular in its own right with local expats and passers-by.

Staff were friendly, enthusiastic and with generally good levels of English and it seems a very well run operation. To give you some idea; a bungee jump is 2,000, paintballing 800 for 100 balls and a xorb 600. If you’re not sure what a xorb is and want to check their range of buggy, ATV, UTV and off-road trips then check their website below for further details. If you call them in advance they offer free pick-ups from in-town hotels which will save on a 600 baht taxi fare.

Pull in down the road at the Tourist Information Centre as they have brochures for just about every attraction in the area plus useful free maps. A short distance beyond is a right turning taking you up to mountain-top Mon Cham. It is a torturous 20 kilometre climb and unless you really want to do a Mon Cham loop you’re better holding out for a second, shorter, route further up the valley.

Past this turn off, sandwiched between an alligator farm and monkey school is the tastefully presented and interesting Siam Insect Zoo. There are the inevitable cases of pinned dead insects but there’s also a butterfly garden and live insect breeding programmes. Well explained and well laid out this would be a good choice if you have kids in tow.

A couple more orchid farms are followed by a turn off on the left leading down to Mae Sa Waterfall. It’s a small waterfall though cute in the rainy season but we’re not sure it justifies the 220 baht it would set you back for two persons plus a motorbike. (It is part of Doi Suthep National Park so if you already have an entrance pass you wouldn’t need to pay again.)

The huge Mae Sa Elephant Camp is popular with large local and Chinese tour groups but it is a unreconstructed, traditional style camp complete with elephant painting, football shows et al—give it a miss—but a second nearby camp has now rebranded itself as the Thai Elephant Care Centre. As the name suggests they care for older or injured elephants unable to work elsewhere and there’s no riding or shows. General entrance to the site is 200 baht while they also sell a bathing with elephants programme, half day, full day and even two to three day programmes. It enjoys a beautiful setting and seems very well run so if you’re interested you can find details and prices on their website below.

The last site we’re including on the Mae Rim to Samoeng Road is a good one—the famous Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens. After this the road runs into Pong Yang Village where you have the choice of turning right and climbing up to Mon Cham or continuing on over the hills to Samoeng. Covering over 1,000 hectares the sumptuous and immaculately maintained gardens house greenhouse exhibitions; a natural science museum, ginger, banana and herb gardens plus visitors centre, souvenir shop and several food and drink options. There’s also a canopy walkway though this was closed for renovation at the time of our visit in mid-2017. You can do certain sections on foot but it is vast so avail yourself of the open sided small bus service which covers most sections for a single 30 baht fee. At 100 baht adult and 50 baht child this represents the best value for money in the whole valley and if you were only doing one stop perhaps on your way around the Samoeng Loop, to our minds this would be it.

So from here, you have the choice of returning to go; continuing up the hill to Samoeng or turning right for a detour to Mon Cham. The latter is a pleasant if steep ride, has a couple more attractions of its own and culminates at the mountain top Nong Hoi Royal Agricultural Project.

Numerous Royal Project agricultural sites are scattered across Northern Thailand, (see Doi Ang Khang for example), and are generally devoted to assisting villagers, in particular hill-tribe people, to diversify their farm production, (originally often from opium), into high income, temperate crops. Many, what for Thailand are exotic crops, can be grown at cooler high altitudes and fetch good prices in expat supermarkets and hotels of Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Hmong and Akha tribes aren’t traditionally familiar with say strawberries or brussel sprouts, so the projects aim to educate the locals in these new forms of cultivation.

Nong Hoi is a good example of a typical Royal Project, being situated on a 1,400m-high mountain ridge slightly above the Hmong village of the same name. (The mountain is named Mon Cham.) The project grows strawberries and certain temperate fruits and vegetables as well as herbs and aromatic plants such as lavender. An additional form of income comes from the tourists that visit these sites and though Mon Cham is very popular with Thai tourists, it doesn’t seem to have cropped up on the foreign tourist map so far. You can stroll around the herb, flower and vegetable gardens, check out the myriad butterflies or browse the Hmong handicraft stalls.

There is an on-site cafe with vertiginous views which is a great spot to grab a coffee (the food can be very mixed) and their bakery selection remains very good so you can nibble a lemon cheesecake while admiring the truly spectacular views.

At the eight kilometre or so mark on the road up to Mon Cham/Nong Hoi is one of the area’s more unusual attractions—the Jungle Coaster. An attractive, forested valley houses a series of zip-lines as well as a precarious looking roller coaster weaving its way through the plentiful old trees. It is mainly curves rather than any looping of the loop and the two person carts didn’t seem to be going too fast but it looked a fairly hairy ride nonetheless. If that’s not enough you can do a tree-top tricycle ride along a wooden track, abseil down some of the taller specimens or climb along various “sky-bridges” and spiral staircases.

Only coaster rides are available separately—at 300 a pop or three for 700 baht—with all other activities coming as part of a day package. Packages go for either 2,050 or 2,500 baht per person which includes buffet lunch, coffee, tea and all activities as well as round trip to your hotel in Chiang Mai.

Needless to say you’re spoilt for choice as far as roadside coffee shops and restaurants go in Mae Sa. These go from chic coffee shop fare to Thai barbeque style on bamboo platforms perched on riverside rocks as per Mae Wang, to local cafes and noodles shops in villages such as Pong Yang. We’re sure many are very good but we particularly liked the Pongyang Angdoi Restaurant with a stunning stream view setting. Actually separated into a coffee shop plus eatery both have raised wooden terraces looking across manicured lawns to the Sa River itself and beyond to forested hillsides. Thai and northern Thai dishes were well prepared and reasonably priced and staff friendly. If you’re not hungry their coffee’s good too!

From Mon Cham the simplest is to return the way you came to Pong Yang Village and head back along the 1096 to Mae Rim. If you do have more time then see our Samoeng Loop section but that is considerably longer than returning via Mae Rim. For our above route—on a bike—we’d allow at least three hours riding time to be safe plus whatever stops you make so including lunch and coffee break count the best part of a day.

Jungle Coaster Pong Yang Village, Mae Rim T: (053) 106 327, (093) 142 8998 Open daily 09:00-17:00 & 08:30-17:00 Sat & Sundays 300 baht for coaster. Packages 2,050 or 2,500 baht
Mae Sa Waterfall Route 1096, Samoeng Rd, Mae Rim Open daily 08:00-16:30 Adult 100 baht, child 50 baht, motorbike 20 baht
Mon Cham/Nong Hoi Nong Hoi Village, Mae Rim T: (053) 939 173, (083) 372 0466 Open daily, times variable but restaurant 07:00-19:00
Pongyang Angdoi Restaurant Route 1096, Samoeng Rd, Pong Yang Village T: (085) 618 8885 Open daily 10:30-21:00
Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens Route 1096, Samoeng Rd, Mae Rim T: (053) 841 234 Open daily 08:30-17:00 Adult 100 baht, child 50 baht, car 100 baht
Sai Nam Phung Orchid Farm Old Mae Rim Samoeng Rd, Mae Rim T: (053) 298 771 Open daily 08:00-17:00 100 baht
Siam Insect Zoo Route 1096, Samoeng Rd, Mae Rim T: (089) 184 8475, (089) 755 0849 Open daily 09:00-17:00 Adult 200 baht, children 150 baht
Thai Elephant Care Centre Route 1096, Samoeng Rd, Mae Rim T: (053) 206 664, (053) 206 247-8 Open daily 08:30-16:30 Entrance fee 200 baht see website for programme prices
X Centre Route 1096, Samoeng Rd, Mae Rim T: (053) 297 700, (087) 833 6655 Open daily; 09:00-18:00

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Mae Sa Valley

North of Chiang Mai

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