From the sublime to the ridiculous
The picturesque Mae Sa Valley lies just a short distance north of Chiang Mai and is something of a microcosm of Chiang Mai's tourist industry, covering everything from the sublime to the ridiculous.
The sublime is the stunning scenery and landscapes; the ridiculous is the tacky array of overpriced roadside attractions lining the valley. Some attractions are worthwhile, such as the Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens, while others such as the Jungle Coaster decidedly wacky and others like Tiger Kingdom downright abhorrent. Here’s a brief rundown on what to expect.
The valley of the Mae Sa—an oversized stream rather than river—leads off the Fang highway, Route 107, in Mae Rim district, and winds its way around the north side of Doi Suthep, Doi Pui National Park. Sealed Route 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. Expect to pay around 600 to 800 baht, excluding entrance tickets, but be warned you are then at their mercy as to which spots they consider visit-worthy. Beginning with the regrettable Tiger Kingdom near the Mae Rim junction, the 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, which runs December to February, you can pick your your own or try out strawberry juice, wine and shakes. Remember you can also see wonderful orchid displays for free at the Kamthieng garden market back in town, so it might be an unnecessary entrance fee. The cheapest we saw was 30 baht but the best looking spot, 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.
Next up is a clutch of ATV spots. X Centre offers a wide range of activities aside from ATVs including bungee, paint-balling, 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 good value. 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 and the restaurant seems to be very popular in its own right with local expats and passersby.
Staff are friendly and enthusiastic and it seems a very well run operation. To give you some idea of cost, a bungee jump is 2,000 baht, paint-balling 800 baht for 100 balls and a xorb 600 baht. 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. 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 turn, taking you up to mountaintop 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 programme. This is 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 entrance fee it would set you back for two people 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 an unreconstructed, traditional-style camp complete with elephant painting, football shows et al—give it a miss. A second nearby camp has 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 is 200 baht, and they also sell a bathing with elephants programme, for a half-day, full-day and even two- or three-day programmes. It enjoys a beautiful setting and seems very well run.
The last sight 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 more than 1,000 hectares, the sumptuous and immaculately maintained gardens house greenhouse exhibitions, a natural science museum, ginger, banana and herb gardens, plus a visitor 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 some 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. If you were only doing one stop perhaps on your way around the Samoeng Loop, this should be it.
From here, you have the choice of 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 mountaintop 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 hilltribe people, to diversify their farm production into high income, temperate crops.
Nong Hoi is a good example of a typical royal project, being situated on a 1,400-metre-high mountain ridge slightly above the Hmong village of the same name. (The mountain is named Mon Cham.) The project grows strawberries and other 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 sights 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 and their bakery selection is 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 hosts a series of zip-lines as well as a precarious looking rollercoaster 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 baht 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.
You’re spoilt for choice as far as roadside cafes and restaurants go in Mae Sa, ranging from chic coffee shop fare to Thai barbecue joints on bamboo platforms perched on riverside rocks. We’re sure many are very good but we particularly liked the Pongyang Angdoi Restaurant with a stunning stream view. Split into a coffee shop plus eatery, both have raised wooden terraces looking across manicured lawns to the Sa River and beyond to forested hillsides. Thai and northern Thai dishes are 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 Route 1096 to Mae Rim. If you do have more time, then see our Samoeng Loop section. 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 on using up the best part of a day.
Jungle Coaster: Pong Yang village, Mae Rim; T: (053) 106 327, (093) 142 8998; http://www.pongyangadventure.com; open weekdays 09:00-17:00, weekends 08:30-17:00.
Mae Sa Waterfall: Route 1096, Samoeng Rd, Mae Rim; open daily 08:00-16:30.
Mon Cham/Nong Hoi: Nong Hoi village, Mae Rim; T: (053) 939 173, (083) 372 0466; open daily, times variable, 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; http://www.qsbg.org/QSBGenglishweb/; open daily 08:30-17:00.
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; http://www.siaminsectzoo.com; open daily 09:00-17:00; adult 200 baht, child 150 baht.
Thai Elephant Care Centre: Route 1096, Samoeng Rd, Mae Rim; T: (053) 206 664, (053) 206 247-8; http://www.thaielephantcarecentre.com; open daily 08:30-16:30.
X Centre Route: Route 1096, Samoeng Rd, Mae Rim; T: (053) 297 700, (087) 833 6655; http://www.chiangmai-xcentre.com; open daily 09:00-18:00.
Address: North of Chiang Mai
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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