Photo: Scenery surrounding Chiang Rai.

Shorter Mae Salong loop

Our rating:

Wonderful scenery, varied sites and relatively easy riding make this short version of the Mae Salong loop through the mountains of western Chiang Rai a great trip if you have a couple of days to spare. The lengthier Mae Salong loop takes in Chiang Dao, Fang and Tha Ton but this is a shorter, two-day road trip, starting and finishing in Chiang Rai, and including an overnight stay in Mae Salong.

It kicks off with an admittedly somewhat dull 30 kilometre stretch along Route 1 to Mae Chan. Just off the main highway, before you reach Mae Chan, is a side track leading to a much touted “Union Hilltribe Village” (Ban Mae Koto). The totally contrived tourist village, established around 2009, is ‘home’ to people from the Kayan (“Long-neck Karen”), Akha, Yao and Hmong groups; an entrance ticket will set a foreign visitor back 300 baht. While we are persuaded that a visit to Kayan villages in Mae Hong Son might be worthwhile, this one is pure commercial nonsense.

Chiang Rai’s ’Blue Temple’

We’re calling it Chiang Rai’s “Blue Temple”.

Taking a left turn at the entrance to Mae Chan town things become much more scenic as you join the the quieter, winding Route 1089 heading towards Tha Ton and Mae Ai. This weaves its way up a picturesque valley with the hills of Lam Nam Kok National Park to your south and Doi Hom Fah and Doi Mae Salong to the north. Numerous side lanes lead to waterfalls and villages and it was in following a sign to Ta Tong Waterfall that we came across the astonishing Wat Muang Khiri. If Chiang Rai has its White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) then this is its Blue Temple; every bit as spectacular but with zero tourists.

Ornate and powder blue and not a visitor in sight

Ornate and powder blue and not a visitor in sight.

At present the complex consists of a bunch of shrines and buildings, all painted powder blue and squeezed into a relatively small area of a forested hillside, but a lot of new construction is underway across the road and when it’s finished this will be huge. Well-tended shrubs fill the gaps between buildings, with strategically placed statues overseeing the gardens and shrines and the overall effect, while certainly colourful, is attractive and harmonious.

Intricate, elaborate and coulurful but not gaudy

Intricate, elaborate and colourful but not gaudy.

There’s even a small version of Burma’s Golden Rock in the grounds. We throughly enjoyed our visit yet there’s no English signposting, no coach parking area and no souvenir stalls — yet. Indeed we could only find one solitary resident monk pruning the bushes.

The waterfall that we’d followed signs to, Ta Tong, lies just to the left of the temple where a small path leads up through a small but lush part park, part wild forest, home to a couple of shrines and statues. It’s actually a series of cascades and pools though nothing spectacular and the highest level, at about 50 cms, is concrete assisted. The jungle footpath is cute and seemed to lead on up the little valley, though we didn’t follow it.

Overgrown garden or upgarded jungle? Ta Tong falls

Overgrown garden or upgraded jungle? Ta Tong Falls.

Continuing west for a few kilometres takes you to Huay Hin Fon hot springs set amid a park and ornamental lake. This is a popular recreational area for locals – especially at weekends – with picnic spots by the lake, wooden salas and cafes and stalls in the car park selling drinks and snacks. The springs themselves, including a geyser (we’re not sure how natural it is), have been somewhat purloined by a rather chic looking traditional medicine centre. This is the School of Traditional and Alternative Medicine attached to Chiang Rai’s Rajabhat University and is as much for the study of Buddhist-based traditional and herbal medicine as it is for the practice of it. You are welcome to enter and the smart reception has English language pamphlets and information plus there is an exhibition room displaying herbs and medicinal plants. Behind the clinic are facilities for bathing though these were closed for low season at the time of our visit.

Kitsch - who said kitsch?

Kitsch — who said kitsch? Huay Hin Fon hot springs.

Back on the highway, continuing west leads you to the junction of Route 1234 heading north to Mae Salong though we suggest carrying on just a couple of kilometres further so you can add the interesting community tourism scheme at Ban Lorcha to your loop. This is an Akha village aside the main road with guided tours by villagers on offer for 50 baht per person. It’s worth a look before you double back to the T-junction and the 15 kilometre uphill ride to Mae Salong.

Ban Lorcha, traditional weaving

Traditional weaving at Ban Lorcha.

Also well worth a stop, and just a kilometre or so before arriving in town, is the unusual Chinese Martyrs Memorial. (It’s on the right and signposted.) Part museum, part memorial it was created in memory of Kuomintang soldiers who lost their lives aiding Thai forces combat Communist insurgents in northern Thailand during the 1970s and early 80s. There’s just enough English information to keep it interesting plus a couple of cafes in the car park.

After that you’re in Mae Salong, with its good selection of accommodation and various things to do. We’d suggest spending at least the morning there or even making a day of it and staying two nights in what is certainly one of the area’s more atmospheric and unusual towns.

Chinese Martyrs Memorial

Chinese Martyrs Memorial.

Another interesting option would be to head to nearby Hin Taek for a second night; this is a fascinating and rarely visited spot with a cracking guesthouse. Around 12 kilometres east of Mae Salong, Route 3051 takes a left fork north at a hilltop army checkpoint and Akha village, from where another 12 kilometres will see you in Hin Taek. Apart from being the former base of Khun Sa and now home to the Khun Sa Museum, the town has a large, bustling morning market and a rich cultural mix. The market sees local Shan and Yunnanese residents plus Akha, Lahu and Lisu villagers from the surorunding area visit while the small town contains Protestant and Catholic churches, a mosque, wats and Chinese temples – all within walking distance of each other.

Picking your morning cuppa - somewhere between Mae Salong and Hin Taek

Picking your morning cuppa, somewhere between Mae Salong and Hin Taek.

After a morning exploring markets and tea tasting in Mae Salong or a morning exploring markets and visiting Khun Sa’s old base in Hin Taek, it’s an easy and scenic ride back down to Route 1. It is steep so take it easy! You’ll emerge slightly north of Mae Chan town. The total distance is around 38 kilometres from either town.


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 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Chiang Rai.
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