Mae Sa Valley is a fun day excursion from Chiang Mai, taking you up winding roads and through gorgeous fields to the Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens, Mon Cham with its breathtaking panoramic views, and to many other points of interest on an action packed day on the 100km Samoeng Loop.
Getting There: hiring a motorbike to explore the Mae Sa Valley is the easiest choice. Follow Route 107 North out of Chiang Mai, before heading West on the 1096 which then loops all the way around to the South of Chiang Mai.
Costs: entrance fee to the botanical gardens is ฿100. Driving around the Mae Sa Valley and up to Mon Cham is free.
Additional Information: if you don’t drive a motorbike or travel with someone that can then there isn’t much point paying for any of the tours that run here. Tours will stop at some weird but not wonderful places and I’ve heard it’s a complete waste of money, so only go if you are doing it yourself!
The Mae Sa valley forms part of the Samoeng Loop, a 100km loop which starts and finishes in Chiang Mai, if you enjoy driving a motorbike around stunning scenery then this is a must do while visiting the region. I’d recommend that you dedicate an entire day to covering the loop as some of it is sublime, and some of it is just sublimely weird! I’d recommend that you avoid any of the “animal attractions”: there’s a snake farm, an elephant camp and monkey world, all of which have had many reports of animals being mistreated, so I’d suggest you just skip all of these stops.
To get to Mon Cham and the botanical gardens you’ll follow the 107 out of Chiang Mai heading towards Mae Rim; this is the only part of the route where you’ll experience busy traffic. After about 40 minutes you’ll reach the 1096, and you’ll take a left. The traffic will die down and the scenery will drastically improve once you’re on the 1096. The roads opening out into mountain passes are flanked by forest or one side and a small river the other, making this a gorgeous drive.
The first place you can stop is the Mae Sa Waterfall, which by all accounts a pretty waterfall but having been to the Sticky Waterfall the day before I wasn’t sure this could beat it and didn’t fancy paying the ฿100 entrance fee. I skipped this site and made my first stop at Queen Sirikit’s Botanical Gardens. If you like plants, trees, flowers and beautiful scenery this is a must stop off on the route.
Queen Sirikit’s Botanical Gardens (website) has an impressive entrance and you’ll drive up and buy your ticket before heading up the hill. I have read some conflicting reports about how far you can drive in to the gardens, and I drove everywhere by complete mistake… even places I definitely shouldn’t have, as you can see on the video below! Don’t do as I did, my advice is drive up the hill to the first parking spot which is by the Canopy Walkway, and have a wander around there and then drive up further to the main car park which is up by a variety of greenhouses showcasing plants and flowers.
The main attraction of the gardens is the Canopy walkway but I loved the serenity and natural beauty of the entire place. The walkway is pretty cool, it sweeps around the top of the trees for at least 200 meters and there are incredible views including a glass bottom walkway where you can look straight down into the forest below. There are so many places to walk within the gardens and there’s even a dedicated banana forest with over 100 species of banana, so take your time exploring the various different areas of the gardens!
The final stop as you drive around the gardens are the twenty or so greenhouses showcasing everything from tropical to carnivorous plants. There is even a greenhouse just dedicated to water lilies! It’s easy to get lost in the beauty of the flowers and the array of different species they have on show here. The grounds are beautiful with water features shooting jets of water in the air and on a sunny day you’ll be treated to a rainbow in the middle of the small lake by the gardens.
I spent about three hours here wandering around the botanical gardens before jumping back on the bike and carrying on around the loop. Before my trip I’d heard of Mon Cham but hadn’t been able to find out too much information about it. In essence it used to be an area where farmers grew poppies for opium production, once the Thai government recognized they needed to incentivize the growth of different crops such as food crops they then gave subsidies to the farmers to start growing strawberries and other fruits and vegetable. The Mon Cham fields are now a stunning array of plants and vegetables set up in the mountains with some of the most incredible views across North Thailand.
The drive to the top of Mon Cham is a little bit challenging so just be prepared that you may hit some parts where the road is bumpy and the incline is very steep. Once at the top the view is a photographers dream with panoramics on all sides of the mountains and views of the forest below. By the time you are at the top you’re about 1300 meters up, so it can get a little bit chilly but the views are well worth it. I cannot begin to put into words how beautiful the scenery is on a clear sunny day.
You can grab some food up at Mon Cham at some smaller local restaurants and if visiting on the weekend it can be quite busy but you also might see the locals racing wooden karts down the hill like I did. After an hour or two at Mon Cham I jumped back on the bike to complete the loop, there are so many places you can stop along the way making the drive back to Chiang Mai incredibly pleasant.