Cruising the Samoeng Loop

Enjoy the loop's mountainous landscape

Enjoy the loop's mountainous landscape

One of the most rewarding self-induced outdoor activities in northern Thailand is cruising around the country roads that wind through the hills around Chiang Mai. And day trippers from Chiang Mai will be pleased to know there is just one such user friendly option. Rent a bike and do it yourself with this fantastic 90km all day experience that takes in excellent mountain vistas, waterfalls, gardens, adventure acticities, elephant camps, places to eat and unspoilt jungle.

Despite the first impressions of Chiang Mai’s hectic, polluted and slightly dangerous driving conditions, once you venture outside the city limits it’s a different story. Traffic peters out to a slow trickle as the asphalt probes into the lush foothills and eventually deep into the mountainous northland. This is two-lane heaven, especially for motorcyclists.

Apart from the occasional pothole, road conditions in the countryside are surprisingly good. There are literally thousands of kilometres of paved and decent dirt roads criss-crossing the mountains between Chiang Mai and the Burmese border. By sleeping over in guesthouses drivers potentially have weeks of exploration, offering an excellent opportunity to interact with the real face of northern Thailand. But not everyone has the time or energy to do that, so the Samoeng Loop is ideal.

This loop is easy to navigate, begins and ends right in town, and can take as little as 90 miuntes to complete. The road is excellent all the way and provides some of the best scenery you can find within an hour of Chiang Mai. Along the way are dozens of little side excursions if you want to get adventurous. The Samoeng Loop is simply a fantastic afternoon cruiser.

To start with, it’s highly suggested that you pick up a copy of the invaluable road map by GT Rider called the Samoeng Loop. This red-covered folding map can be found at most bike rental shops, bookshops, and other travel stores around Thae Pae gate in Chiang Mai. It is the definitive map for cruising around Chiang Mai and well worth the 175 baht. If the Samoeng Loopisn’t available, the more popular Mae Hong Son Loop map also shows the drive to Samoeng in detail.

From the old walled centre of Chiang Mai, make your way through the traffic towards the north gate known as Chang Puak gate. Once you get on the outside of the moat, turn north on the busy street directly across from the gate. This road, highway 107, will eventually take you out of the city towards the town of Mae Rim, 10kms away. There are actually several ways to reach the town of Mae Rim, and any of these routes will take you to the turnoff for highway 1096.

Along the way you're bound to encounter elephants

Along the way you're bound to encounter elephants

Once you have passed through the congested roadside town of Mae Rim, keep your eyes open for a traffic light with a large two-lane road heading west towards the mountains. There are lots of signs advertising snake farms, bungee jumping and other tourist attractions along highway 1096, so it should be easy to find. Once you make the left turn onto highway 1096, you are officially on the Samoeng Loop and out of the hustle and bustle of Chiang Mai.

The first leg of the journey takes you to the small rural town of Samoeng, which lies halfway between the start and finish of the loop. It is only 34kms from the highway 1096 turnoff, so take your time. As you pass through the Mae Sa Valley, you’ll see an endless train of tourist attractions, spas and resorts. Thankfully, this disappears altogether after 20 minutes, leaving you with unspoilt national forest and quiet villages for the rest of the trip. But you’ll do well to plan the bulk of your time for this first section.

First stop is the Mae Sa Waterfalls, which is worth the entrance fee, there’s a bit of walking but it’s the only way to appreciate the beauty of all seven tiers and you can picnic besides the water and many spots. The biggest tiers are nearer the bottom thankfully and there are plenty of food vendors on hand.

Stop off at any of these tourist attractions if you are interested in the orchids of Thailand, tigers, snakes or elephants. One place that is particularly nice is the Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden. These extensive gardens contain beautiful towering jungle trees, natural orchids and other plants and flowers unique to northern Thailand. There are walking trails to let you stretch your legs before carrying on with the drive, and the entry price is very reasonable.

The Mae Sa Elephant Camp will appear next. If you’ve ever wanted to get up close and personal with Asian elephants, this is the place. You can feed elephants, watch a show or even take a short ride on the back of one with a mahout trainer through the jungle. The riverside location of this camp is very scenic and relaxing, and worth a stop if you fancy seeing the elephants.

As the road winds up and over the mountains you will see smaller roads shooting off into the hills every now and then. These make wonderful side trips if you feel like exploring, especially on a motorbike. Again, the GT Rider map is invaluable for navigating your way around. After 28kms you’ll come to a junction in the road. The town of Samoeng lies five kilometres to the right and makes a great meal stop.

Mae Sa Falls is one of the best near Chiang Mai

Mae Sa Falls is one of the best near Chiang Mai

As you emerge out of the thick forest into the beautiful valley of Samoeng, you’ll find yourself literally on the backside of Doi Suthep. The town only has basic amenities, but you can get a cold drink at the minimart, refuel, and buy a snack at the outdoor market. If you’re really hungry, stop by Kanjana’s restaurant at the entrance of town. Her Thai food is excellent, especially the stir-fried cashew chicken.

Samoeng is something of a crossroads, with paved and dirt tracks leading off in every direction towards remote hill tribe villages tucked deep into the mountains. There are days of cruising here if you find yourself intoxicated by the freedom of touring. A single guesthouse in Samoeng can provide lodging.

After resting in Samoeng, head back to the junction and carry on along highway 1096 towards Chiang Mai. The second leg of the journey runs for about 30kms as you cross up and over the southern flanks of the Doi Suthep mountain range. Several waterfalls are within an easy walk from the road and fairly well marked. There are also several resorts and little cafés along this stretch, if you need refreshments.

When you emerge again from the hills, you will find yourself along the Canal road south of Chiang Mai. At the first traffic light you come to, take a left onto the Canal road and drive 15 minutes back to the western end of the city, near Chiang Mai University.

Motorbikes of various size can be rented cheaply around Chiang Mai’s Thae Pae gate. Honda Dreams are ideal for this cruise, as they are lightweight and good on the gas. Rental rates for a day run from about 150 baht without insurance and 200 baht with insurance. Be sure and wear your helmet because it’s the law, and sunglasses will help keep the dust and bugs out of your eyes.

You only need to show a passport to rent a motorbike or car in Chiang Mai. The shop will want to hold your passport while you rent, but you are also legally allowed to give them a photocopy of your passport’s main page instead. This is better because you may need your passport for identification along the way.

Bring a rainjacket as well, because brief showers are common in the mountains. Also, lather up with sunscreen unless you want a bright red face, neck, arms, and calves upon your return. Winter cruisers require a warm sweater, as it gets chilly up in the mountains, even on sunny days.

Note! To secure a guaranteed room and find the best rates, we suggest you look online at Agoda.com. They seem to be the most competitively priced of the hotels sites.

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