Our first month in Chiang Mai has been full of new experiences. The city is rich with culture, the people are incredibly friendly and there’s so much to do on a daily basis. There was one thing missing though, the outdoors. When researching Chiang Mai while still in the U.S. we read a lot about the city being surrounded by mountains which really appealed to us. And now that we have settled into life in the city, the view from our 16th floor apartment is of green mountains in every direction. After spending much of our first few weeks exploring the city of Chiang Mai we were itching to get out.
One Saturday morning Summer, Haley (Summer’s sister) and I were eating breakfast at Cafe de Thaan Aoan in the Old City. We were talking about what we wanted to do that weekend. Summer said she read a blog about a scenic driving loop that took about a half day to complete and had several interesting stops along the way. Upon finishing breakfast we had found a car rental place walking distance of us and were discussing what stops we wanted to make along the loop. One thing I love about Chiang Mai is your ability to be absolutely spontaneous.
I had never driven on the left side of the road before, and it certainly took a little time to get used to. I quickly got the hang of it and only caught myself drifting to the right side of the road a few times. It took us about 30 minutes to get out of the city and to the start of the mountain roads. As soon as we got up in elevation the scenery changed from an urban landscape to bright green hillsides. The transition was quick, and the landscape was gorgeous. The drive itself was extremely beautiful and even as the driver I was able to admire the various shades and layers of plants that were coloring the hillsides.
Our first stop was at a waterfall we had read a lot about, Mae Sa Waterfall. We heard there were many tiers of flowing water surrounded by lush forest, and it did not disappoint. The entrance fee to get in was 100 Baht, so not bad for a gorgeous private pool. The first few tiers were a little crowded with families with little ones relaxing or playing in the water. Luckily, there was a trail leading up to several more tiers of waterfalls and swimming areas. We hiked up until we found a spot to ourselves and swam under the waterfall and relaxed in the cool water. The water here is not crystal clear but instead was a reddish brown, matching the color of the clay ground. However, the color didn’t matter as soon as you stepped in as the water was perfectly refreshing.
After we spent some time cooling off in the pool, we decided to climb up further and see what the remaining pools looked like. We hiked our way to the top of the river through a gorgeous trail of rocks, trees, vines, plants and fun little bugs on the ground. The area is maintained enough to make the hike easy, but still rugged enough to give you the feeling of exploring the outdoors. We hiked up another four layers of waterfall to the last pool which was empty and turned out to be another fantastic place to relax and enjoy the natural beauty around us.
We got back into the car and continued along the loop, with our next stop being the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden. As we approached the garden entrance we saw that it was so much more than what we expected. I was picturing a greenhouse and some outdoor flower beds but I was pleasantly surprised with how wrong I was. The Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden is an incredibly large facility maintained by the Thailand government. The area was immaculate and the flowers, trees and buildings were spectacular. We drove slowly around in order to see as much as we could but we could have easily turned this into a full day trip. There are beautifully maintained walking paths through greenhouses and outside gardens and in our limited time we were only able to see a small portion of what it had to offer.
Our favorite experience in the garden was a beautiful canopy walk through the trees, allowing visitors to look into the untouched jungle and out into the mountainous terrain. During the canopy walk there were a few small signs that told stories from local legends or identified local wildlife species.
We also visited several of the greenhouses at the top of the property. There were over ten greenhouses of variable sizes, each which held a different plant community. One house had desert plants that reminded us of southern California, another was a tropical jungle which had water spraying in the air to create intense humidity. Each greenhouse was well maintained and beautiful.
After leaving the garden we stopped for lunch at a restaurant along the river. The restaurant had bamboo platforms suspended over the river which created a lovely setting for lunch. We ate sitting on cushions with a low table in between us and enjoyed an authentic Thai meal.
After lunch we drove another couple of hours climbing in elevation and passing terraced hillsides where small villages were growing food. We stopped at Max’s Coffee House which is set on top of a hill providing extraordinary views of the valley and surrounding mountains. After a quick smoothie break and photo-op we continued down the hill in order to get back to Chiang Mai before it got dark.
Driving the Samoeng Loop was a very fun way to get out of the city and enjoy the mountains of northern Thailand. I would imagine the drive on a scooter would be a lot of fun, but watch out for rain. For about 45 minutes the skies unleashed a barrage of heavy rain while we were on the back side of the mountain, creating small mudslides on the hills around us and soaking the scooter drivers to their core. But from the safety of a car it was very fun to experience.