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Mae Sa Valley & Samoeng/Thailand

Introducing Mae Sa Valley & Samoeng

One of the easiest mountain escapes, the Mae Sa–Samoeng loop travels from the lowland's concrete expanse into the highlands' forested frontier. The 100km route makes a good day trip with private transport or a country getaway with an overnight in Samoeng. Golden Triangle Rider publishes a detailed map of the area.

Head north of Chiang Mai on Rte 107 (Th Chang Pheuak) toward Mae Rim, then left onto Rte 1096. The road becomes more rural but there's a steady supply of tour-bus attractions: orchid farms, butterfly parks, snake farms, you name it. Also lots of all-terrain vehicle (ATV) and offroad buggy hire.

Only 6km from the Mae Rim turn-off, Nam Tok Mae Sa is part of the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. The cascade is a picturesque spot to picnic or tramp around in the woods for a bit and it is a favourite weekend getaway for locals. The falls are more a series of pools and a great place to cool off during the build-up (March to June); get there early and stake out your waterhole.

The road starts to climb and twist after the waterfall entrance. Not far past an elephant camp is the Queen Sirikit Botanic Gardens, featuring a shorn mountainside displaying 227 hectares of various exotic and local flora for conservation and research purposes. The best part of the collection is the glasshouse complex sitting near the mountain peak. The drive to the glasshouse affords some wonderful views and once up here highlights include: the waterlily and lotus collections with some enormous leafy examples, and beautiful two-, even three-tier flowers; and the huge tropical rainforest glasshouse complete with indoor waterfall, where you can walk around on a raised platform giving a bird's eye view of the forest below. Take the provided bus (30B) or your own car (100B) to get around the whole facility. Motorbikes are not allowed in the gardens.

Opposite the botanic gardens and set high on the hillside, the Botanic Resort is all about fresh mountain air, views and relaxation in semi-luxurious rooms.

After the botanic gardens the road climbs up into the fertile Mae Sa Valley, once a high-altitude basin for growing opium poppies. Now the valley's hill-tribe farmers have re-seeded their terraced fields with sweet peppers, cabbage, flowers and fruits – which are then sold to the royal agriculture projects under the Doi Kham label. The royal project at the Hmong village of Nong Hoi sits some 1200m above sea level and is accessible by a turn-off road in the village of Pong Yeang.

Sitting at the western wedge of the valley, Proud Phu Fah is a small boutique hotel with creature-comfort villas designed to give the illusion of sleeping amid the great outdoors. Each villa also has a patio area right on the water's edge. The open-air restaurant serves healthy Thai food (dishes 100B to 150B) with a panoramic view of the valley.

After Proud Phu Fah, the road swings around the mountain ridge and starts to rise and dip until it reaches the conifer zone. Beyond, the landscape unfolds in a cascade of mountains. Eventually the road spirals down into Samoeng, a pretty village. If you want to stay overnight, try the simple, rather run-down Samoeng Resort, which is not a resort at all but rather a bunch of OK concrete bungalows in a bushy setting, about 2.5km outside the village. To get here take Rte 1349 from Samoeng (a right-hand turn in the town).