Your Guide to undertaking the Samoeng Loop

I first heard about the Samoeng Loop from a guy I was chatting to in Livingstone, Zambia. He was on an epic year-long journey across the world, and when I asked him his favourite memory so far, he pondered for a moment, and said “Motorbiking in Northern Thailand”.

Fast forward a couple of years and I found myself in Chiang Mai with a couple of days to spare. This was my opportunity I thought, to hire a moped and check it out for myself, so I decided to ride the Samoeng Loop through the Mae Sa Valley.

I wasn’t disappointed. Mountain roads guided me through the lush green forest, the steep hairpin bends taking me higher, almost touching the clouds and creating memories to last a lifetime.

At regular points the forest breaks, treating you to expansive views of the trees below, and a big bonus is scooter hire is so cheap in Chiang Mai, this is a very cheap and highly recommended day trip from Chaing Mai.

So, before we look at what there is to do along the loop, let’s just answer a few frequently asked questions about the Samoeng Loop.

Samoneg Loop FAQs

Things to do on the Samoeng Loop

1. Natural beauty

1.1 Mae Sa Waterfall
1.2 Mae Sap Cave
1.3 Samoeng Loop forest viewpoint

2. Man-made attractions

2.1 Chiang Mai Botanic Garden
2.2 Strawberry Land
2.3 Mae Rim Shooting Range

3. Animal Experiences

3.1 Tiger Kingdom
3.2 Maesa elephant camp
3.3 Other Chaing Mai animal experiences to avoid

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Samoeng Loop FAQs

So what and where is the Samoeng Loop?

Also sometimes known as the Mae Sa Valley loop, it is considered by many to be one of the finest drives in Thailand.

100 kms of quiet mountain road, to the west of Chiang Mai, that guide you around the Doi Suthep mountain, through the Mae Sa Valley and towards the town of Samoeng beginning and ending in Chiang Mai.

How do I get there?

The classic loop is made up of 4 roads, although there are plenty of optional bolt-on routes. Heading north out of Chiang Mai take the 107, this is probably the busiest road you will face. After about 15 mins you’ll be able to turn West onto the 1096. Look out for the signposts for many of the attractions along the road including Tiger Kingdom and Maesa Elephant Camp, more on those later.

At the western point, where you can turn towards Samoeng, take the 1296 south to start heading back to Chaing Mai. The southern part of the loop has less touristy attractions and is all about the drive. There are a few wonderful coffee shops along the way with fantastic terraces overlooking the forest, so keep an eye out.

Finally, the 1296 will join the 108 where you can head north, back into Chiang Mai and complete the loop.

An overview of the Samoeng Loop
The Samoeng Loop including Samoeng Village

Is the Samoeng Loop easy for beginners on a moped?

I would say yes. I found the most nerve-racking part was getting out of Chaing Mai. The road north is a busy, fast road, but I was still comfortable and I don’t have a whole load of scooter experience.

Once I turned off the main road into the loop, then the roads became a lot quieter with nothing much to worry about. There is very little traffic and the road is well surfaced. Just be aware of the odd elephant ?.

Elephant in Chaing Mai
Local Traffic

Can the loop be completed in one day?

Yes, it actually makes a lovely day trip from Chaing Mai on a scooter and is an excellent addition to your Thailand itinerary. It is only 100 kms, so easy to complete in 3 to 4 hours with a couple of stops.

However, if you’re not in a rush and want to enjoy some of the attractions along the way, such as the Mae Sa waterfall or botanical gardens, I’d highly recommend breaking it up into two days.

When I explored the loop with my partner, we spent one night the Samoeng Resort, we were able to leave our backpacks with the main bulk of our stuff in our Chiang Mai hostel meaning we could travel with just a small overnight bag containing a few toiletries and some clean underwear.

I think this overnight stay turned the loop into a bit more of a mini-adventure within an adventure. It’s fun staying in random small places and often that’s where the best stories come from.

Read about my overnight adventure in the Samoeng Resort: A scary night on the Samoeng Loop

Check accommodation deals in Samoeng

Should I undertake the Samoeng Loop clockwise or counterclockwise?

There is no right or wrong way to go around the loop. We did counterclockwise, starting by heading north on the main road out of Chaing Mai, the 107, before joining the 1096, where the loop really begins.

This is the best way to find many of the things to do on the Samoneg Loop
early (more on those coming up), as most of them are this side.

However, there is no reason that you can’t head south on the 108 and turn into the loop on the 1269 by the night zoo, that will set you off clockwise. This is a great way of seeing the Wat Phra That Doi Kham, home to a 17-metre Buddha, nice and early.

Can I complete the Samoeng Loop on a bicycle?

Well … if you are looking for the answer to this, the answer is probably yes, but for the average hobby cyclist, it won’t be easy. The loop is about 100 kms long through mountains and forest, that mean a lot of up and down!

So if you are a keen enthusiast and have solid equipment, there is no reason it can’t be done, but if you are an average cyclist, then best stick to something with a motor.

My beast and I just arriving at the Mae Sa Waterfall
Renting a scooter in chaing Mai

Where can I rent a scooter in Chiang Mai?

While I can’t confidently recommend the best scooter rental, Chiang Mai has options all over the place, and it’s cheap.

A couple of pieces of advice though: do a quick Google search and check out the reviews if possible, it’s no secret that there are scams related to hiring scooters in Thailand. Be sure the place is trustworthy. Alternatively ask around, ask the people in your hostel or hotel, if they have had a good experience, they will be more than happy to tell you.

Finally, inspect your scooter well and take photos of any damage you see. This goes for hiring any vehicle anywhere. There is always the chance they will try to charge you a fine for damage that was already in place before you hired, so check, just to be on the safe side.

Is it easy to get gas?

Well, I didn’t run out of fuel but maybe I was being over cautious. There are no petrol stations as I knew them, but quite regular little shacks selling petrol out of plastic litre bottles, definitely something you wouldn’t see back in the UK!

I just made sure to have a check and fill up whenever I saw one, it was really cheap and better safe than running out of petrol in the middle of the Thai wilderness surrounded by zombie snails. That would make more sense if you have read my other post from the Samoeng loop (You’ve already scrolled past the link ⬆️⬆️⬆️).

Stopping for petrol

Things to do on the Samoeng Loop

So now you are fully briefed on what the loop is, let’s take a closer look at some of the things to do.

The majority of attractions along the Samoeng loop are clustered along the northern part of the loop on the road 1096. This includes many different animal attractions of various reputations, gardens and a whole lot more. It’s like a microworld of small tourist traps vying for your attention.

But before we get onto those, let’s focus on the main draw of the area, the natural beauty of the Mae Sa Valley & Doi Suthep-Pui National Park.

Mae Sa Waterfall

Despite the name, it isn’t actually just one waterfall, it is a series of small ones with a hiking path along the side and are probably one of the most visited places on the loop attracting locals and tourists alike.

The Mae Sa Waterfall is open every day from 8am – 5pm with a small fee to enter, 100 baht per adult and an additional 20 for a motorbike or 30 for a car. There is plenty of parking and a nice selection of street food vendors should you be a little peckish.

It seems that the waterfalls are very popular with locals. The lower section was packed when we arrived with families enjoying picnics and the opportunity to cool off in the refreshing water.

The Mae Sa Waterfall off of the  Samoeng Loop
Mae Sa Waterfall – photo credit: Golfz82 [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Along the side of the falls is a one and a half mile track which will take you past all of the 10 individual waterfalls that make up this part of the  Mae Sa Valley. The path is well marked with various viewpoints and stops along the way and while I would recommend solid footwear, it is doable in flip-flops if you’re careful.

Depending on what you’re expecting I’d understand if you find this place slightly underwhelming. When you hear of popular waterfalls it conjures up images of thunderous cascades as high as the eyes can see, but this is far from it. However, it does nicely mix hiking, with places to cool off en-route.

Recommended reading: 10 tips for taking great waterfall photos

Mae Sap Cave

Located close to the Samoeng Resort, Mae Sap Cave is one of many cave formations that this region is famous for. The caves are free to enter, although if you want to explore beyond the caress of the daylight, look for a small hut outside where you can hire headlamps for 20 baht.

The caves are a great little side attraction to get your Indiana Jones on, do a little exploring and have a welcome break from the sun.

YouTube video

Samoeng Loop forest viewpoint

Welcome to paradise. Perched high up on a hill overlooking the endless forest below, this is a fantastic spot to take a break and just enjoy nature at it finest. Oh yeah, it’s also pretty damn good at generating insta-envy, if that’s what you like to do.

View from the Samoeng Forest Viewpoint

The Samoeng Forest Viewpoint – photo credit: ::::=UT=:::: [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Man made attractions along the Samoeng Loop

Chiang Mai Botanic Garden

The Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden is a gorgeous stop for flower lovers or anyone that appreciates nature and gardens.

The main attraction is the glass house complex. This large greenhouse is home to stunning displays of orchids and cacti among others.

Other highlights include the Flying Draco Trail, a 400 metre long canopy walkway, a great way to get up above the trees, and a Museum of Natural Sciences.

Entrance to the garden is 50 baht per person and another 30 baht if you want to bring your motorbike in. I’d highly recommend doing that as the site is huge!

Botanical Gardens in Chaing Mai – photo credit:Cédric Liénart on Flickr – (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Strawberry Land

Due to the altitude and climate of the region, this is the main strawberry growing region in Thailand, and trust me, there are strawberries everywhere! Many roadside shacks sell all the strawberry themed souvenirs you could wish including jams, candies, and liquors.

Strawberry Land is basically a pick your own farm. They’ll provide you a small basket and some scissors and off you go. There is a small shop with some snacks available, but not much more than that, and a rabbit and a guinea pig.

Picking strawberries in Chiang Mai
Pick your own – photo credit: LannaPhoto [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Mae Rim Shooting Range

This will probably be a very different experience depending on where you are from. If you are from Europe, Australia or any country with strict gun laws, this could be quite a fun experience.

Firing ranges aren’t very common, so if you want to try out pistol shooting or many other types of guns that are available, this will be a great place to give it a go.

If, however, you are American and into collecting guns, this may be a bit of a let down. As a firing range it is pretty basic and you probably have many better options in your own country.

If you are interested in giving it a go, the cost is 1700 baht (a little over $50) and how many shots you get depends on what gun you choose. The Maerim shooting range is open every day from 9am – 6pm.

Animal attractions on the Samoeng Loop

In the northern part of the loop is a cluster of animal attractions where you can pay to watch them do tricks and entertain.

Animal experiences are always a controversial subject with some calling for the complete closure of all animal interactions, as they are unnatural, but purely based on the amount of money they make, there must be a huge demand for them.

I fall somewhere in the middle, I think it is possible to find the balance of giving people access to animals they may not find at home while ensuring it is an educational experience (especially when the species in question is endangered) and a positive environment for the animals.

Examples of these include sanctuaries, where injured animals are rehabilitated, or large game parks where you can view animals in as close to a natural habitat as possible.

However, I fear none of the animal attractions on the Samoeng Loop fall into this category, they feel like the animals are there to make money and nothing more. The elephants in Mae Sa Elephant Camp showed clear signs of abuse, but I’ll come to that in a bit.

Tiger Kingdom

We can’t talk about the Samoeng Loop without mentioning the controversial Tiger Kingdom. Depending on who you talk to people either love it or detest it. We visited on the claim of it being an education centre and thought it would be interesting to see what they do there, but I didn’t really see it that way.

I think they spin the story that way to get you in, and once you are there, tempt you into interactions with the tigers and posing for photos with them, I remember very little educational information.

It was sad to see, these magnificent beasts cooped up. From my understanding, tigers are largely solitary creatures with huge territories they roam and protect, to see so many in such a confined space didn’t feel good.

There are of course the activists who claim the tigers are drugged, I don’t think that’s true, Tiger Kingdom has come under scrutiny from the local government many times, but they haven’t ever seen the need to shut it down.

I really can see why people are drawn here, the photos with the tigers and the opportunity to get close and play with the majestic cats is something that will appeal to a lot of people, but it wasn’t right to me.

Tiger Kingdom tigers in captivity

Tiger Kingdom is open from 8am – 6pm everyday. The entrance price depends on what kind of “tiger experience” you would like, the littler the tiger, the more expensive it gets.

See, this is another thing that confuses me about the place, they say that they rescue tigers, but to always have a stock of baby tigers, there must also be some kind of breeding program. These cubs are born into captivity, forced to interact with tourists from the day they are born and live thier whole life behind bars, something just doesn’t sit right there.

I’d recommend doing some further research and deciding for yourself.

Maesa Elephant Camp

A little further up the road is a place I definitely want to warn you not to visit,  the Maesa Elephant camp and I plead you, do not go there.

Had I done a little research rather than accidentally finding it I wouldn’t have bothered to visit. But it was a spur of the moment thing.

Mae Sa Elephant camp in Chiang Mai
Many of the elephants show signs of abuse

It was rather obvious that the elephants are trained into unnatural behaviour using force and pain, many of them have clear wounds where they have been abused.

There are quite a few places nowadays that you can go and interact with elephants in a natural environment, not watch them play basketball and paint little pictures.

I don’t believe there is anything wrong with enjoying animals, just try to do it in a respectful way.

If you are looking for ethical elephant encounters, please read: the truth about elephants in Thailand

Other Chaing Mai animal experiences to avoid

The below “attractions” I did not visit. I feel many of them have been set up to attract people as side attractions and to make day trip itineraries from Chiang Mai sound full. The information below is what I have found on Google from other people’s experiences.

I advise you to do some research before deciding if you would like to visit one of these places.

Mae Rim Monkey School

We saw signposts for this as we were driving but didn’t have time to take a closer look, but a quick Google search will tell you the truth about this place. Monkeys chained up around the neck, please don’t go.

If you (like I) love monkeys, there is a great place to see them in a small town a couple of hours north of Bangkok called Lopburi, home to the monkey temple.

Chiang Mai Crocodile Show

A place to see people doing silly things with crocodiles such as putting their head in it’s mouth. One – why would you do that, it’s a crocodile, 2 – why is this still entertainment? This is a Darwin Award in waiting.

Mae Rim Snake Farm

More humans doing silly things with reptiles. It seems that this is another place that misses a great opportunity. Snakes are amazing creatures, sharing and educating people about wonderful, exotic and dangerous species of snakes is a great idea. However, yet again humans feel they have to provoke the snakes to put on a show.

Siam Insect Zoo

The insect zoo actually seems to be an educational centre for all things creepy crawly. Definitely aimed more at kids, it could be a good stop if you’re travelling with children or have a fascination with beetles, butterflies, and other exotic insects.

The endless roads of the Samoeng Loop

The Wrap

So as you can see, there is plenty to do on the Samoeng Loop but the most important is just to relax and enjoy the ride. When my friend, in Livingstone, was sharing his stories of motorbiking through Northern Thailand for the first time, I never thought a couple of years later I would be there doing it myself.

It sounded like a dream.

But even after the high expectations that he created, I’m delighted to say it did not disappoint. So whether you decided to just do it in a day and enjoy the ride, or take is slowly and check out some attractions and spending night somewhere, a trip on the Samoeng Loop comes highly recommended.

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