Doi Suthep's North Face - the wrong loop


Oct 23, 2009
Introduction: “Sacred Mountains of North Thailand”.

Despite years of biking mistakes, I am not a good enough rider to jump on the saddle and just enjoy fresh wind. What drives me on my bike is a quest for cultural and geographic knowledge and encounters with the people of Thailand.

I was considering options for short trips in the Chiangmai region, when I stumbled upon the book “Sacred Mountains of Northern Thailand and their Legends” (1). It is a good source of inspiration and I decided to check out some of the places and to explore some of the links around them.

From Thanon Thongchai range, Doi Inthanon, Doi Suthep-Pui, over Doi Chiang Dao, Doi Ankan to Doi Thung, the Western part of Northern Thailand is gratified with some of the highest, most respected and majestic mountains of the country. Rivers carve narrow valleys and people build road loops, a blessings for motorcyclist. For Lanna people, the most sacred peaks are Doi Suthep, Doi Kham and Doi Ang Salung (Doi Chiang Doi). Mystic legends (tamnan) link these mountains to the life of the Buddha and to his (non historical) visit to the region. Numerous relics and foot prints have sacralized the North as Buddhaland.

Driving up Doi Suthep and the neighboring hills, hardly makes a story for Chiangmai residents. But I had a second thought about it and pondered that bikers from abroad might be interested to roam around cultural landmarks and drive short loops in the region.

The Northern provinces are rich in meandering roads leading to majestic peaks, passing through adumbrated and cool forest or with panoramic views on summits or valleys. Unfortunately, this bucolic picture is only available during a limited period of the year. February to April are month of fog, or rather smog from seasonal burnings. Landscapes are hidden under heavy mist, the grass is scorched to ashes and leafless trees create a gloom. However, if we can not always pick the best touring periods, we can enjoy the rides and be contented with the things as they are. The compensation is the absence of rain an a reduced number of visitors.

With this in mind, I started a couple trips with a different approach to the “Sacred Mountains of North Thailand”.

Part one.

Doi Suthep's North Face – the wrong loop

The first visit, in my quest for the sacred mountains, was for Doi Suthep-Pui. I did not begin with the “Southern highway” but decided to explore the “North Face”. A forest trail runs up from Maerim, actually starting in the village of Ban Mae Nai. It is a narrow dirt road, build by Hmong people and not found on maps. The day before, I hunted for an appropriate rental bike. Some years ago Chiangmai shops had the ubiquitous yellow MTX 125 cc available. Nowadays such machines seem difficult to find. Finally a friend of friend let me ride his Honda trial, a still reliable machine who had served during a couple of wars.

I did not climb alone my brother (on a Serow) and a local friend, familiar with the forest (on a Tiger), completed the squad.





The first part of the itinerary is shared with “quad” excursions. Just up from the village, a warning, at their attention, is posted in English. On the ascending road, a meagre high trees canopy only partially filters the light. Viewpoints let details open to imagination, as the panorama toward Doi Mae Sa Noi is dull and hidden in smog. The trails are mostly sandy and dry, running along forest scorches of seasonal burnings. Acre charcoal smells often covers the sentence of the parched vegetation. It's still Winter, but no reason not to enjoy the journey!







The dry season envelops the forest in his own magic. Yellow tracks are running through alignments of gray trunks. The landscape is painted with shades of monotonous colours, tinted by haze filtering trough denuded boughs. The irregular pattern and spacing of the trees plays the melancholic rhythm of natural forests.




A couple of panels show directions with the precision of “downhill” when the road is descending! Once the “Maerim trail” has joined the Doi Suthep road, an easy landmark is the Highland Coffee Research and Development Centre. It is a great place to relax with a locally grown coffee brew. After this point we went back toward the Hmong village of Chan Khian, a frequent “final destination” for travellers climbing the South road of Doi Suthep and continuing toward Doi Pui.







After Chang Khian we headed toward the valley, in direction of Chiangmai. A comfortable bumpy road leads to a lychee orchard with some mountain dwellings.





The large garden seemed to mark the end of the itinerary. However, mountain people indicated a path to descend to the valley. They might have overseen our bikes, as it was mostly a pedestrian trail.


I found great synonyms for "sapling" on the new!


In the middle of the bush, the “little Honda” began to be rebellious and needed some hard kicks to start again. It was a short respite, as the problem seemed linked to a shortage of petrol. Fortunately the path was now descending steadily and I slide down without the engine.





As we reached a clearing, the view opened toward the valley, straight to the “700 Years Stadium”. On the side, an apparently dry “stone river” flew down the slope. My bum remember that it was a very slippery story even for a walk.





Further down, the “pedestrian link” becomes more rocky and tricky, in a lighter forest environment. Two dimension pictures do not put the trail in an exact perspective neither did I stop at the more challenging places, just to get them “in the box”. Globally, I would not really recommend this itinerary, despite the fun that we had, once we were through it.




The very last meters, before resting the bikes under a banyan tree, are stairs. The first neighbouring building is Nonghoa temple, with what I thought was a restaurant. We rejoiced to drink refreshing water and delighted in the available food and sweets. Only then did I realize that it was all free, actually a generous redistribution of the leftover from the monk's meal. Doing merit in the adjacent boot gave me the opportunity to show gratitude.




Back to flatlands, we had to provide fuel to my engine and milked the Serow”. A couple of kilometres later we joined Canal road in Chang Puak and finished the loop in Maerim.



Itinerary: Maerim (Ban Mae Nai - Highland Coffee Research and Development Centre - Hmong village of Chan Khian - Chang Puak



The next post is about "The right loop" from Maerim to Huay Thung Thao, without teh rocky ending :

Doi Suthep's North Face – Maerim to Huay Tung Thao
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Oct 23, 2009
(1) Sacred Mountains of Northern Thailand and Their Legends, Donald K. Swearer, Sommai Premchit, Phaithoon Dokbuakaew. Silkworm books, 2004


Mar 15, 2003
Another eloquent and informative report, Jurgen.

Two dimension pictures do not put the trail in an exact perspective neither did I stop at the more challenging places, just to get them “in the box”. Globally, I would not really recommend this itinerary, despite the fun that we had, once we were through it.
It's very true that photos, no matter how good, never seem to show an exact representation of what a trail is truly like. As you say, it also interesting how much more "fun" a trail can seem AFTER it has been completed than when you are in the middle of the challenge.

Well done.


Oct 23, 2009
Thank you Dave and Bign Tall. I am working on the "right loop" report. It is of course less adventurous but I hope that it will me more useful for for people who fancy a loop around Doi Suthep-Pui. Nothing really new, but not every GTR reader leaves in Chiangmai :)


Jan 5, 2008
Great report Jurgen.
I like the two maps you included which will no doubt help others in planning there rides, particularly those wanting to do some day rides not far from Chiang Mai as they clearly show that its possible to go riding just outside the town centre. :thumbup:


Oct 23, 2009
Thank you Moto Rex, actually I just posted a report about the "right loop", which is a little more "civilized" :) ... but al depends about what people are looking for. The first one was really rough toward the end and I would not recommend it, unless it is what one is looking for.

The other path goes down to Huay Thung Thao :

Doi Suthep-Pui has a lot of other trails to offer (well known by cyclists) and more itineraries can be documented.

To put things clear, I am not an off-road expert and roads that I consider challenging are a breeze for trial specialists. With an reasonably light bike (related to individual skills), everybody can enjoy these places. For me the KLX 125 is just enough :).