21st February 2014. Mon Cham sits at the summit of the Nong Hoi Royal Project, approximately 36 kilometres from Chiang Mai city. The Royal Project is an initiative of the King of Thailand which opened in 1984 to encourage hill tribe villagers to diversify from growing opium poppies to alternative crops instead. The local villagers in the Royal Project now grow various herbal plants and a variety of fruits and vegetables, some of which are served up in the restaurant which overlooks the valley below. If you have the head for heights, you can eat you meal while sat cross legged on one of the thatched roof covered platforms built on stilts and jutting out over the hillside.
Mon Cham is about 1,300 meters above sea level and is reached after a 7km climb from Pong Yaeng at the junction of the Mae Sa road 1096. This climb is just off the Samoeng Forest Loop route and by the time you start the ascent up the final 7km you will already have covered more than 30km from Chiang Mai city and climbed over 700m. These final 500m of elevation are quite brutal at times, with the incline reaching as much as 24% in the middle 3km.
If you can lift your vision from the road and take time to look around instead of just focussing on a piece of tarmac ten feet in front of you, you will see that this mountainous area is (thanks to the Royal Project) abundant with apricot, peach, plum, avocado, strawberries, grapes, passion fruit and coffee. You would also be able to spot pansies, hydrangea, and dusty miller.
About 2km from the summit you pass a Muay Thai Boxing camp and then a school. Don’t take the right hand fork, that will lead you only to the restaurant; instead force yourself up the left hand fork and the final couple of hills before reaching the top.
Here you can stop for a drink and a breather, a few roadside stalls and a more permanent restaurant have recently been established: you can also take in the vista (if it isn’t too cloudy).
Today I had a slow start on the homeward ride, cycling through the first hill tribe village it seems that everyone was out and about, and not paying much attention to the road. I soon found out why; today there was a village hog roast. A huge pig was being cooked over an open fire at the side of the road. I say ‘over’ I mean ‘in’. The village elderly men were sat around the fire pit prodding and poking the bloated pink carcass. That’s what was distracting the villagers. My descent was also temporarily slowed by a truck on its way down the mountain laden with vegetables, presumably off to a market in nearby Mae Rim.
It is about 42km back to Chiang Mai city. Not all of it is downhill, there are a few surprising ups and the road in places is very pot holed, so care and attention are needed. The area around the northwest side of Mon Cham is very rural and the ride takes you through some Hmong hill tribe villages, passing the monastery of Wat Pang Hai, the Sukantara Cascade a luxury eco resort and the Bancha Garden before arriving back at the road 1096 midway between the fuel station and the monkey centre.