Pai, Thailand: Motorcycles, Mountain Roads, Waterfalls, Caves, Hot Springs, Rafting, Trekking, Art, Music & the Hippy-Sphere.
The minivan was set to depart at 1:30pm from Chiang Mai’s Central Bus Station. I was forced to check out of my hostel at 11am and, due to my limited time frame, was therefore denied the opportunity to carry out any other touristic endeavours before my departure. I opted for lunch instead. I settled for an unexciting bowl of egg fried rice with an alternatively exciting and delicious mango smoothie which I consumed in a matter of seconds.
Directly across the road was the Buddhist temple Wat Chedi Luang which offered me some free entertainment as my food digested. Tourists stumbled in and out in a chaotically haphazard fashion, waving their guidebooks and selfie sticks about in an attempt to catch the attention of passing tuk tuk drivers.
At the bus station I stumbled upon the most gruesome toilets I have ever laid eyes on, rivalling the many bathroom horror stories experienced in the bush in Kenya and Tanzania. Worst of all, in Thailand they make you pay to experience it. Consisting of only a hole in the ground, it was so flooded dirty toilet water created a small waterfall down the step leading outside.
The minibus arrived and in no time we were climbing the steep and winding mountain roads towards Pai village. I heard someone throw up behind me so I put my headphones on and tried to ignore the smell.
My designated seat was located right beside the driver who couldn’t understand a word of English. We resorted to facial expressions and hand gestures. A couple of motorcyclists overtook a lorry on the opposite side of the road whilst approaching a bend – they didn’t see us coming and it was an extremely near miss. The driver clenched his jaw and shook his head in anger. Soon after we discovered a dead dog in the middle of the road. We both frowned and gave up all attempts at communication for a long while after that.
No grim bathroom, dangerous driver or vomiting child, however, could ever deter the beauty of the drive. Amongst the thick forests I pictured a herd of elephants lounging on the cool damp floor, clear of any vegetation due to the deep darkness created by the canopy of vegetation above.
On my first day, I rented a motorcycle and visited Ban Santichon, Chinese Village 4km west of Pai. Upon arrival, a red traditional Chinese architectural arch, known as a Paifang, emerged in the distance.
I saw a number of clay houses spread across a field of grass. These houses also acted as souvenir shops, Yunnan Chinese restaurants and offered horse riding to visitors.
Eventually I decided it was time to return to my motorcycle. I kept on the same road that led me to village and soon reached an immensely steep mountain slope which led me to the mountaintop viewpoint. The view was absolutely spectacular and I immediately regretted not visiting at sunset which was recommended by some people at my hostel.
Back on the main road, I began the 12km drive towards the Sai Ngam Hot Springs. Thick forests transformed into open plantations. It was almost 30 degrees Celsius and men covered from head to toe in clothing slaved off in the fields. Their eyes were the own uncovered section of their bodies.
After a long twenty minutes I realised I was lost. A lady driving her motorcycle at 100kph with no helmet redirected me. I continued to follow her down the winding roads, but at a distance to remain alive.
Eventually the rice fields turned into thick forest again and we began to ascend another mountain. This did not stop the lady and she took the sharp turns like a MotoGP racer would. I thanked her for directing me but really I was just thanking a higher power for my life.
The trees formed a roof over the three natural pools. I undressed into my swimsuit and dipped into the warm crystal-clear water. The only other living creatures alongside me were the vibrant red dragonflies dancing around.
It is important to note, however, that the tranquillity I experienced is rare and there are often complaints about overcrowding and noisiness in the afternoons.
After lunch I set off to Nam Tok Mo Paeng, a waterfall that was about 8km from Pai. On the way, whilst passing through a remote village a woman dropped her laundry basket and plunged herself towards me pleading for money.
A little further on, a simple situation occurs – a lady was on the verge of literally throwing her baby at me. Children as young as many seven or eight pointed their fingers to their mouths desperately, a gesture that clearly demonstrated their hunger.
I soon realised I had taken an alternative route, one that was not recommended on my map.
The waterfall was nothing but a couple of puddles and rocks. It was definitely not worth the drive nor the culture shock experienced on the way. Instead I decided to make the most of my 24-hour motorcycle rental and begin the 49.3km ride to Tham Lod Cave.
I was extremely short on time – the sun was setting soon and my laundry needed collecting. As I sped up the mountain the forest once again transformed into plantations. This time the sun was setting behind the mountains, the scenery once again defying expectations.
The mountains reflected off the puddles creating a picturesque composition. Workers who had slaved off in the fields all day finally sat together on trucks to enjoy a beverage and finally relax.
I reached another viewpoint just as the sunset reached its peak. I decided I was satisfied and returned back to Pai. There was plenty of time to see the caves, without having to drive very steep vomit-inducing curves in the dark.
Most of Pai’s charm is owed to its walking street in the centre of the town. At around 5pm everyday dozens of street vendors set up their stalls along Rugsiyanon Road. You can find souvenirs, handicrafts, handmade clothes direct from nearby villages and authentic street food. Visitors walk up and down the busy street creating a haphazard yet casual blend of mixed cultures.
It is a much toned down and relaxed version of a night market in maybe Chiang Mai but with less than a quarter of the people and less than a quarter of the chaos.