Route 1095 from Chiang Mai to Pai is famous for its windy roads, with approximately 762 turns through mountains, jungle and farmland. If you suffer from motion sickness, then it’s not going to be a fun ride, so pop those pills and bring your barf bag because you’re in for a wild ride...and the girl behind me barfed most of the way.
I did have empathy for her because a few years ago, while on my way to Palenque in Mexico, I had the worst food poisoning imaginable. It started about an hour into the ride and I hurled so much into plastic bags it was impossible to believe anything was left in my digestive tract. The Mexicans could not have been any more gracious towards me offering me water, more barf bags and medicine that I had no idea what it was but took it anyways. So, girl barfing behind me on the bus to Pai, hang tight. The ride is almost over.
Pai was way way way off the beaten track up until about 10 years ago, now it has become a "must stop" if you are in northern Thailand. The town itself has about 3000 residents spread throughout the surrounding hillsides. The downtown area is filled with bars, restaurants, guest houses, message parlors (the bad kind) and travel agencies. I read on some travel site that the town is getting a reputation as being similar to Bangkok’s Khao San Road but that is a bit of a stretch.
Do not fear the rowdy late night crowd and noise, they are only kids have dumb drunken fun. There are any options to stay outside the town in any direction that are a mere 5 to 15 minute walk. I stayed at the Chilling Hill hostel. An easy 15 minute walk across the river and up into the hills. Yes, there were roosters but a huge bungalow with my own bathroom ran me $9 a night and the roosters were silenced by the barking dogs....good times!. The view from my bungalow and the patio in front of the hostel was well worth the walk. The sunsets were pretty darn nice.
Pai is all about getting into the countryside, and that means renting a scooter. As expected there were many to choose from but all things pointed to Vespari Rentals. First, everyone in town makes you leave your passport with them, you can not leave a copy. It sucks but that's just the way it is. No passport, no scooter so choose your rental company wisely.
He explained that he takes passports now (he did not as of last year) because a girl wrecked a scooter and left it in a ditch. She then took off and was out of the country before he knew it because she had rented the scooter for 4 days. He is a bit more expensive, 200 baht compare to most places at 100 -150 but and this is a big BUT, he tests to see if you can actually ride safely. There are to many horror stories of people, men and woman, getting killed all over Asia because they say they can ride a scooter and they really can't. To many also think it is like renting a golf cart for the few times you head out to the course. You can drink and drive like an idiot. Good luck to those people in their next lives.
The owner gives you a "damage sheet", very much like an auto rental and he goes through the scooter marking any damages. He also encourages you to take photos and videos to back it up just in case. Again, the scams and stories of people getting charged huge amounts for damage they did not so is almost mythical here.
The test is simple. Get on the scooter and ride up the side street that his shop is on. Turn around and come back. As simple as that he will fix all your issues. Mine, like most was revving the throttle way to hard. Turning the bike around takes a bit of patience and practice. He spent about 30 minutes with me and a family that was there at the same time making us repeat and practice until he was satisfied. That my friend is a conscientious businessman.
I signed the papers for a 3 day rental, payed my money, strapped on my groovy helmet and was off. The final hurdle is the most fun, how to avoid the police check points. Have I done anything wrong, technically no. What me and most others don't have is an international drivers licence. I am not sure why I let mine expire. The local police set up check points throughout the town, knowing full well the route most of us will take on our first day. Surprise, here is your 200 baht fine, payable in cash and payable now. Corrupt cash grab I was told with the money goes into their pockets. My guy gave me a map and directions around the check point and to a gas station. I followed it to the letter, filled up and was on my way. I had forgotten the freedom that a scooter brings in the countryside.
** There is a grand history of police corruption in Pai. Have a google and read some of the stories. They would be funny if they were not so real
There are side roads which ran up to 15 km leading to waterfalls, hots springs and national parks. There was Kong Laen or the Pai River Canyon where I parked and hiked for the better part of a day. Holy crap it was hot in the canyon that day. I found the road to the big white Buddha where the views back over the valleys were spectacular. You could see rain falling in various spots while the sun was shining in other areas. I came across two elephant camps where I was going to stop and take photos of the elephants chained to huge posts and scores of Chinese tourists climbing aboard for a ride. I just cursed and motored along.
Aside from the Canyon there were two other places I really wanted to see. The Memorial bridge and Boon Koh Ku So. The Memorial bridge spans back to the Japanese occupation of Thailand when they needed to transport material through Thailand to Burma. Boon Koh Ku So is the world largest bamboo bridge that spans across rice fields and leads to the Boon Koh Ku So Temple hidden deep in the surrounding jungle. The roads in where a bit bumpy and broken plus a mixture of hills and curves just for added fun.. It was slow and steady and each was easily accessible. Much like the Pai Canyon I spent quite a bit of time here wandering the bridge, exploring the temple and wandering the trails in and around the area.
When I left the main road I came across small villages that were welcoming. I was certainly no Marco Polo or James Cooke as the villages, although a bit remote and small were set up with small shops selling coffee, snacks and local handicrafts. I did notice that regardless of the remoteness and simple setups of the villages the homes had open door ways and nobody was lacking in a wide screen TV. Good for them. A bit of comfort for all their hard work.
There were also street markets along the way. Great restaurants, lookouts and rest areas. There was also an area called I Love Strawberry that was dedicated to just that, strawberries. I had a strawberry and banana smoothie with a chocolate strawberry brownie. An agreeable lunch don't ya think?
For me Pai was a mixed bag of tricks. The simple freedom of roaming the countryside on a scooter along with the other thousands of travelers doing the same. A quiet hostel overlooking the town, sipping hot tea and looking at the surrounding mountains. Night forays into the town for incredible street eats and cold beer while watching...you guessed it, the World Cup. Watching a mixed bag of wanderers from Gap kids traveling on their parents credit cards, to trustafarians trying way to hard, to the various nationalities taking it all in. There were guys and gals that come here 20, 30 or 40 years ago and never left setting up yoga and meditation retreats, vegetarian naturally. Finally, there were more than enough tattoo parlors here to keep everyone in colours. The feel of Pai is special, it's hippy and it's throwback. I guess that in itself would inspire a new Tat.
*** A big shout out and thank you to Jennifer Allan Cummings. A good friend who understands how lazy I am when I write, not checking spelling or grammar which is odd for an English Teacher. Thanks for becoming my editor. ***