Pai. It’s the little word on the Thai street signs everywhere in north-Western Thailand. I’m not short on adjectives. Pai is a sleepy little town. It is magical, it is beautiful.. but they all fall shy. Some places just have the vibe.
We came here kind of bearing Pai’s load in the criticisms we’d heard of the place. Having now been there, I don’t even feel like defending it. If the haters don’t dig on Pai, all the more Pai for us… as it were.
Pai is just warm milk and honey on a sunny winter’s morning. Set in a picture-perfect valley, the streets are lined with homey guesthouses, a healthy smattering of charmingly worn old houses and inviting, cozy restaurants. There’s a scarcity of the sterile facades you see in most cities; a scarcity of concrete too. It strikes the perfect balance between having the comforts of development and not having sold its soul to tourism.
Over and over we’ve heard that people come here and (insert somewhere between ‘end up staying a few weeks’ and ‘retire here’). One such bloke was Dave – our host at the Evergreen home stay.
Dave’s a sandy-haired, broad-shouldered, easy going boomer-aged Aussie bloke (you know the type). He greets us off the street with a Vegemite sandwich in each hand and a hearty “How’s it goin??” Stellar.
Five minutes later we learned he’s from my home town of Brisbane. Aspley to be exact. An Aspley High graduate to be exacterer. Hinkler house captain in his day. We couldn’t very well stay anywhere else.
Still trying to shake our colds, the crisp mountain air of Pai was great. We settled into Pai-time pretty quickly, with some easy walks through the markets and to the picturesque river that flows through the edge of town.
And while the tastes of Bankara Ramen house in Bangkok lingered as a vivid memory, we found the best curry we’d had in Thailand here, in a family-run restaurant on the main strip. Three generations of women and kids roamed the place, dishes come out one-by-one as they’re individually made, and nearly all of the few meals we had were top-ten finishers of our trip so far. Kimee’s red curry probably takes out the blue ribbon.
We tried getting old-school with an ask-and-you-might-receive impromptu cooking class, but we quickly got the honest truth – between running a guesthouse, a restaurant and a family, the talents of the matriarch were already over-stretched.
|Side of the road sunset beer stop|
We enjoyed two days cruising around town and through the valley. The scenic, accommodating feel of Pai extends through the valley in the form of coffee shops and guest houses, making us feel at once far from everything and close to home.
There are exceptional lookout points all around the valley, all with world-class views. We were spoiled for choice when it came to finding rest/coffee/snack/lunch stops – anywhere without a view of the whole valley was sub-par.
An expedition to a nearby waterfall revealed a raw stretch of bedrock carved out of the surrounding hills and jungle – a pretty spot to soak in a different hillside view.
In a different direction, a dirt track past nonchalant roadside cows ended at a small stream. Over a bamboo bridge and high above at the top of a dirt staircase, we found two Rasta dreds running a middle-of-nowhere jungle bar who told us about another waterfall, half a day’s hike into the jungle and brush behind them. We were more interested in them anyway - people live like this! These guys were a half hour out of Pai and they could've been anywhere in the world. They had a horse and a beat-up old motorbike. Living their lives, their way.
For a few days we’d been poring over a big Northern Thailand road map. We were Laos-bound, but how? Over a few days our route came together. Before leaving Pai, we booked a room in Luang Prabang, Laos – check in: Christmas Eve. Pai to Christmas was a hop, skip and a few jumps via scooter, local busses, a bamboo raft and, with a bit of luck, a couple of boats. For the first time on this trip, we had an itinerary!
Our first leg was a section of a popular motorbike tour known as the Mae Hong Son loop along route 1095. Mae Hong Son is the provincial capital in North-Western Thailand near the Myanmar border. There’s a T-shirt in the market there that reads Chiang Mai to Mae Hong son – 245 kilometers, 1864 turns. Over a hundred of them must be hairpins, and we enjoyed every last one.
|At a spectacular look-out between Pai and Soppong|
the photo doesn't do it justice...
Soppong is revered online as a functioning example of the Ecotourism model. Ecotourism is the well-advertised goal of many Thai operators, especially in the north where trekking is big business, but the actual benefit to the local economy and ecology often falls short of the ideal.
At Tham Lot, there’s a great infrastructure but the whole operation is local. You rock up, pay an honest price for a local guide and they take care of the rest. Our guide lit an oil lamp and, after a short hike, we boarded a bamboo raft and began our float into the gaping mouth of the cave.
|Our guide taking us through the caves|
We explored three caves within the enormous dark expanse. In each one our guide pointed out spectacular individual stalagmite formations, often likening them to animals they had memorized in English to break the language barrier. Yes, that looks like a crocodile, and yes, that looks like a Buddha, but we mostly just gazed around, slack-jawed at the scale of what we were looking at.
The camera lens fogged up as we passed through pockets of thin, humid air in the higher reaches of the sub-systems, breathing hard after a climb up a narrow wooden staircase – this trip wasn’t exactly disability friendly.
After absorbing all we could, the boat rounded a corner to reveal the brilliant opening at the other end of the cavern. As our eyes adjusted to the light, we saw the vibrant green of virgin jungle beyond and enormous stalagmites hanging from the ceiling, far above (and a few littered in the shallows around us, just to keep us honest).
An hour later, we were back on the road, deciding to try and reach Mae Hong Son before nightfall. An equally scenic few hours later, our ballsy little scooter delivered us to the capital. Far less charming than Pai, we inspected some very seedy lake-side digs before finding an out-of-the way guesthouse, run by two friendly owners.
|Looking over to Myanmar|
After sundown we snacked our way through the treats at the local market by the lake. We also bought a Thai-famous paper lantern from at the lakeside temple, where a monk attached a sparkler stream to the bottom and helped us light it before we released it into the night sky. We craned our necks to watch it disappear up, at first showering sparks, then smoldering to a gentle red glow – we watched it until we could no longer make it out from the stars.
|Hedgey and I enthusiastically anticipating take-off!|
It’s hard to imagine how good it would be to experience the locals here if language wasn’t such a barrier- after our evening trip, our hosts called us over to their small fire and shared fruits from their garden (some we’d never had before) as we strung together friendly good-will in torturously drawn-out exchanges.
The next day we returned to Pai, before bussing back to Chiang Mai for the start of the more ambiguous phase of Pai to Christmas. The next blog will have stories from a highlight so far- the simple pleasures and treasures of Thailand’s’ Little Switzerland: The mountain town of Doi Ang Khang.
Till then, love (still from around the Mekong - we're recharging!)