Pai, Thailand - Population approx 3000
Pai (Thai: ปาย) is a small town in northern Thailand's Mae Hong Son Province, near the Myanmar border, about 146 km (91 mi) north-west of Chiang Mai on the northern route to Mae Hong Son. It lies on the Pai River. The town has thesaban tambon status and covers parts of the tambon Wiang Tai of Pai district. As of 2006, it had a population of 2,284. *Wikipedia
A Diamond in the rough
Diamond de Pai City Hotel - Pai, Thailand
The journey from Chiang Mai to Pai consisted of a three hour van ride that started at 8:30am from in front of the LUX Hotel in Chiang Mai. I had been told that it would be a hair raising ride consisting of extreme twists and turns upwards into the northern part of Thailand through lush jungle territory. It was indeed. Before heading out of Chiang Mai, made a few stops to collect additional passengers. These new riders consisted of one American from Utah (Kelly), two Aussies and four Chinese all unknowing as to the severity of our road trip. All of these other passengers were women. Perfect. As we loaded in with people and gear most of us took to napping. Not me. Half way to our destination, we stopped at what appeared the only outpost for miles to use the restroom and get some refreshment. The ride of a lifetime had not yet begun to rattle our unsuspecting bodies. After stopping for twenty minutes, we all piled back into the van and continued to make our way north to Pai. Now it was starting to get interesting. As many slept, hairpin turns and twists and turns would begin to toss our bodies to and from forcing us to hang on for dear life. This continuously went on for the next 90 minutes. The nimble van would swiftly pass by other motorists and careful scooter drivers on the look out for traffic coming in both directions. A few times I need to use my extended and locked arm and hand to keep the young Chinese girl to the right of me from being tossed too violently to her left. All in all it was an exciting way to get to what would become a more chill environment full of backpackers who had come to eat and drink in between major excursions. The countryside was expansive mountainous ranges and serene countryside. This was no Chiang Mai. Pai is a slow pace. The perfect chill environment. Upon arrival and check in at the hotel, I immediately discovered that I had booked a room with NO AIR CONDITIONER. I immediately returned to the front desk and let them know that this would not work for me. They cheerfully gave me a different room at very little additional cost. Phew! It was equally as hot in Pai as it was in Chiang Mai. This was no surprise to me.
After unpacking, I quickly got myself together and went out for my initial walk through the town. People were milling around and not unlike Chiang Mai, scooters buzzed about as the primary mode of transportation. Unlike waiting for my last day in Chiang Mai to rent a scooter, I rented one my first day. Soon after walking into town, I stopped someplace to get some food. I quickly noticed a hand painted, wooden sign with the word "chill" outside of a small restaurant and knew this would be the place where I would have my first meal. I walked in and was greeted warmly. I had already begun to use Thai greetings and simple phrases before I left Chiang Mai, so this was my opportunity to practice in a new place. I was the only customer in the place other than a young woman behind the counter fiddling with the music and two gentleman engaged in conversation. The meal was excellent and needed. Soon after, I decided to walk back to the hotel and grab my passport so I could rent a scooter and really dive into this new adventure with the ultimate flexibility of mobility.
I was pleased to discover that rental prices in Pai were substantially less then they were in Chiang Mai. In Chiang Mai the average day rate was between 180 and 250 baht ($5 - $7). Although the scooter I chose was a little older, I didn't care. The day rate was only 100 baht ($2.80) per 24 hour day. I was stoked to begin my Pai trip on two wheels and start looking around. I would compare Pai to an old western town jam packed with restaurants, a large day market, street vendors, coffee shops, bars, clothing shops, Thai massage parlors, tattoo parlors, scooter rental shops, tour businesses, one gas station and a variety of convenience stores. I spent about an hour riding around before I decided to get off the beaten path and go for a nice, long ride outside of town. I had gotten pretty comfy on a scooter my last day in Chiang Mai and was ready to take my fresh skills and do my getting lost in a much bigger way than I had the week before in Chiang Mai, but not before I cruised around town to see where I was going to be for the next four days. The scooter is the only way to see Asia.
Food is everywhere! This seems to be a reoccurring theme in southeast Asia. And everything is dirt cheap. Like Chiang Mai, for a few dollars you can eat well. I have found that 2 meals a day is plenty. Even with smallish portions, it is enough to sustain me. Like the rest of southeast Asia, there are not many overweight people. I have not lost any weight at this point.
Paint the town red
Not unlike Chiang Mai, there is no shortage of street art in Pai. I love that this culture is not afraid to express itself through colorful public art. I have not seen one illustration that I did not like. There is a natural flow and none of it looks out of place. There is an intention behind the use of art. It adds a fantastic dimension that holds my heart and makes me smile.
After taking some time to cruise the town and take in a snapshot of the goings on, I decided it was time to hit the open road and see where it might take me. I headed out of town towards the main highway. Left or right? I decided left looked interesting with the mountains in the foreground and the skies ablaze with incredible light and dramatic cloud formations. It was time to open this baby up and feel the wind on my face. These scooters top out at 145 kilometers per hour which is pretty fast for such as small machine. It was nice and quiet on the road in both directions. After a quarter mile, I began to take it all in and needed to begin the many stops I would make to capture the views as they dictated through the inspiration I was feeling in all the newness that surrounded me. After stopping several times heading southbound, I decided to turn around and get the view from the other side of the road. There is noting quite like the feeling of being free to move as quickly or slowly as need be to stop and get that shot that takes my breath away.
The road less traveled
After grabbing a few shots, I continued back in the direction I came from and saw a few scooters take a dirt road off the beaten path. I watched them for a few seconds then took off on the very same unpaved, dirt road that was clearly made of an off road bike with all its ruts, rocks and overall driving challenges. I could feel that there was life ahead of me that I never would have discovered if not for my willingness to go to places that drew me in. Fear is not an option. The main reason I've taken this trip is to further challenge myself. Below is what I discovered. I am not an adrenaline junkie, but I think it is a very healthy thing to venture into the unknown and be unafraid and available for whatever lies beyond our comfort.
The east end boys and west end girls
I spent the rest of my time in Pai split between walking and riding the scooter. I never rode the scooter at night. Just didn't feel it was a necessary risk since I was staying a few blocks from all the action and wanted to be able to have a beer to cool off on those sweltering nights. The scooter was great during the day as I stayed cooler with the wind in my face or at my back and yes, I wear a helmet. Always. No need to take unnecessary risks like Johnny, who I met in the hotel. An excitable Aussie who hit some gravel in front of the hotel and looked like the victim of a major car accident for two weeks. More on Johnny later. The days mostly consisted of strolling around the town, eating, having coffee in very cool places you might see in a big metropolitan city or hitting the open road for adventures unforeseen. The town was often overrun with backpackers as I was warned before I left Chiang Mai. This is a place where Europeans and other "Furang" (foreigners) come for cheap places to stay, eats and drinks and the Night Market which is the jewel of Pai as far as in town entertainment. I visited the Night Market every evening and enjoyed the buzz and illuminated food carts with everything from traditional Thai food and pizza to IIndian food and everything you can think of that can be cooked and put on a skewer. The Night Market usually started shutting down around 9:30 and after a hot day, I was ready for bed by 10:00. That has not changed.
If I didn't mention it yet, the locals here were very warm and friendly. I did not interact with them quite as much as I had in Chiang Mai, but there was a similar feeling that made me feel good about being there. After the first few days, I realized that this was not a place I would want to stay for very long although I did add one additional day to accommodate my upcoming trip back to Chiang Mai before getting on a place to Luang Prabang, Laos where I was told I would want to hang my hat and look for work. That was not to be the case. Story to be continued. Below are some shots of the Night Market. It never really cooled off the entire time I was there whether day or night. Fortunately, my room had become my sanctuary.
Night time is the right time
On my way back to the hotel after my first night out on the town, I was exhausted, overheated and dragging my battered body along the now quiet streets of Pai. I had noticed this place and the same guy out there cooking earlier in the day. I walked into this beacon of light in hopes of quenching my unquenchable thirst and put a little food in my body. He greeted me with a kind smile. There was an uncanny familiarity to him. He reminded me of one of my ex-wife's brothers. We bonded immediately. I downed a few glasses of ice water then enjoyed a nice meal selected by him. I tipped him well and received a Kahpun Kap (Thank you) followed by a customary bow. My recall of names from that particular trip escapes me. I came back the next morning for breakfast. He was genuinely pleased to see me. Although our words were few, our hearts were truly connected. I would eat there a few more times during my stay and enjoy meaningful hugs going forward. There were a few people who I connected with on this level. It is part of what makes this trip so meaningful and important.
On the road again
I ended up taking a couple of fun long trips out of town to see where I might end up. The second trip presented some very unexpected new encounters with some very special animals. This time I stayed on the road for about 13 miles out of town. More big fun on the scooter before I would have the thing slip out from under me in a light rain going normal speed around a corner. I'm pretty healed up now. Did not stop me from riding. Was glad that it was not more serious. It happened so I could get close to Johnny and spend time with him. Unfortunately, I did not get any photos of him and he asked me not to go into detail about him. We spent a fun evening together on one of the most important holidays in the Buddhist religion and participated in ceremony. We also went and grabbed what would be one of the best hamburgers I ever had. My son Sam would have appreciated the experience. Turned out that Aussie Dave the owner of the restaurant called Burger Queen, witnessed me dumping the scooter and was impressed that I got right back on and rode away into the sunset,
This is the beginning of the first day of one of the most important holidays celebrated within the Buddhist tradition. Vesak: Buddha's Birthday is known as Vesak and is one of the major festivals of the year. It is celebrated on the first full moon day in May, or the fourth lunar month which usually occurs in May or during a lunar leap year, June.
Thom's Elephant Camp in Pai - For a minimal donation, guests can purchase bunches of bananas to feed to the elephants who eagerly await and accept the offering. The animals seem to be well treated and respond well to the trainers commands which I was able to repeat and get the same results. Some European female tourists showed up shortly after me but were afraid to get so close to the elephants. I gladly demonstrated how tame and docile these elephants were by allowing one to pick me up with his trunk. It was fun to interact with elephants again. This was an unexpected treat as I had no idea this camp was here and just rode right up to it and parked later to find out that this facility is well known and they have a local office in downtown Pai where they take reservations.
Some very nice local people I met on the way to my elephant adventure. I gave this woman 100 baht ($3.00) for taking the time to pose for me. She was reserved but very appreciative.
Art house coffee
This incredible coffee house was definitely one of the coolest spots in Pai. I had by far the best iced mocha I've ever had. Unfortunately, I am unable to recall the name of this cafe and have had absolutely no luck finding it online. Perhaps this was all just a vivid dream of art and coffee. I remember it was called Cafe something starting with the letter P. Darn it.
Draw you own conclusion
More Pai please
So, I had just come from having some dinner with one beer and realized that I was driving the scooter. It is the only time I spaced that I was riding the scooter and had a beer. Clearly I was not impaired in any way, but perhaps my contemplation played a part in my soon to be spill. The main reason I spilled as many do was that it had started raining and the ground was slick. I later found out that it is a right of passage to have an incident with the scooter. I was making a simple right turn at a normal rate of speed and out from under me the scooter went. This happened right in front of a bunch of foreigners who asked if I was alright as I quickly sprang to my feet, got back on and said that I was fine. I was fine. My knee was bleeding, but I knew that it was not bad and went straight back to the hotel, cleaned myself up and tended to my wound. Certainly not enough to keep me off the scooter. That evening sitting down on the steps in front of the hotel after picking up may laundry from a very sweet woman who had a place downtown and always called me by name., Johnny came up to me and we started talking about what happened to me. He poured me a few whiskeys as he thought I was in shock, which was his projection from remembering his much worse experience. he told me a cool story about a man who goes on a killing spree and becomes a monk to hide out, then gets pardoned by the king. After his pardon he is met with a stream of difficulties for the rest of his life. I'm paraphrasing, but it was a story of Karma. I told Johnny that I had this accident so we could get together and have a point of reference for bonding purposes. This was the first evening of the Buddhist holiday I referred to earlier. We went to the burger place then headed to the temple to donate some cash and sit with others during the chanting ceremony. I was the only one there who did not sit under cover and enjoyed a terrific cooling off by a rain storm that quickly came and did not stop for several hours. Johnny is a swell guy who was in Pai as a calling to do some work on himself and take some Thai Chi lessons from a master who happened to be an Englishman. He and I walked back to the hotel in the pouring rain and said our goodbyes with a nice hug not thinking we would see each other again. We did bump into each other in the morning before he was off. FYI My knee has almost totally healed. I have not been on a scooter since. That's only because I opted not to get one in Laos and rainy season has started here in Chiang Rai.
Blue bowl special - 35 baht (.98)
All washed up
I previously mentioned how nice this lady was to me. I always tipped her extra well as laundry has become one of the most important aspects of this trip. Being as hot as its been, I take at least 2 -3 showers a day which means I'm rolling through clothes. I can only have so much on hand that will fit in my backpack. That may not apply as much right now that I'm fairly settled in Chiang Rai, but early on having fresh clothes is one of those things that makes it all more comfortable. In by 8am and back by 5pm. The perfect relationship. I was so appreciative that I had purchased a couple inexpensive tee shirts from the Night market that ended up being too small so I gave them to her husband who was very appreciative. I'm finding that even the smallest of goodwill gestures are immensely appreciated and help forge relationships.
I've enjoyed the fact that I can purchase clothes at a very reasonable price. Cool tee shirts is pretty much all I wear. It's not hard to find what you want for 100 baht or under (less than $10). They are clothes crazy in Thailand. One can find almost as many clothing related storefronts as there are restaurants in Pai. This is good when one is living on a serious budget.
A river runs through it
I must add that since I've been here I have not once felt unsafe about anything. I was told to be careful about things, but common sense works just fine just about anywhere you go in life unless you find yourself in a war zone. This is no war zone. People here are genuine and have no concept of pretension. It is my favorite aspects of the culture.