Road to Pai

I had not been to Pai since my second Thailand holiday in 2002. It doesn’t really make a convenient weekend getaway if you rely on public transport or your two wheels. However, it was the perfect thing to do in my friend’s car. Riding up and down hills smoothly, speaking my mother tongue for the first time in nine months, blasting the CD player at full volume and singing along to pop hits from my teenage years, eating good food, drinking litres of hilltribe coffee. Yes, we are two lazy bums.

cafe on the outskirts of Pai

I can now understand how once someone gets used to driving a car without fear of dying in the next curve, they can never go back to public transport or a motorcycle. You just shove your little backpack on the back seat, take your laptop, and set off, arriving comfortably, without sunburn, sunstroke or getting soaked, no sore legs or shoulders. I wish I could drive a car around Chiang Mai province on the weekends, a sleek comfortable but strong little car like my friend’s. But I gave up on my driving career about ten years ago, when I demolished my grandfather’s old garage trying to reverse into it.
But I digress, I suppose.

Pai does not have a good reputation these days. It is said to have been ruined by mass tourism and lost its character. That was one of the reasons why I was reluctant to go, I always get very upset when places I know change for the worse.
To my surprise, I found that apart from a horrible monster of a Bangkok Bank outpost, Pai has actually come alive and reinvented itself. It is no longer a quiet little village where nothing happens after sunset, that much is true. The old wooden houses in the centre have been converted into guesthouses, stylish cafes or shops selling souvenirs and stuff for hippies travelling on the cheap. The temples and the mosque go on about their daily life, the market is overflowing with fresh produce. There is a lively walking street market in the evenings, the guesthouses are drifting in soft music, there is no unbearable crowd, no chaos, no rude and loud people throwing money around, or tour buses. You can sign up for treks, rafting, elephant rides, mountain biking, visit caves – it is not just a little village in the middle of nowhere with hidden gems you cannot even find out about. It all comes easy. And yes, it is cheap too.

Lisu hilltribe people live in large numbers all around the province

Pai is in Mae Hong Son province: there are Shan and hilltribe touches all around. Many people seem to wear their traditional costumes during their daily activities, not only for the sake of tourists. Strange tongues float around at the market, the temples are different from Lanna-style buildings in Chiang Mai.
Charming little Wat Klang has a brand new Reclining Buddha image: it is placed inside a carved tree trunk. According to photos displayed, the building was constructed around the image. I don’t think I had seen anything like this before. Shame it is difficult to fit into a single photo because of the layout and columns.

Just a couple of hundred metres outside the centre, beyond the little guesthouses and sophisticated resorts catering for all budgets, little villages spread out among the rice fields, lotus ponds, rolling hills, meandering river. There are a few elephant camps along the river – little family affairs that have been around for ages. No shows or fireworks here, you can ride an elephant without a seat and give it a bath in the river, or head for the nearby hills. In the end, you may take a boiling hot shower using the water from hot springs in the area. Many places of interest are accessible by bicycle or motorcycle – but I am not riding a bike ever again on these hill roads in the burning sun, I remember too vividly after all these years.

Tha Pai hot springs are some 9 kms outside the town

I was so happy to see that it is still wonderland, that I managed to find places I remember from seven years ago, pretty much unchanged. It was tremendous relief and I was kicking myself for not daring to go back for so long. Now I can hardly wait to set off again, as a simple weekend away from Chiang Mai does not really do the place justice, it is only enough for a long glance, and to revive long lost memories of happy days.

My friend, a Bangkok guy, was amazed that so much greenery can be squeezed into the 360 degrees of space surrounding us, took a photo of the thermometer showing a shocking 18 degrees in the morning, knocked himself out on spicy Shan curries and northern-style nam prink ong. Amazingly, we didn’t have a single drop of rain for 3 full days, something I would have never bet any money on in the glorious month of September. But miracles can happen.

morning mist

Going to Pai is the perfect example to illustrate the idea that “Life’s a journey, not a destination”. The winding route 1095 is one of the most amazing I have seen around here in northern Thailand. It is a comfortable 4-hour drive, or 138 kms from Chiang Mai, if you take your time and take a break here and there. The GPS was furiously recalculating the route in a scared voice, to my great amusement, after the turnoff from road 107. Not that it is difficult to get lost: it is a straightforward, though nowhere near straight road of 98 kms across the mountain ranges, with the highest point at almost 1400 metres above sea level, then plunging down to the Pai valley below at an altitude of 600 metres.

little viewpoint along the road

There are great vistas, but hardly any place to stop safely to admire the view and take pictures. Well-marked and signposted paths lead to waterfalls, national parks, viewpoints, hot springs, geysers – they are now all pinned at our Chiang Mai map, and blogs are coming up sometime soon with the details. For the drive, it is important to know that even though the road is in excellent condition, it is next to suicidal to try to negotiate it in the dark or in heavy rain. The section between Pai and the turnoff the Huay Nam Dang national park, or the last 30 kms of the trip, is the most winding: it is a nasty steep descent to the valley below. We have seen a guy on a Click motorcycle getting all the way here from Chiang Mai – not sure he managed to climb all the way back in the end but hoping he did. Friends say you need at least a proper 150cc in good condition to make it.

Villages and rest stops are few and far between: the last coffee stop before Pai is 40 kms away from the town, at the little Rakjang Cafe (with an amazing view!), next to km marker 58. We also had great coffee at the turnoff to Mok Fa waterfall (around km marker 20), and a nice meal at a police checkpoint about halfway.

Pai is also served by a little 12-seater belonging to Nok Air. This is another approach I would like to try one sunny and bright day, flying all over those magnificent mountains. Sounds like this is what I am longing for these days: as little clutter as possible when I look around, clean and quiet and carefree, so that I can almost take off without having to get into a Cessna. Fashionable or not, “real Thailand” or not, I don’t care about the labels anymore. It was a big lesson to learn again – I need to go and see for myself.

4 responses to “Road to Pai

  1. Sounds idyllic and too good to miss. Glad you were not disappointed on returning after several years-a rare thing now days everywhere.

  2. I can feel your happiness from here, beautiful photos & that cafe on the outskirts of Pai is so inviting…..great article!

  3. Well your driving skills would probably be considered more then average in Thailand at least in the eye of the beholder.

    Personally I hate it when people go nostalgic, and I’m not saying you are one of them, about the “real” Thailand in the old times without tourists, roads, toilets and internet.

    Apart from being snobbish its slightly offensive when people suggest Thais have the guts to spoil their perfect holiday by rising above poverty.

    That said Pai seems to be a place even a city guy like me would love (in small doses) and I dont think this small gem would be any more real if we would remove the roads and fill them with mud 🙂

  4. I have only just found this excellent and very comprehensive website about Pai, with brilliant photos and lots of information on what is going on beneath the surface

    http://allaboutpai.com/

    it is a must for anyone heading to Pai