Author Archives: Betti C.

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.

Beetle season

It is September again, and the neighbourhood kids are buzzing with excitement: they like to roam around in the fields and near the river collecting rhino beetles. These magnificent insects are claimed to be one of the strongest species in the world. Surprisingly, they use their power to fight each other for access to the females; they are not predators. They use their powerful horns to munch on wood and fruits, the children usually like to tie them to bits of sugarcane to feed them.

Of course, all the excitement is about finding the shiniest, biggest, strongest beetles. They are usually out foraging at night, so that is the ideal collection time as well. The catch ends up at the school playground, where the most outstanding specimens earn their captors a staggering 50 baht. Duty teachers cannot as yet agree on what is preferable: young kids having a go at each other in person, or making their beetles have a go at each other, with friends and enthusiasts cheering, and the losers forfeiting their sugar cane supplies or their precious beetles.

Youngster with his pet

Besides the cheerful playground atmosphere, rhino beetles are also lucrative business for grownups who have never really grown up: aggressive champion beetles can bring in hundreds of baht, and one would expect a lot more money changing hands at illegal beetle fights as well.

But those are the kinds of details I usually do not like to get into, I would rather just float around as a superficial observer sharing the excitement of the kids in my soi.

Sunday Market in Chiang Mai

If you are planning on visiting Chiang Mai, I would recommend that you include a Sunday in your schedule. That is the day when Thailand’s best handicrafts market spreads out in the streets of the old city – a perfect opportunity to buy souvenirs and presents. It stretches from Thapae gate almost all the way to Wat Phra Singh, and well into the side streets to Wat Chedi Luang and the Three Kings Monument, providing hours and hours of distraction even if you do not actually want to buy anything.

A couple of years ago, an ex-friend commented that the Sunday Market is “full of cheap junk”, which I took very personally. I vividly remember that it was the time when I really started to consider Chiang Mai my home, and all the unjustly negative remarks just strengthened my feelings. The Sunday Market is one of my favourite “playgrounds”, something I take for granted: I enjoy having some consistency in my life. I hardly ever do any shopping, though many of my household items come from here. If I was a genuine shopoholic, I would probably buy a couple of dozen paper lamps – they look so much better in large clusters than one by one!

Of course the market has some junk as well, but the majority of the vendors offer good quality or unique items on their simple stalls or from mats and boxes spread out on the ground. There is usually a row of OTOP labelled handmade clothes near the Three Kings, with beautiful Lanna designs and hilltribe-inspired patterns. The old Lanna style is definitely having a comeback as more attention is given to local culture and traditions at schools. Hilltribe patterns are often blended into more modern lines and designs and appear on accessories and household items as well.

Junior sales assistant

I also enjoy getting a massage in one of the temples when I get tired, listening to the music and all the people coming and going in the meantime. It is actually in one of these temples that I met a teacher who helped me get the job I have had for over three years now. I trawled through four years of photos to find pictures of my favourite place, but to my surprise, I only found dozens of drink stalls.

The temple yards are all transformed into open-air food markets, where vast quantities of mostly traditional fare feed the masses. The prices are very reasonable, and everything is on offer from insects to grilled fish, fresh fruits to phat thai. I am a creature of habits and I always have dimsum, coconut-filled dessert, and fresh orange juice.

It is not only the food vendors that always set up at the same spot: most of the stalls seem to be exactly the same as four years ago. The range of handricrafts changes and shifts, but if you remember a lampshade stall in this corner or magnificent desserts over there last year, you can almost be sure you will be able to locate them at the same place.

These elderly musicians play traditional Thai tunes near Thapae gate every week.

The temple buildings are usually open, and they are a good place to sit down for a while and relax. Wat Phan Tao, a wooden temple near the great chedi, is beautifully lit in the evenings, with floodlights outside and candles inside, and meditation music floats in the air. A couple of fortune-tellers set up their tables in the yard, and the queues never seem to get any shorter.

Of course, people-watching is just as exciting as the handicrafts. There are always large groups of youngsters collecting donations for their education projects. Musicians or wannabe musicians play guitar or Thai musical instruments and deliver inspired covers of classics. The source of inspiration is often debatable, but everyone seems to be having loads of fun. In addition, quite a few young girls are always out there in traditional Thai dress, dancing or singing, surrounded by foreigners. I am often wondering how they get up and go to school early in the next morning.

The large square in front of the Three Kings Monument is often the venue of cultural events. More often than not, there is a stage set up, and some kind of show going on: competition of school bands, beauty pageants, hilltribe dancing, lukthung music, game shows, Japanese culture day, merit-making – you name it. I have not been able to find a source or events calendar to tell me what is up next weekend so it is always a bit of a surprise. On the Sundays when there is no special event going on, skateboarding kids dominate the scene, and a couple of performing troupes such as fire-breathing school kids take over the area.

I sometimes see these puppet-dancers near Three Kings.

One would think that such a market attracts mostly souvenir-hunting foreigners, but actually most of the visitors are Thai. I cannot tell though whether they are locals or visitors from other provinces. It is absolutely not a tourist trap.

As you can see from some of the photos, the vendors start setting up their stalls well before sunset, some as early as 3 p.m. However, the road is only closed to the traffic a couple of hours later. More often than not, prices are clearly displayed and do not seem to be negotiable, but it is always worth a try, especially if you have experience in telling the normal price for certain things. Contrary to Chiang Mai’s daily tourist market (the Night Bazaar), the Sunday Market is not a vendors’ hunting ground and favourite rip-off spot: most prices are very reasonable, and if you start a fight over a few baht, you may end up embarrassing yourself. However, it never hurts to shop around. The vendors start packing up at around ten, or sooner if it rains, but then they do so with breakneck speed. This year, they have been lucky with the weather so far.

Overview of the area in front of Thapae Gate.

Parking is difficult, to say the least. Residents and even temples charge 10 baht or so for the privilege of leaving your vehicle in front of their premises or in their yards. However, it is always possible to find a quiet little soi nearby or plenty of free spots five minutes walk away – if you have a motorcycle. If you drive a car, either set off early to secure parking, or forget it.

I have posted some more photos of the handicrafts, foodstalls and people at the Chiang Mai forum.

Rainy day at Tad Mok waterfall

A couple of weeks ago I went to Mae Sa waterfalls on the edge of Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. On the way back, I noticed a sign saying Tad Mok waterfall, 9 km. It was already too late to make the little side trip so I postponed the visit until the next suitable time.

A lot has changed in one month, since then. The rains have finally started in earnest – I am not a fan of the thundering water on the neighbour’s tin roof at night, but I realise how important the rain is in keeping the jungle alive and moist enough to slow down the spread of forest fires at the beginning of the hot season.

There was a brief gap in the rain this afternoon when I decided to set off, taking chances, carrying a change of dry clothes, and of course my precious raincoat. I have never understood why so many Thais are taken by surprise when the downpour comes and get drenched – of course we did, about 15 kms out of town. The rain was then on and off, so I decided to go on anyway, it’s just water.

The road to Tad Mok waterfall is off the Mae Rim – Samoeng road, one of those narrow rural roads that may be swallowed up by the jungle in any minute, it feels. The trees lean over the concrete and form a tunnel, drivers on motorcycles need to be really careful not to get hit on the face by a low branch. The undergrowth is also spilling onto the road, you can almost see it grow. There are small villages made up of mostly wooden houses along the road, the odd fancy resort, banana plantations, and mountains covered in mist, trees steaming clouds, deep, rich greens all around. Sometimes in the distance, ranges of mountains to the north and east, a real feel of wilderness, only half an hour away from downtown Chiang Mai. This contrast never ceases to amaze me.

Unfortunately, my camera was tucked away safe and dry well under my raincoat, so no photos of the scenery, again. Next time. The road seems to go on to Samoeng around the mountains so there will definitely be a next time.

When I got to the waterfall, the sun decided to shine on me for a few minutes before disappearing behind the clouds. There was absolutely not a soul around, so I did not dare to take a dip (in case something happens and I need to be pulled out). The falls are about four storeys high, and the stream is surprisingly narrow and insignificant both above and below the waterfall. Looks like a lot of splash for so little water. You can climb up to the top of the waterfall, and, slightly ignoring some warning signs, you can look down as well.

It is a little park, with a short walking trail, you can take it all in within an hour, including a picnic. There are no shops – maybe on a good day there is a stall – but there are benches and tables.

I was wondering how many little waterfalls like this could be scattered around Thailand. Maybe tens of thousands. Probably there are even ones deep in the jungle that no humans have ever set eyes upon. In my country, this would be a major tourist attraction. Around Chiang Mai, just a little dot on the map. It could actually be one of my favourites if there was a little more to this park, maybe a longer walking trail, some more nice scenery to take in along the path. It is definitely recommended for waterfall enthusiasts and for anyone who is passing by while getting lost in the mountains.

The national park charges 50 baht for foreigners and 20 baht for motorcycles to enter Tad Mok waterfall. When I suggested I leave the motorcycle outside, and walk (all the strenuous 200 or so metres to the parking lot), it did not go down very well. If you buy a ticket, it is valid on the same day for all the waterfalls in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. It is only 30 kms from Chiang Mai, and the area (along the main road) is dotted with attractions like orchid farms, the Mae Sa elephant camp, Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden, and various animal shows. It is clearly signposted in English at every junction where the traveller may wonder.

I have marked this location on the Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand map – I am not 100% sure it is that exact bend, but it must be pretty close. (I think it will only be online tomorrow, though. Bear with me.)

Op Khan National Park

This wonderful little gorge on the Khan river is one of my favourite weekend getaways. I didn’t have anything special in mind when heading out there this afternoon, just dangling my feet in the water, having a little swim, reading my book, taking a few pictures in the green season – the above picture was shot in March.

The thing is, I am often asked for tips to see the “real Thailand”. I am always puzzled, after all, anything here is real, even a street filled with tourists is real, but I know what the clumsy word stands for. Something away from it all, where time stops for a while, where the world shows you a different perspective. Heading for the mountains always does the trick for me. But this is personal, maybe the people asking the question have something different in mind.

The road is usually just as important as the destination. I enjoy the easy drive south along the canal road, beyond the Samoeng juntion, then heading into the mountains across the small village of Baan Naam Phrae, among lamyai orchards (the harvest is still underway, but most of the fruit seems to have been picked), and then a gorgeous overgrown gorge. It takes just over an hour – I am a slow driver, it is only some 30 kilometres. The turnoff from the canal road is clearly signposted both in English and Thai: the signs say Opkhan National Park, and there is also a new sign for Dokmai Garden.

A few minutes from the turnoff, the little village temple of Wat Ku Kham has a viewpoint on the top of exactly 200 steps. You can see all the valleys of Chiang Mai and Lamphun, and the mountains on the edge – Doi Inthanon, Doi Suthep, and on the border of Chiang Mai and Lampang.

Doi Suthep behind the cloud

The old brick chedi encased in a large white chedi on the top of the hill is said to be over 600 years old. It is very quiet and deserted, the lack of temple dogs is almost alarming.

A few more kilometres further on, you need to check in with the national park guards, but there is no ticket to pay for.

It was quite late when I got up to the gorge itself. I had forgotten that the sun does not shine into the valley late in the afternoon. It was totally deserted but for one Thai family, the restaurants were closed, there were no food vendors, it looked like a haunted valley.

But all the greenery is dazzling and the air was fresh for a change. I regularly come up here in February and March, when the rocks are melting, I drink a bottle of water per hour, and it takes an effort to crawl a few metres along the gorge. In the hot season, Op Khan is packed out with Thai families enjoying the ice cold water.

You can drive your car or motorcycle almost right to the bank of this swimming area seen in the photo above. At the information centre, a 1600 metre nature trail starts, which takes you up a cliff and then along the stream. It is a rough, rocky path, overgrown with thorny plants, but of course the locals go for it wearing flip-flops. Not many people set off on this little expedition over the cliffs, so further upstream it is possible to find more private areas for splashing around, just as some novice monks did (supervised by two frowning senior monks).

(This photo was taken in March, when all the trees with no access to water shed their leaves. This gives a distinct autumn feel, but the temperature is over 40 degrees!)

This afternoon, I had a bad fall right at the beginning, and the sun had gone anyway, so I just decided to sit at the loudest roaring section. The rocks were still nice and warm with all the sunshine they had absorbed, I lay back to soak it all up – and fell asleep. Maybe I should pitch a tent there, with this view out the window

if there is no other way to deal with my insomnia.

I woke up over an hour later to realise it was raining. Instead of a nice swim, I was signed up for a refreshing shower and a preliminary round in my favourite sport of “motorcycle swimming”. It was a nasty hour to get home.

Even though today I hardly saw any people around, if someone asks me “how do families in your city like to spend their weekends?”, Op Khan and other waterfalls and waterways come to my mind. They like to pack up the whole family, picnic baskets and buckets enough to feed an army, a bunch of kids, a couple of dogs, and everything to make the stay as comfortable as possible, and head out to the mountains.

The children always wave from the back of the pickup, and someone always offers food to the lonely farang once there. Thais seem to think travelling alone is one of the saddest things that can happen to a person. But in the weekends, all I need is peace and quiet, follow a road leading somewhere, watching people.
Sometimes I envy their pickups, and their umbrellas, but now I am just too used to roaming these roads by motorcycle, even if I get drenched. I make vague plans, but sometimes a bit of very real Thailand takes over.

Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.

The national park has an official website here with photos and information on accommodation.
I have marked Op Khan (also spelled as Ob Khan) on our Chiang Mai map. There are also a few more photos at the Chiang Mai forum.