Tag Archives: pai

Road to Pai: Pong Dueat geyser

There are dozens of hot springs around Chiang Mai, some are well-known and extensively developed like Sankamphaeng, others are only just more than small pools of water in the forest.

Pong Dueat is on route 1095, one of the attractions we visited when we went to Pai with my friend in September: we were both intrigued by the signs saying “geyser” in English. I had never seen a proper natural one before. (In Samkamphaeng, it is pumped into the air artificially.) It would have been quite impossible by public transport for sure – though the road threw some surprises at us.

My big city friend wanted to turn back when we bumped into this spectacle, he was even considering reversing a few kilometres back to the main road. But eventually, we squeezed by the cattle, which refused to move even when the rear view mirror was scraping a bum. For a moment I thought it would poop on the windshield.

The “adventurous” rural road, paved but a little rough (ok for a city car), is about 6 kms. Then you pay (and bargain) the entry fee to Huay Nam Dang national park, and leave the car in the parking lot.

The geysers are about ten minutes walk on slippery elevated wooden platforms, we needed to be very careful to stay on our feet. The land below the platforms looked almost impassable, a bog, thick water-logged jungle. We did not really consider taking off on the clearly marked nine-kilometre nature trail as we had left our machetes at home. Soon we arrived at the hot springs.

Under high pressure, the water reaches a temperature of over 150 degrees under ground, and pushes up to the surface at boiling point. The fountains are said to reach about 2 metres when there is more water. The sound of the boiling water gushing forth is eerie in the otherwise quiet jungle. There are several springs in a small area. Obviously, they are fenced off as you can end up with nasty burn marks if you go too near, but, surprisingly, there was no guard around. Not many visitors, either. Unlike other hot springs I have visited, you cannot buy eggs and boil them in a side stream. It is a powerful site to hang around and consider the amazing forces of nature – never mind the food.

The hot water is channeled into a little stream (no concrete), and you can catch up with it about ten more minutes downstream (walking on more wooden platforms, like in the photo above). There are bungalows, private and public pools, a restaurant and a small massage parlour here, over a steep hill, in a landscaped area (lots of slippery steps!). According to a sign, you are supposed to pay extra for swimming in the lukewarm pools, but there was nobody around to collect the fees. As usual, Thai visitors were taking a dip all dressed up and we did not stick out. There is a paved route all the way back to the parking lot from here.

Pong Dueat is definitely not a world class attraction, but it is a beautiful, little-visited, quiet rest stop on the way to Pai. The hot springs must be a real attraction during the cold months, when mornings are positively chilly in the mountains. Also highly recommended if you want more scenery than concrete to go with your hot spring experience.

The hot springs are six kilometres off route 1095 to Pai, 56 kms from Pai, 42 kms from Mae Malai and 80 kms from Chiang Mai city itself (it is in Chiang Mai province). Entrance fees are 100/50 baht for foreigners, 50 baht for cars.

I marked this location on the Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand map, which was updated last week with lots of attractions and photos in Mae Hong Son province.

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.