Our time in Chiang Mai had flown by and, after a month of hard work for Craig and weeks of insomnia for me, we were ready for some R&R. Our destination was Pai – a small town in the hills towards the Myanmar border. Formerly a remote hippy hangout, Pai is now beloved by backpackers, as well as being home to a diverse community of Thai Muslims, dreadlocked Rastafarians and Burmese Shan people. They all seem to bump along remarkably well in their diverse little community.
The journey to Pai is not a gentle one. We folded ourselves into the back of a minivan, praying to the car sickness gods for mercy. It turns out car sickness was the least of our worries. Our driver – who was in training for some particularly dangerous form of rally driving – took each corner as if it was a race track, rather than the precarious winding mountain passes we were actually navigating. As we neared Pai, we were horrified to pass the carcass of another minibus which had overturned, smashed through the safety barrier and tumbled down the mountain side.
Thankfully we pulled into the modest Pai bus station relatively unscathed and, most importantly, upright. We shook ourselves off and walked the four kilometres or so along quiet roads lined with rice paddies to our guesthouse – Baan Kati Sod. Peak season in Pai is the cool months of December – February, and by arriving just after the busy period had finished we scored a superior room for the fairly reasonable price of £6, complete with a terrace and hammock right outside our door.
Pai is fairly spread out, and the best way to get around is on wheels. The next morning, after a healthy organic breakfast, we hired a scooter, donned ill-fitting crash helmets and set off to explore the area. A brief conference was held with regards to the driving. Given I fall off bikes with alarming frequency, it was quickly decided Craig would be responsible for the driving. I would be responsible for sitting quietly on the back and not falling off.
Clutching a free map, we headed out through the hazy sunshine to the Chinese Village – a rather strange place which was half tourist attraction, half functioning village. It was also deserted, so we headed up a steep hill to the lookout, where we sat with a pot of Chinese tea enjoying the stunning views across the countryside.
Our next stop was a stream, where we stripped off our shoes and sat with our feet in the cool, soothing water as we took in the peace and savoured the warm, clean air.
As night falls the main street in Pai becomes a bustling “walking street”, selling everything from chicken skewers to baggy trousers. We strolled up and down the road, gorging ourselves silly on chai tea and freshly cooked Chinese dumplings.
Now fully proficient on our little scooter, on Day 2 we did the “Pai Loop” – a 30km or so loop around the town which took in some of the settings from a recent film popular with Chinese tourists called “Pai in Love”. I haven’t seen the film, but based on the places we visited I’d be willing to bet a large portion of the plot was spent drinking coffee and having Meaningful Conversations About Feelings on terraces with stunning scenery in the background.
After a stop for coffee and a Meaningful Conversation, our second stop was a(nother) restaurant with a(nother) terrace which also had stunning views. This one was also entirely strawberry themed, from strawberry-flavoured brownies to strawberry shakes to strawberry merchandise like beanie hats, complete with a little stalk!
Once we’d tired of Meaningful Conversations on terraces, we headed for Pai Canyon. Rather ambitiously billed as “Pai’s version of the Grand Canyon”, it was nevertheless pretty striking and we enjoyed having a potter and a scramble around. It would be a great spot for sunset, or sunrise if you are a morning person.
Our final stop on the loop was the Pai Memorial bridge, which was built by the Japanese during World War II. We opted to skip the hot springs given the day was already baking hot, and given our experience at the Chiang Mai Elephant Nature Park we also swerved the elephant riding camps. Instead, we headed back along the road, the wind in our hair and a faint waft of onions on the breeze as the farm trucks headed home for the day laden with their crops.
Back in Pai, we headed to Fluid – a cool outdoor pool with a pleasant grassy area perfect for laying under a bamboo umbrella and snoozing. By now, I was feeling truly relaxed; such is the magic of Pai.
For sunset we headed up to Wat Phra That Mae Yen, and sat enjoying the calm as the sun quietly slid behind the hills across the valley.
Our last day was spent savouring simple pleasures – a cup of tea and a book on the terrace as birds sang and the morning warmed up – and a visit to the Village Farm. We took a stroll round, meeting the resident rabbits, alpacas and sheep. Whilst not exactly London Zoo, it was a fun half hour – especially as we’d splashed out on some vegetables to feed them with!
For our final evening, we took one more spin on the bike and headed out for a sunset ride. As we zipped along the picturesque country roads and past the onion lorries, I realised I felt more calm and restful in these three days than I had during a whole month in Chiang Mai. The cooler temperatures meant I had slept well, and the insomnia that had plagued me in Chiang Mai had disappeared without a trace. Along with the tasty organic food – plus a few days off the booze – I felt in better physical and mental shape than I had been for a few weeks.
What a pity we were about to get back on the Minibus of Doom!
If you fancy a slice of Pai…
- There are plenty of motorbike rentals – we picked one up from next to the bus station which cost ฿660 (about £14) for 3 days plus petrol. Helmets can be a bit worn out, so check yours thoroughly.
- Pick up the “whats on in Pai” leaflet – as well as local events listings it has details of motorcycle training if you are nervous/ incompetent. Despite the roads being in good condition and relatively quiet we did see a few bandaged legs, so this may be a wise investment of time and money.
- Pai has the closest Thailand has to “winter” temperatures, so take a jacket for evenings.
- Getting to Pai from Chiang Mai is easy – head to the Arcade bus station (which is the rather grim looking one opposite the shiny new bus station) and walk to the back; the minibus stand is there. Buses leave every hour (maybe more frequently in peak time) and we scored a seat in the next bus; at busy times it would be wise to book ahead or arrive early. Pack travel sickness tablets!
- Guesthouses can be quite far from the town centre – ask about a pick up or rent a scooter from the shop next to the bus station before setting off (or choose somewhere central, of course!). There are a couple of songthaews and a handful of taxis but we found them to be quite expensive.