The road to Pai, a small town in the hill country of Northern Thailand, is a twisty, windy, poorly paved, rough horrible thing, and the drivers have a reputation for making their 14-person van passengers vomit. It doesn’t help to have backpackers in the van- many (mostly male) backpackers seem adverse to the whole ‘showering’ thing, even though showers are accessible in every guesthouse. Anyway, knowing the twistiness of the drive and the reputation of the drivers beforehand (thanks, wiki travel!), I took my meclazine, grabbed my earphones and prepared to doze the whole three hour drive. But to do that would be to miss some truly spectacular views, and a glimpse of Thailand so vastly different from the cities I’ve been in. Northern Thailand is a patchwork of lush rain forest, and agriculture.
The jungle clings to the hillsides, and valleys are full of rice paddies and banana trees, sometimes creeping up the sides of the hills in terraces. As you climb the hills on the crazy hairpins, the greenery changes- there are PINE trees here! And layers of hills disappear into the distance, clouds and mist hugging the tops. It’s stunning. I was glad I wasn’t sick or asleep!
I was lucky to find, through Airbnb (yay!), a wonderful guest house outside the town ~10 min walk- where you’re away from the backpacker fueled nightlife, it’s quiet but for the insects (there are a LOT of insects, to be frank), and you can see the stars gleam. At this guesthouse, called Ing Doi, guests stay in traditionally built huts with thatched roofs.
There’s a space between the roof and the walls that keeps the room well ventilated- you only need a fan to be comfortable. The downside is that this space makes the room accessible to many types of bugs and geckos, so the bed is swaddled in mosquito netting.
Evenings find Jake and Ming the owners around the common area restaurant preparing food for themselves and guests alike, and their son Pansa chattering away; Grandma’s there too. The only other two guests were British expat Chris, who has been all over SE Asia and is happy to tell you it’s not as good as it once was, too many changes; and Beatrice from Germany who came to Pai 4 days into a two week vacation for a yoga retreat, and has yet to leave, three months and a visa renewal later. I like to hear them talk about visa runs- takes a day to pop over to the Burma border, then you’re good for another 90 days. It’s a peaceful setting, chatting and enjoying Ming’s excellent cooking- her green curry was the best I’ve had.
Pai has the reputation of being a backpacker town, also populated by artists, old hippies and Rastafarians. I will testify to the first: I spotted two girls who were on my flight to Chiang Mai from Phuket riding a motorcycle through town; three British gals from cooking class just strolled by the shop where I ate dinner; and I ran into the smelly French and British guys renting a motorcycle earlier. But I like it very much here- out of town it’s rice paddies and wats, and oxen wandering through fields, and exactly how I imagined rural Thailand.
I rented a mountain bike from the guesthouse to explore the area a bit more. It started out as an overcast, rainy day (my first, which is surprising, since this is the rainy season)- perfect for a bike ride! I did a big loop past the Pai Hot Springs (not a cool enough day to play in the water, but as it’s 80 degrees C, don’t know as I’d want to!), through several elephant camps, over a WWII memorial bridge (which was apparently not built til after the war) and around to the Pai Canyon.
Turns out, this region has some HILLS! I had a tough time getting up a few, stopping to rest or to walk the bike. Jake at the guesthouse told me the original roads had followed animal paths which they began to pave to establish better roads. But sometimes animal paths go straight up the side of a hill, so the roads do too, instead of creating more windy curves with a shallower grade. By the end of my loop, I’d done ~25km (including some off shoots to see more countryside), and I felt pretty satisfied, sweaty, muddy and in great need of a shower!
Pai has been delightfully slow, as I just listen to the rain on the roof of the hut, and the chirp of crickets and geckos. I can easily see just letting the days drift away as I swing in a hammock…. Nope! It’s off to Cambodia and Angkor Wat next, and new adventures. Stay tuned!