Pai is a sweet little town in the northern mountains of Thailand, accessible by a three-hour minibus ride from Chiang Mai that warns you ahead of time of the 762 hairpin turns it takes to get there. Gravol is recommended. After miming driving a bus, swaying back and forth and then throwing up, the laughing clerk at 7-11 pointed me in the right direction, and armed me with two small packets of anti-nausea meds. I knew we had to avoid sitting in the back, so if I ever had any manners, they are now gone, as I pushed and elbowed and maneuvered to grab a good seat. It was worth it, as our drive up was quite scenic and otherwise uneventful.
We had heard great things about Pai. Good food, good music, a solid hippie healing scene, and a natural springboard to all sorts of natural attractions – caves, waterfalls, hiking trails, small villages, rafting, etc. We had also heard it was a young and loud party scene, and based on that wisdom (cheek-by-jowl hostels, happy hour bars), we chose a place just 1 km. out of town – Pai Vintage Garden. We were delighted to find a little oasis an easy 15-minute walk from the action.
We headed back into town for dinner and our first look around, and the first thing we noticed was that the young-uns outnumbered us by about 90-1. Fit, tanned, bikini-ready and with every imaginable hairstyle, tattoo and body adornment on parade. The few older folks we saw looked as though they fell off the side of the earth a couple of decades back. It was hard not to feel like we were party-crashers, and badly-dressed ones at that. Soon enough though, we had an ebullient fellow beckoning us over to his beer bar, and with two giant Changs in hand, we were made to feel welcome and not-so-old.
Stephen has been keen to rent a scooter ever since we arrived in Thailand, and the first thing we did was arrange a rental with our hotel, for a walloping $6 a day. The only one our host had left was called Scooby – Pepto-Bismol pink, with bright red lips on the side. I say it takes a real man to hop on one of these babies and act as though he’s on a Harley. I think we were over-sold on the power of the engine, but it was still lots of fun.
You actually have to rent a scooter or motorbike here, as so many of the attractions are several kilometres out of town, and there is very little public transport. The alarming thing about this is that the town and roads are absolutely clogged with people who have never ridden a bike before. Rental places are taking five minutes to explain operations, and then tossing out scores of young people onto the roads; the results have not been pretty. We saw at least four people with bike-related injuries, ranging from scrapes to broken legs. We were starting to feel a little cocky about our own (Stephen’s) experience, when…dang. Down he went. It happened near here.
We had been riding along this pretty country road, on our way to a waterfall. This time of year the waterfall has subsided to a trickle – but it gave us a reason to walk across a rickety bamboo bridge and stick our feet in cold water. We were back in the parking lot, getting ready to climb a hill on our way to a rice paddy when it happened. I was standing to one side so Stephen could position the bike properly and he miscalculated. He started it too far up the hill; the bike rolled back, slid out on the sand, and went over the side. Stephen did a perfect tuck and roll down the hill (two somersaults) before landing safely and getting back on his feet. Two young people ran right over, to help lift the bike up the hill and tend to Stephen’s scraped elbow. Much to our relief, both man and bike were intact, although Stephen felt embarrassed – again, the old guy. We took off down the road to our next attraction – elephants! This little guy is five years old.
You can’t come to Thailand without seeing elephants, even if the only sighting is a statue or carving. Elephant “parks” are everywhere. There is much controversy about the way elephants are handled and trained, and whether or not they should be ridden. We decided before we came here that we would not go on a riding trip, but we were curious to see them in a sanctuary setting. One-day visits are quite costly ( about $200 a person), and we were considering it, when we drove right by one of the camps and stopped by for a look. I’ve never been a fan of zoos or animal camps of any kind – but it was still a thrill to see these monstrous beasts up close, so I’m hoping they have a good situation. This elephant is 25 years old.
Big baskets of fruit were on sale to feed the elephants, and after tentatively handing pieces of banana to the elephant’s trunk, the handler told me to pop it right in his mouth. He called out a command, and the elephant lifted his trunk to reveal a huge, slobbery tongue. Then, the handler told me to move in and the elephant would give me a “hug”. Who knew it would be so much fun to hang out with these endearing guys?
After our elephant encounter, we stopped at a very unusual tourist attraction called The Land Split. Apparently, in 2008, without any warning, a farmer woke up to discover his land had cracked open, with a fissure 11 metres deep and two metres wide.
Although his soy bean crop was no longer viable, hibiscus flowers had been growing wild, and the farmer developed a smart business plan. He harvested the flowers to make juice and jam, and marketed this new development as a quirk of nature. I wish I had asked his name – he is a wonderful, generous man.
He draws in scores of tourists, and serves them fresh roselle juice and small plates of fruit; asking only for a donation. Here, we had sweet potato with salt, tamarind, passionfruit, peanuts and banana chips with hibiscus jam.
You can tour his property before or after your feast.
As we rode back to town, we passed one idyllic scene after another.
Constructing bamboo rafts – a staple of river travel here.
Today, we went out sightseeing again, but the tumble from the day before had taken its toll on Stephen. He woke up feeling very stiff and sore, so we limited our riding to half a day, and then handed back the keys this evening. We may tackle a scooter again in northern Laos. We went to the most curious tourist attraction – the Chinese Village, about a half-hour’s ride from Pai. It is in fact populated by real Chinese families, who fled Mao’s regime and settled here. In the middle of their village, they have constructed the oddest assortment of buildings and scenes – quite tacky. Small children were being led around in the blistering sun on a couple of rather listless ponies, and selfie-sticks were in full force as tourists (mainly Chinese) posed in front of a mock-up of The Great Wall of China or a pagoda. One could dress up in period costume or buy trinkets or tea, or…jump onto a 4-seater Ferris wheel and scream while being hoisted about 20 feet in the air.
After all that excitement, we rode further up the road to the viewpoint – worth the drive.
Much more to come, including more of the town’s sights – we’re here for another three days. I’ll leave you with a sign that sums up the Pai attitude: