You may wonder if you’re still in Thailand when you pop into a store on Pai’s main walking street, and see a Frida Kahlo bag for sale.
And the food…if you’re looking for a burger or an Irish breakfast, or a brownie (chocolate and otherwise), there are no end of food stalls and restaurants catering to tourists looking for a break from noodles and rice.
Pai is set in a valley ringed by mountains, with a river running through it, but the town is not all that pretty, and not the reason tourists flock here in droves. A few very walkable streets form a grid downtown; seeing all the town has to offer can be done in a day. We stopped for a coffee at a riverside resort and enjoyed the people-watching and the view.
We crossed over the bamboo bridge and followed a path on the other side for a while. We were watching a young boy spear-fishing by the bridge; the 36 degree heat was almost enough to entice us to follow him into the river. It looked clean enough, but the only humans you ever see in these rivers are young Thai boys, and they may have a natural immunity to whatever travels through here.
The main walking street in Pai is wide open to traffic during the day, but by late afternoon, the stalls come out, and the night market begins to take shape. The food stalls are so exciting – it is like being at a food trade show in North America, where you can’t decide so you have sushi and curry and sausage and a smoothie – all at the same time. We have paid for such indiscretions with little tummy upsets, but it is hard to resist. The food is so fresh and made to order and ridiculously inexpensive – a big bowl of noodle soup costs just over a dollar.
Alcohol is a different matter. Wine is very expensive in Thailand, and often improperly stored in hot stores, so we have limited ourselves to beer, which suits the food and temperature better. Whisky in buckets is a thing here, but the idea of drinking quantities of cheap whiskey in the heat has been very easy to resist – even for the sake of research. So, we are drinking very little and not missing it – quite cheering on both counts. Not everyone is abstaining, of course – Pai’s streets are lined with bars, including this one that aptly captures Pai’s “anything goes”approach to life.
Tattoo artists, especially ones with bamboo needles, are another attraction in Pai. With our hepatitis shots up to date, we might have considered bringing home a Thai souvenir, but something tells me a tattoo virgin should never consider the first ink while away on vacation.
So…on to the real reason Pai is such a popular destination – the surrounding countryside. We signed up for an all-day excursion, taking 12 of us to a cave, bamboo rafting, hot springs, and a sunset at a local canyon. It was an absolute deal – with lunch, water, fruit, tour guide and air-conditioned transportation provided for just $20. They delivered beautifully, but for a small let-down with our transport. We did not travel in a comfortable minibus (as suggested); instead we travelled all day on hairpin turns at breakneck speed in a songtaew (which is inarguably air-conditioned). Posing in front of our songtaew is one of our guides and his little buddy who came along to hand out water.
This mightily uncomfortable vehicle forces one to sit sideways on a brutally hard bench and hang on to the overhead bars for dear life. We travelled out for an hour to the cave, with Stephen feeling very queasy. On our way to the hot springs, Stephen’s feeling of queasiness grew until he threw up. At this point, the driver pulled over and brought Stephen into the front seat, where he was allowed to remain for the duration of the trip.
Our first stop was Tham Lod – a gigantic cave divided into three distinct chambers. It is compulsory to enter with a guide – this cave is very basic – no lights, not even pathways, and pitch black. Our group was divided into four groups – three to a guide, so Stephen and I were accompanied by Georges, a very French gentleman now living in Corsica. Our young guide carried a lantern and led the way, carefully watching for us. She spoke little English, but somehow we managed to understand a few things she was pointing out. After I bashed my head into a low-hanging formation, she giggled. She also said,”many steps”, and giggled again as she watched us look up and contemplate a few flights of rickety stairs.
There were two immediate impressions of being in the cave – a smell of bat guano and a humid claustrophobia that comes from being in the absolute dark. Both impressions faded as we made our way through – a journey that took over an hour.
After our guide pointed out the remains of teak coffins that had been brought in over 1400 years ago (no bodies), we hopped onto bamboo rafts for the rest of the trip. The river that runs through the cave is swarming with really huge whisker-y fish (like carp) so they were almost as entertaining to watch as our gaslit voyage.
For the last 15 minutes or so, the sound of squeaking bats really intensified; the ground and stair railings are covered in guano. A recommended way to visit the cave is to come late afternoon, and be at the entrance to the cave as thousands of bats and swifts leave en masse.
We had lunch with our group after that very enjoyable visit – Nick and Jenny in front (newly married from England, taking 18 months to travel the world before they settle down), and Molly and Steve from Oregon, travelling and trying to digest the fact that Trump is their president.
On to the hot springs, which we were all skeptical about, since we were hot enough already. They were in fact warm springs, with crystal clear water and a therapeutic mud we rubbed on our faces. I doubt an expensive spa gives better results.
And, the piece de resistance – a gorgeous sunset over Pai Canyon. Pai Canyon is place that really should be visited twice – once early in the day to hike before it gets too hot,and again for the sunset. The canyon trail can be dangerous, as the ledges are narrow in spots and the drop is hundreds of feet below. Since there were so many people gathered, we felt quite unwilling to walk along the ledges amongst such a crowd.
And speaking of crowds, a small sampling of people waiting for the magic moment. There was enough room for everyone to have their own little spot; it all added to the moment.
The last bright glimpse of the sun setting for another day.
And…the afterglow. A fitting and memorable last day in Pai.
And now, we are on the move for a few days. Tomorrow we take two three-hour buses – one back down to Chiang Mai, then another back north to Chiang Rai. We’re in Chiang Rai for two nights, which will mark the end of our time in Thailand.
We will cross the border into Lao and begin a two-day slow boat journey on the Mekong River to Luang Prabang. Our next blog will be full of details about our boat trip – see you in a few days.