West invades East; but you can’t beat the scenery

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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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The last bright glimpse of the sun setting for another day.

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And…the afterglow.  A  fitting and memorable last day in Pai.

imageAnd 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.

Geezers in Pai-radise

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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As we rode back to town, we passed one idyllic scene after another.

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Constructing bamboo rafts – a staple of river travel here.

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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.

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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:

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