When I was still in America, living at home, weekend trips consisted of road journeys to the Jersey Shore or up to Mt. Pocono to fish at the trout farm. Don’t get me wrong, these destinations are interesting in their own right but dodging hoards of jellyfish and clumps of seaweed in the murky Atlantic gets old after twenty-some years.
Now, temporarily stationed in Thailand, weekend trips have become much more inspiring.
Pai is a small mountain town about a 3 hour drive northwest of the city of Chiang Mai. Once a small village of the Shan ethnic group, Pai has transformed over the years to accommodate the influx of tourists who flocked there for the peaceful and laid back mountain life.
Traveling to Pai will show you that it caters to tourists of varying degrees as it is filled with boutique businesses and trendy coffee shops for the shoppers, folk music venues, ganja offering locals and magic mushroom shakes for the hippie types and waterfalls, mountains and canyons for the nature lovers.
Although I have read that just one or two days is enough to explore this tiny town, I beg to differ. We spent 3 days in Pai and I wish I could have stayed longer. Here is how it went…..
To avoid a three hour journey of clammy foreheads and vomit production, Josh, Lynn and Noah of Because We Camp and I traded the tourist van for our motorbikes and set off into the mountains towards Pai.
We heard the horror stories of the roads and their switchbacks, pot holes and lane invading drivers but we (meaning the men of the group) decided that the journey would be best taken at our own pace.
While soggy from the perpetual rain and trying to meditate past the feeling of a motorbike seat grinding down our sit bones, we found that the roads actually….weren’t that bad.
Don’t let all the warnings scare you off. If you have even a few months of motorbike experience, go slowly and give your horn a few toots when coming around corners, the journey won’t seem like such a tremulous expedition.
We also found that although the rainy season (June-September) seems like it would make a more difficult drive, the roads seemed pretty empty and we began to wonder if it was better to deal with a little rain rather than hoards of crazy van drivers, careening into our lane.
Satisfying my fantasy of waking to rice field views and reading sessions on a cozy porch, we checked into our bungalows at Ing Doi Guesthouse, a patch of land located right outside the main part of town.
My bungalow was lovely, looking like a room straight from a Pinterest board and it even had one of those moon-shaped papasan chairs on the porch. I loved everything about it and it closely lived up to what I had imagined, except for our new neighbor, a construction team with a love for loud hammering and insatiable yearning to work a buzz saw.
However, the experience was redeemed by a home-cooked curry made by the friendly staff and a walk around the neighborhood. We followed signs that promised alpacas and ended up at the Village Farm, where we were notified that the alpacas were currently on vacation and offered grass to feed the hungry sheep instead. Rain puddle wanderings, attempted cow pettings and gazing at a mysterious white Buddha in the distance led us back to our motorbikes which we used to get into town.
Full of shops that were genuinely unique from those in Chiang Mai, we gave credit where it was due but felt a tad underwhelmed as our shopping was done mostly through windows.
What we did get out of the venture was our first experience with a cup of Masala Chai. Initially drawn to Art in Chai by its wooden bookshelves, warm lighting and Tibetan prayer flags, it turned out to be a place we would visit twice more before we left.
For all of my vegan brothers and sisters out there, the iced chai with coconut milk and cruelty free chocolate cake were…well…the bomb. As the sun took a rest, the streets sparked to life and we found a new favorite amongst the food carts, nachos and loaded baked potatoes from a wizard of a woman. She custom designed me a vegan meal too. Bellies full, we retreat to our bungalow to turn in under the mosquito net for the night.
With a natural sunlight alarm, I woke early and retreated to the porch to read my book to a soundtrack of sweet duck quacks and birds. GOT YOU! Actually, it was more like hammers and buzz saws from the construction next door but the nature sounds were there in the background…somewhere.
Hammock hangs and a silly-named chair session later and we headed to Coffee in Love. Known as having one of the most beautiful views of the countryside, we landed ourselves at a table with front row seats and ooo-ed and ah-ed over the scene while trying to tune out the awkward soundtrack from the early 2000’s.
Caffeine fuelled and able, we drove to the Pai Canyon as I looked at neighboring coffee shops with equally lovely views and a less touristy crowd (hopefully better music too.)
The canyon was like a natural playground for adults, at least the ones who weren’t afraid of falling off the narrow pathways. It was beautiful but as I mistakenly came equipped with a long dress, sandals and a disabling hand bag, I gave up on the adventure a little early. If you come with a backpack, proper shoes and athletic clothing, you should definitely try to walk around the entire thing.
The ride back included an irresistible stop at Love Strawberry Pai, a café sporting everything in the way of strawberry snacks and a maze of themed fixtures and manicured flower gardens.
The last stop before the bungalow, an almost abandoned looking property with an enormous, double dragon bridge and statues scattered around the front. You can’t quite miss the display driving from Love Strawberry Pai back into town and although the spot makes for some interesting photos, there really isn’t much there but a few friendly dogs.
This one was an eventful one and began with our curiosity for the Buddha that resided in the distant mountains. Closer than it appeared, we made a quick motorbike ride to the top and satisfied our wonder while receiving views that we never expected.
Eager to get away from the touristic town center, we followed our research up into the hills, past the China town and to a view point that charged 20 Baht for a pot of Chinese tea and an epic lookout with hardly any tourists around.
Further into the mountains, amongst the packs of wild dogs and ganja-pushing locals, we ended up at the Mor-Pang waterfall which was beautiful and so refreshing that we stuck our feet into its pools just to cool off.
As we quickly swung them out again to pull off some mini leech look-a-likes, we began to question what critters the swimmers and rock sliding children would be taking home with them later.Taking a wrong turn, we ended up on a loop to Mae Hong Song and with no plans for the day, we took the smooth and empty roads up into the mountains for one of our best rides yet.
About 40 minutes of green valleys and forested mountain scenes later, we reached a scenic rest stop at the top and decided to head back to town before dark to grab dinner.
When different moods sent the four of us on our separate ways, I went off on my own to have a vegan curry at Good Life and nurse a caffeine induced anxiety attack in the booth attached to my table (we had previously stopped at Art in Chai…again.)
Josh came to find me and eventually recognized my knees sticking up from under the table and we left the restaurant together, soon running into some Chiang Mai friends in the town.
A lengthy chat over even more food led us to Sunset Bar where we laid around on bamboo mats and shared “magic mushroom” shakes. Whether the shakes worked, I’m not sure, but I spent a lot of time looking at a light bulb through a circle I made with my hand.
If you are living in Chiang Mai, Pai is a place that I wouldn’t suggest skipping. If you like to relax, explore nature and drink chai tea while having an itinerary that is pretty empty, it’s your place.
The best suggestions I can give are to book a bungalow further away from the town, rent a motorbike so you have freedom to get lost in the mountains and be OK with doing nothing but reading a book for a few days. Oh, and drink some iced chai tea….seriously.