Sunday, February 5, 2023
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The Road to Pai (and back)

At the age of 50 I decided I was going to celebrate the turning of each decade with something special. So for my 50th birthday I went sky diving, jumping out of a plane at 20,000ft. It was certainly something to remember!

Then my 60th birthday came along all too quickly so what was I going to do? I had always fancied hiring a scooter somewhere in Asia and setting off on an adventure.

A few months later this became a reality and together with my wife we arrived in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand keen for the adventure to start.

Chiang Mai itself is a fascinating, historic city founded in 1296. Although busy, it is not overwhelming like the streets of Bangkok can be and has a great laid back feel to the place.

There are numerous, Buddhist temples scattered in and around the city, some nestled in the mountains surrounded by the most spectacular scenery. However we weren’t here to explore by foot, we were here to hire a scooter.

Typical Chiang Mai street scene with the streets dominated by scooters
Typical Chiang Mai street scene with the streets dominated by scooters
One of many markets in Chiang Mai
One of many markets in Chiang Mai

The people at the scooter hire couldn’t have been friendlier. Most Thai people appear to be really happy to see tourists which can’t be said for many places in the world.

We chose a Honda 150cc scooter with a slightly bigger engine than the more usual 125cc machines on offer. We figured we would need the extra 25cc as we were travelling two up and the roads to Pai were said to be steep.

Hiring the scooter was easy but getting two crash helmets was far from it. We were told most people didn’t bother with helmets, which appeared true from the number of helmetless riders cruising past.

However we feel naked (and vulnerable) without helmets so had to wait 24 hours before they managed to find two helmets for us. Mine was OK but my wife got one with a broken strap mended with a bit of string and most of the padding at the back had been removed.

Oh well better than nothing so off we set.

 Showing off our helmets. No visors but thankfully our glasses protected our eyes from the bugs
Showing off our helmets. No visors but thankfully our glasses protected our eyes from the bugs
A scooter repair shop
A scooter repair shop

After a couple of warm up laps of Chiang Mai we were ready to set off on our adventure.

We had already been stopped by police several times within the city for a licence check. The scooter hire shop does not check your licence and the police are aware many people ride without one.

You need an international licence in Chiang Mai otherwise you will get a fine on the spot. Fortunately I did have one.

Chiang Mai drivers are very respectful and considerate of scooters. The scooter is by far the commonest form of transport there and cars are few and far between.

At traffic lights cars stop well back from the lights to allow all the scooters to nestle up at the front of the queue, waiting for the grand prix start as the lights turn green. Although all the scooters set off together at full throttle, the cars do not join in with this mayhem and happily cruise slowly along with no ‘boy racer’ attitudes.

On leaving Chiang Mai it doesn’t take long before you are out in the countryside on quiet rural roads. The blanket speed limit is 80kph so there was no need to have hired a bigger bike.

The roads are very scenic and in reasonable condition but look out for gravel at the side of the roads each time you pull over.

On hair pin bends it takes some getting used to that other drivers come around the bend on the wrong side of the road! Everyone does it!

However it feels safe as everyone is driving slow and they move over as soon as they see you. You will only get into problems with this if you are driving too fast yourself!

Out in the countryside
Out in the countryside
A hill village just outside Chiang Mai
A hill village just outside Chiang Mai

There was much to see on the road to Pai including detours along the way to see temples, bustling markets, scenic reserves with waterfalls and generally exploring the culture each small settlement had to offer.

Wat Tham Pha Plong surrounded by beauty, near Chiang Dao
Wat Tham Pha Plong surrounded by beauty, near Chiang Dao
Chiang Dao market
Chiang Dao market
Heavy traffic on the roads
Heavy traffic on the roads
One of many waterfalls in numerous scenic reserves en route
One of many waterfalls in numerous scenic reserves en route
Overlooking what used to be opium poppy fields. Opium used to be a major income for hill tribes in Northern Thailand. The ‘Royal Project’ sponsored by the King has over the decades encouraged substitution with other more profitable, sustainable crops, mostly fruit. The Royal Project has been a great success.
Overlooking what used to be opium poppy fields. Opium used to be a major income for hill tribes in Northern Thailand. The ‘Royal Project’ sponsored by the King has over the decades encouraged substitution with other more profitable, sustainable crops, mostly fruit. The Royal Project has been a great success.
One of the ‘alternative’ horticultural projects
One of the ‘alternative’ horticultural projects

The main attraction we were heading to for a couple of days was the Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary.

This is a charity funded sanctuary for elephants rescued from northern Thailand and surrounding countries. Many have been rescued from the logging Industry and tourist Industry where the elephants can be sadly abused.

Some have been unlucky enough to have been injured by standing on a land mine, remnants from previous wars along neighbouring boundaries. Volunteer vets tend to the elephants wounds. Each elephant is looked after by its own individual carer.

Being an elephant carer is a life- long job, staying with that elephant for life. The carers apply for a position and several are presented to an elephant for selection. The elephant actually chooses which carer it gets on best with.

A safe and happy elephant at Chiang Mai sanctuary
A safe and happy elephant at Chiang Mai sanctuary

After spending a couple of days helping prepare food for and feeding the elephants it was time to move on to Pai.

We had chosen Pai as a destination as numerous people had told us it was an amazing village high in the mountains. The road to get there was spectacular and fun to drive with many tight bends and the scenery got better and better the closer we came to Pai.

The road to Pai
The road to Pai
The rural landscape surrounding Pai
The rural landscape surrounding Pai
More beautiful scenery just behind our accommodation in Pai
More beautiful scenery just behind our accommodation in Pai
Namtok Mo Paeng waterfall near Pai
Namtok Mo Paeng waterfall near Pai

Pai itself was a little bit of a let-down after some of the cultural experiences we had had on the way. It is a great holiday destination for tourists, especially those under 30, but is a bit too touristy and has lost a lot of its natural charm.

I suspect it was an amazing place 20 years ago but we were 20 years too late. Don’t get me wrong, I did like Pai, but I preferred other, more authentic places we had been.

Pai does have some great street markets with food and trinkets and loads of great cafes which also cater for the ‘western taste ‘ with burgers and pizza etc. Not normally something I would crave in Thailand but after a couple of weeks of eating fried rice, vegetables and unidentified meat products I have to admit the burger was a very delicious change.

Pai also has a very relaxed, hippy vibe which appeals to many, myself included usually. However after being stopped on several occasions by people peddling dope the whole scene started to become tiresome and it was time to move on.

The much appreciated burger
The much appreciated burger
A great looking sidecar for hire in Pai
A great looking sidecar for hire in Pai

After a tour of some of the other villages in the area to get our ‘cultural fix’ it was time to head back to Chiang Mai and hop on a plane back to reality. Not sure what I am going to do for my 70th yet but I am sure it will come around quickly.

the road to pai and back - Mark Wiseman
Entry #17 – Mark Wiseman – The Road to Pai (and back) [RnT Story Contest – 1st Edition]

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1 COMMENT

  1. Wonderful artical. I am 75yrs old. Spent over a year at Takhli in the USAF and came home in 1968. I was fortunate to have met a wonderful Thai lady who helped me through. We traveled to many places in Thailand. She taught me to speak Thai. Beautiful country, and best people in this world.
    Ernie Brown

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